Career Transition

Breaking into Medical Writing and Editing

Develop reports, marketing collateral and more in this lucrative field

If you enjoy research, are skilled in technical writing and can understand complex jargon, becoming a medical writer or editor could be the perfect way to expand your portfolio—and your paycheck.

“The opportunity for good medical communicators is tremendous and is continuing to grow,” says Brian Bass, co-author of The Accidental Medical Writer. “The medical communications field is very broad as well as very deep.”

Bass says there are two categories of people who come into the field: those with a scientific background who want to prove they can write or edit, or those who have a strong editorial aptitude but want to show they can handle scientific content.

If you can break into the field, you stand a chance to build a strong career in it. And if you can leverage your existing skill set, it’ll be that much easier to prove your worth.

Immerse yourself in the field

There are different tiers in this specialized editorial arena: the publishers of books and medical journals, which tend to pay less, and the higher-paying companies, like advertisers and pharmaceutical companies.

There’s also a market for more consumer-friendly articles in magazines and trade publications. No matter what you tackle, you’ve got to know how to understand and interpret complex lingo.

Bass recommends reading information from drug company websites, foundations, medical magazines and other media to help you see which type of writing is represented is which therapeutic areas.

For instance, you will probably find an article on WebMD easier to read than one in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

That’s because audiences vary in the medical communications field: You can write or edit marketing collateral or magazine articles for consumers, or produce technical content geared directly at physicians.

“[To start], you need to start adapting yourself to the language of medicine,” Bass notes.

Knowing how to understand a technical dialect and properly convey it isn’t the only skill set necessary. The medical field is governed by some pretty tight regulations, and you’ll be an asset if you know how to understand and apply those standards.

The Federal Drug Administration website is a great place to start learning about what can and cannot be said, Bass advised.

Writing vs. editing vs. copy editing

According to Bass, you don’t have to be Doogie Howser to succeed in the field, especially if you come in on the editing side, which typically tends to require fewer credentials or industry experience. Editors make sure content is consistent and is in compliance with regulatory standards.

However, medical writers need to understand more about a therapeutic area and use that in-depth knowledge to relay information about it, so getting in as a freelancer—especially one with no medical background—can be tougher.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just as you would build clips in your general portfolio, offer to take on a writing or editing job pro bono, or create a hypothetical piece of content to prove your editorial capability.

You could write a column in your local newspaper on the health industry or offer to create a brochure for a medical practice, suggests Bass. Then once you’re in the industry, you can break into more technical areas, or segue into the more lucrative side—medical writing.

Copy editing can also be a good start, but make sure that’s your preferred field so you don’t get pigeonholed unnecessarily, says Laurie Lewis, a New York City-based medical writer and author of What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants. If writing is your forte and you’re good at putting information into layman’s terms, try penning articles for a patient education type of medical website — Lewis said the market is flooded with them.

“They need people who are good copy writers in a sense that they can tell a story; they can engage the reader; they can provide information,” she says. “The journalists, they are storytellers. They are educators. And they have to be able to put it into terms that ‘Joe Blow’ can understand.”

Prepare for pay day

In general, if you come in on the editing side the pay is less, but that’s still a good way to break in. Full-time medical editors can start at around $24,000 a year (other organizations have the base around $37,000) and earn up to about $70,000, according to PayScale.

Medical writers fare even better. According to an American Medical Writers Association survey, the mean salary for a woman with a bachelor’s degree in the field working full-time was $73,522, while men earned $90,640.

Having a master’s gets you even more dough, according to the survey: Women with those degrees earned $77,339, and men got $86,240. Advanced degrees such as a PharmD are the big payouts: females with advanced degrees got $91,797, and men earned $101,872.

Writing for an academic institution was on the lower side of the pay scale, while writing in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical field paid highest. Freelancers should expect to earn about the same.

Again, a promising payday is great, but you have to make sure you enjoy the work enough. Medical writing and editing isn’t an easy field to “test out.” Research it and be sure you want to work hard to get your foot in the door.

The field is also very competitive. Just as in the media biz, the slow economic recovery has meant even more candidates are vying for jobs. So, organizations will be pickier about whom they hire because skills are at a premium.

“There is a perception that there is a lot of work in the medical field and it is very high-paying,” notes Lewis.

“People who want to go the route that I went as a copy editor/proofreader and moving up aren’t necessarily going to find that it’s very well paying. Some of that work is still going to be from the publishing industry, or it’s going to be from companies that don’t want to pay the higher rates that the pharmaceutical work pays.”

Getting started

Emma Hitt, PhD, a medical writer who runs her own agency in Georgia, began her career editing dissertations and scientific papers for non-English scientists. Eventually, she finished her PhD and nabbed a master’s in technical writing as well. Today, she creates continuing education materials for doctors specializing in oncology, infectious diseases and other medical topics.

To get started as a medical writer or editor, she suggests that editorial professionals do the following:

1. Join American Medical Writers Association. The AMWA offers an educational certificate that can give you credibility as a medical writer. “For people with some experience in the science/editing field, the BELS exam is good to take. This will give the “ELS,” or “Editor in the Life Sciences,” designation after your name which tells others that you have passed a stringent editing test,” she notes.

2. Join the Council of Science Editors. This is a premier industry organization for medical editors.

3. Get familiar with PubMed. Most medical writers are on PubMed every day, as the site includes 21 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, or Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System Online, a database of life science journals and books online. It is an essential tool for medical writers.

4. Sign up for The Hitt List. That’s Hitt’s free newsletter packed with medical writing job opportunities.

5. Learn AMA style. That’s American Medical Association style; AP and Chicago style is only used at consumer and trade publications. Simply knowing AMA isn’t enough to become a medical writer, warns Hitt, but it can get you in the door as a medical copy editor.

Looking for a medical writer or editor job? Check Mediabistro’s job board, where publishers, advertisers and marketers regularly post related job openings.

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