Blog 2: Medical writing – What’s that?

There’s something to be said for having a nice, defined profession or vocation. When I used to work in the lab, I could answer the question, ‘So, what do you do?’ with ‘scientist’. It’s a nice, easy label. Most people know vaguely what a ‘scientist’ does, and they might even think you sound interesting. However, since I gave up the pipette for the pen, whenever I get asked the inevitable question regarding occupation, I find myself hesitating. The conversation then usually runs like this:

Me: ‘I, um I’m a writer, a medical writer.’

Them: Blank look

Me: ‘Well, it’s a bit like this and sort of covers these things and might involve that.’

Them: Polite interest. ‘So are you a doctor?’

Me: ‘No.’

I don’t know why, but there are very few medical writers who used to be medical practitioners.  My theory is, simply, that it doesn’t pay well enough. If you’re a doctor wanting to change career, there are waay more lucrative options open to you. ‘Ok then,’ I hear you saying. ‘What do you actually do?’ Well, it’s a bit of this and a bit of that…

What does a medical writer do?

A medical writer writes stuff about medicine. It’s as simple, and incredibly varied, as that. The sort of writing I do ranges from more cut-and-dried technical writing, such as standard operating procedure manuals for clinical trials, to much more interesting documents, such as patient website material. Medical writers can help write or edit research articles, educational activities for medical professionals, educational materials for the general public, healthcare information, clinical manuals, training manuals, and more. Oh and they might do some brochures here and there for pharmaceutical companies, or an online learning module, or literature reviews of the efficacy of this drug or the other. (See – this is why I have trouble explaining what I do!)

A whiteboard is a medical writer's best friend

A whiteboard is a medical writer's best friend

You don’t have to be an expert on any one topic, but you do have to be able to read and interpret research papers and get up to speed quite quickly on a particular disease area. I might be writing about a new diabetes drug one week, and the latest in general anaesthesia the next.

At the moment, a typical day for me runs as follows:

  • turn up at the office
  • read email
  • have morning coffee
  • start reading some papers
  • check the Internet
  • read an interesting article on Medscape and wish I was a health journalist
  • attend a meeting of some kind
  • read some more and get sidetracked by a sub-field of research that’s not really relevant to what I’m supposed to be writing about
  • start writing the first draft of a 25 000-word training manual for mental health clinicians.

For anyone who’s ever written an essay for uni, the writing process is pretty much the same. It involves procrastination, false starts, caffeinated beverages, redrafting and deadlines. Then, once I’ve finished that first draft (a few weeks later) it will go to a review panel of people who actually are experts in the field. This is why you don’t need to be an expert yourself. You just have to have access to experts and know how to use them. In fact, that’s one of the favourite parts of my job – talking to people who have so much knowledge on a particular topic and helping them communicate that to an audience.

So is it interesting?

It can be very interesting. And it can be a bit dry too. One of the things I miss is reading about basic research. Most of the reading I do now is about efficacy data, which means lots of papers reporting on clinical trials, which though very important, are pretty dull to read about, scientifically speaking. Lots of stats and people worrying that their sample size is too small.

LIKE

  • The variety of topics I get to write about.
  • The variety of people I work with.
  • That feeling I get when I know I’ve written something that’s good – something that’s going to be really useful to someone, somewhere.
  • Being able to wear jeans to work

NOT SO MUCH

  • Working at a desk/screen. This has taken me a long time to get used to, and my eyes and body don’t thank me for it.
  • The fact that, like professional writing in general, my job can be undervalued.
  • And yes, I miss the lab. I miss the day-to-day work, especially the practical nature of it. And also that sense of collegiality there is in research, but I may be romanticising that a bit. I do remember quite a few passive-aggressive disputes over the cleaning of the Western blot bench.

In my next post, I will give some practice tips on how to give medical writing a go...

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