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Vital Skills Every Medical Writer Needs

by Jacqueline Mahon

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A medical writing career is enjoyable for many reasons, paramount of which is stimulation. A variety of skills are required, and the work is quick paced and thought provoking. Although every job includes at least a few tedious tasks, you rarely will be bored as a medical writer.

If you are hiring a medical writer, or thinking of becoming one, it is advisable to know the range of proficiencies needed to produce excellent work. One caveat: there are many different types of medical writer (eg, educational, regulatory, promotional, publications), and they work for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, medical device manufacturers, journal and textbook publishers, medical licensing bodies, individual healthcare professionals—to name just a few potential employers and clients—producing content in any and all mediums. Therefore, skills specific to only one area are beyond the scope of this article. Let us examine the general, foundational principles that make a well-rounded (ie, valuable!) medical writer.

It doesn’t happen overnight.

Good things rarely do, right? Two skills vie for top position on the list of requirements: writing, and medical knowledge. Both grow from practice and education. A writer who pursued training in using solid sentence and paragraph building-blocks in creative ways, even if her degree and initial employment are non-medical, can start as a medical editor (or production coordinator, or similar) to attain the medical knowledge. A PhD or MD can take writing classes, for example through the American Medical Writers’ Association (AMWA), to improve writing skills.

Broad knowledge of various therapeutic areas (TAs) is essential, because you have to be able to understand the terminology and concepts. Working at medical communications agencies and medical textbook and journal publishers is a great way to gain that knowledge fast, because you’ll be regularly switching among TAs. Those with medical degrees will need to redirect their thinking toward readership and audiences, the clarification of complex ideas in simple language, and target messages.

Two skills also vie for the second position on the list of requirements: research, and project management. Until later in your career when are able to specialize in one therapeutic area, you will constantly be researching diseases, molecular pathways, drug actions, surgical procedures, and infinite other topics because global science and medicine progress daily. Often you will conduct a literature search at the start of a project. Or, you may find yourself working in a TA that is new to you. Such an eventuality leads directly to the need for project management expertise, which vitally includes flexibility, because the medical writer has to be able to jump among different TAs as well as content platforms (eg, slide decks, posters, white papers, strategy guides, websites).

Project management will include knowing the goals of all stakeholders in the project (hopefully, it’s the same goal!), keeping track of your due dates, organizing your research and drafts, delegating tasks when necessary, and simultaneously juggling several projects.

Technical aspects may be challenging for some.

Does anyone truly enjoy statistics? (see first paragraph regarding tedious tasks) The medical writer must be reasonably comfortable with statistics: to a great degree when writing with clinical data, to a lesser degree when writing promotional materials. Here, the PhD and MD will have an advantage, because they received statistical training during their medical educations. However, you can obtain the general knowledge you need from online courses (eg, see Stanford Online) and basic primers. Again, research is your friend; simply look up any statistical concept when you are unsure. Educate yourself. Also, find out who understands statistics and befriend them. Ask questions!

Sometimes your task will be to translate statistical findings for the non-statistician, or even the layperson. In these cases, and many others, you are required to interpret data and results. Unfortunately, some study sponsors are less than clear about the actual findings because they’ve invested tremendous amounts of money to achieve a hoped-for result. With experience, you will know when an original paper is obfuscating rather than objectively informing.

Along with this aptitude, wise citation choices will become second nature. Solid, impressive references increase the quality of your work and the strength of your message. For example, a journal article with old references is not a good resource for your writing. Similarly, if an article cites 10 references for every sentence (which makes sorting out the quality of the referencing almost impossible), or you discover that a blog or undated source is cited, maintain a high level of suspicion and perhaps avoid the article.

Various practicalities are learned on the job.

The medical writer has many tools at her disposal. Software such as EndNote (for managing bibliographies and references) and Datavision (for publication planning) are typically learned while working. Comprehension of design principles; familiarity with PubMed (a service of the US National Library of Medicine) and the major, reliable organizations that focus on specific TAs (eg, American Cancer Society, European League Against Rheumatism [EULAR], National Organization for Rare Disorders); and the ability to create graphs and appealing slides in PowerPoint will come with experience and practice.

If you are hiring a medical writer, then consider these skills and your needs as you make a decision. If you are contemplating a career as a medical writer, then the question you might ask yourself is: Am I a curious, high-energy, analytical, yet creative person? If so, I invite you to jump in!

About the author

Jacqueline M. Mahon, M.A., has 26 years of experience writing and editing content for publishers of medical journals, textbooks, and a science magazine; a clinical research organization; and pharmaceutical companies at a medical communications agency. She has expertise in multiple therapeutic areas and has developed educational and marketing pieces, manuscripts, newsletters, posters, slide decks, and more for audiences including healthcare professionals, patients, insurers, and pharmaceutical sales forces. Jacquie is currently a freelance writer in Philadelphia, PA. She completed a Master’s in Writing and English Literature with High Honors at Rosemont College and earned her BA in Writing and English Literature, magna cum laude, at the University of Hartford. She is a member of the American Medical Writers Association. You can connect with Jacquie through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com.

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