Are you a writer trapped inside the body of a health professional? You can combine your interests and expertise by trying your hand at medical or health writing. Although breaking into the field isn't easy, this guide to getting published will get you started.
Find Your Niche
Medical writers work in diverse settings and have a wide range of responsibilities, says MaryAnn Foote, PhD, former president of the American Medical Writers Association and director of global medical writing at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, California. Many medical writers work in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, producing regulatory documents, clinical study protocols, investigative drug brochures and other materials. Others write or edit research papers for large hospitals or healthcare organizations. In less technical capacities, medical writers produce magazine, newspaper and Web site articles for general and niche audiences, handbooks for patients, and marketing and advertising materials.
Play to Your Skills
Different kinds of medical writing require different skill sets. At pharmaceutical and biotech companies, "the trend is toward hiring scientists who can write," Foote says. For less technical writing positions, however, innate writing ability may be more important than scientific knowledge.
Linda Wasmer Andrews was a recent college graduate with a psychology degree when she launched her freelance health writing career. "I think it was a big advantage that I wasn't a physician or researcher," Andrews says. "I knew enough to understand medical terminology and studies, but I had the same questions as the readers."
Fill Your Knowledge Gaps
People who want to break into medical or health writing won't succeed without first doing their homework. Writers who are new to healthcare will have to gain a baseline understanding of the research process and how the healthcare system operates, says Barbara Tone, RN, a freelance writer in Southern California who writes for newspapers, magazines and Web sites.
The challenges are different for healthcare veterans. "If you're in healthcare and you want to write, my first piece of advice is to learn how to do it," Tone says. "Take some classes and listen to the criticism" offered by professors, advises Tone, who attended a journalism extension course at UCLA.
Medical and health writers generally have to be persistent and patient as they build their writing careers. "Like any job, you pay your dues," Tone says.
Anne Federwisch, an occupational therapist from San Jose who now writes for magazines and Web sites, agrees. She started out writing a lifestyle column for her community newspaper. "I didn't get paid, but I got a lot of clips," Federwisch says. Those clips, which are articles that serve as writers' samples, helped her expand her business to paying clients.
"People always want to see something you've written that has been published," Federwisch says. You can write for your professional association's newspaper or your hospital's newsletter, for example. Newcomers who want to work as medical writers at pharmaceutical or biotech firms may have to be equally tenacious. Contract research organizations are good places for medical-writing newcomers to gain the experience that will help them get a foot in the door at a big pharmaceutical or biotech firm, Foote says.
Learn How to Pitch Stories
In the beginning, it's easiest for writers to cover topics they know inside and out. For example, a health professional may want to start out writing about his field in trade publications or for specialty Web sites. Most editors and Web site producers welcome query letters, in which a writer proposes and outlines a specific story idea.
In the mainstream media, medical writers can win assignments by proposing clever ideas for stories that "are a little bit different than what everyone else is pitching," Andrews says. She began her career by scouring the library for odd medical studies that could be translated into short but interesting articles. For example, an editor at American Health magazine responded to her proposal for a story about the air quality in ice skating rinks, and an editor at Swim magazine accepted her query to write about the damage chlorinated water can cause teeth.
Know Your Audience
As Andrews demonstrates, writers have to target different clients with different story ideas. They also have to adopt different writing styles for different projects. For example, a writer with a healthcare background could use industry-specific terminology in a trade publication, but not in a mainstream consumer magazine. For writers with scientific or clinical backgrounds, "their greatest strength also winds up being their greatest obstacle," Federwisch says. "Having insider knowledge can work against you if you stick to insider jargon and forget you're writing for people who don't have the same background as you."
Network, Network, Network
Last but not least, medical and health writers can make valuable connections with prospective clients or employers through national writers' associations. Some of these associations also offer members access to job listings. In addition to the American Medical Writers Association, check out the National Association of Science Writers, the National Writers Union and the Editorial Freelancers Association.