New Medical Writer Toolkit

Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Medical Writer

Medical writing is an esteemed profession. Every day, medical writers are detailing, documenting, and sharing news and research that is improving health outcomes and saving lives. Their roles and opportunities are always evolving, whether they’re crafting peer-reviewed articles reporting on clinical trials, marketing cutting-edge devices, educating health care professionals or even the general public about new treatments, or writing grant proposals to fund innovative research.

This guide provides information and resources on what medical writers do, the companies they work for, and what you need to know to embark on this growing, rewarding—and lucrative—career.

What Is Medical Writing?

Medical writing involves the development and production of print or digital documents that deal specifically with medicine or health care. The profession of medical writing calls for knowledge in both writing and science, combining a writer’s creative talent with the rigor and detail of research and the scientific process.

With the constant advancement and innovation in medicine and health care, the need to communicate about research findings, products, devices, and services is growing. Medical writers are increasingly in demand to convey new information to health care professionals as well as the general public.

 

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Depending on the position and scope of their duties, medical writers are involved in communicating scientific and clinical data to many audiences, from doctors and nurses to insurance adjusters and patients. They work in a variety of formats, including traditional print publications to electronic publications, multimedia presentations, videos, podcasts, website content, and social media sites.

Medical writers often work with doctors, scientists, and other subject matter experts (SMEs) to create documents that describe research results, product use, and other medical information. They also ensure that documents comply with regulatory, publication, or other guidelines in terms of content, format, and structure.

Medical writers are also key players in developing applications for mobile devices that are used in multiple ways, such as

  • Disease management
  • Continuing education and training
  • Medical reference and information-gathering
  • Practice management and monitoring

Medical editing—like medical writing—is also a diverse profession. Medical editors are crucial members of the medical communication team and are tasked with multiple quality-assurance roles, including

  • Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors
  • Copyedit to make writing accurate, clear, and smoothly flowing
  • Ensure correct and consistent data across texts and graphics
  • Ensure that the content and its organization comply with the appropriate guidelines and standards

Medical communicators may be writers, editors, health care journalists, supervisors, project managers, media relations specialists, educators, and more. At their core, they are exceptionally skilled at gathering, organizing, interpreting, evaluating, and presenting often complex information to health care professionals, a public audience, or industry professionals such as hospital purchasers, manufacturers and users of medical devices, pharmaceutical sales representatives, members of the insurance industry, and public policy officials.

For each of these audiences, the language, documents, and deliverables are distinct.

What Are Examples of Medical Communication Jobs?

Medical communication positions in writing and editing vary greatly across industries, companies, organizations, and other entities.

In addition to the title of medical writer, medical communicators may be known as scientific writers, technical writers, regulatory writers, promotional writers, health care marketers, health care journalists, or communication specialists. Both medical writers and medical editors may work for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, medical communication agencies, medical education companies, health care professionals associations, academic institutions, medical and health care book publishers, trade publications, and more.

What Do Medical Writers Write?

The expertise and contributions of medical writers and editors can be found throughout the medical community. Examples of their work include

  • Abstracts for medical journals and medical conferences
  • Advertisements for pharmaceuticals, devices, and other products
  • Advisory board summaries
  • Continuing medical education materials
  • Decision aids for patients
  • Grant proposals
  • Health care policy documents
  • Health education materials
  • Magazine and newspaper articles
  • Medical and health care books
  • Medical and scientific journal articles
  • Marketing materials
  • Poster presentations for medical conferences
  • Regulatory documents,including FDA submissions
  • Sales training
  • Slide presentations for medical conferences
  • White papers

Who Hires Medical Writers?

Right now, there is tremendous growth in the medical industry. Pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs more quickly, and new medical devices and diagnostic tools are being released every day. With this comes the increased need to meet regulatory and insurance requirements and relay medical and consumer information. All of this results in greater opportunities for medical writers and communicators.

Medical writers can find positions with a variety of employers, reaching a multitude of audiences with different communication needs and styles. These may include

AMWA members can access a current list of available openings on AMWA Jobs Online. (Not a member? Join here.)

How Much Do Medical Writers Make?

Medical writer salaries vary from city to city and region to region. Compensation also depends on the writer’s experience, the type of employer, and the type of work.

Sites such as Salary.com, PayScale.com, and Glassdoor.com indicate that a salary range for a junior-level or beginning medical writer is $52,000 to $80,000 annually and a salary range for a medical editor is $40,000 to $80,000 annually.

The AMWA Salary Survey provides an in-depth analysis of medical communication salary data by experience level, degree, industry categories, and much more. 

 

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Join our professional community of skilled medical communicators.

Join AMWA

What Does It Take to Be a Medical Writer?

While medical writers come from all educational and professional backgrounds, they do share some traits. Medical writers have an interest and flair for both science and writing. They also have a clear understanding of medical concepts and ideas and are able to present data and its interpretation in a way the target audience will understand.

Although it's not required, many medical communicators hold an advanced degree. Some have a medical or science degree (eg, PhD, PharmD, MD) or experience in academic settings or as bench scientists, pharmacists, physicians, or other health care professionals. Others have an MFA or a PhD in communications or English.

Certificates and certifications are additional credentials that demonstrate your knowledge and proficiency in the medical communication field. Many are described in this guide.

How Do I Become a Medical Writer?

Medical communication can be a flexible, rewarding, and well-paying career in a growing field of both full-time and freelance opportunities. To get started, follow these steps. 

1. Determine a focus

Based on the wide range of companies and organizations that employ medical communicators, the field is generally divided into different writing settings and specializations, each requiring specific technical writing skills or knowledge of medical terminology and practices. In this step, it’s important to focus on an area you’re most interested in and that best matches your skill set.

  • Continuing education for healthcare professionals
  • Grant proposals
  • Health communication
  • Journalism
  • Marketing/Advertising/PR
  • Patient education
  • Publications for professional audiences (non-peer reviewed)
  • Regulatory writing
  • Sales training (biotech or pharma industry)
  • Scientific publications (peer-reviewed journals)

2. Assess your knowledge and skills

Medical communicators come to the field from a variety of different disciplines. Those with a medical or science background commonly need refreshers in writing and editing mechanics, whereas medical terminology and statistics are typically more difficult for those with a writing or communications background. No matter what your training has been, you should take an inventory of what you know and don't know how to do.

Basic Grammar and Usage

  • Parts of speech and grammatical principles form the foundation of writing in every discipline. Can you identify a dangling modifier or notice the lack of a pronoun referent?

Sentence Structure

  • Even if you know grammar, you may need a refresher on achieving emphasis and organizing your sentences for clarity. Do you know the difference between an independent and a dependent clause? Do you understand parallel structure?

Punctuation

  • A single misplaced comma can create a very different meaning, which can have serious implications in medical writing. Are all your commas in the right places? What about your semicolons?

Medical Terminology

  • It’s not enough to know medical terms. You gain more insight into medical vocabulary by learning about the prefixes, combining forms, and suffixes that make up all your favorite medical words. Do you know the rules for eponyms? Do you know the difference between an acronym and an initialism?

Professional Ethics

  • Every profession has a code of ethics, and medical communication is no different. Make sure you know the steps to ethical decision-making and the ethical principles to uphold.

Statistics

  • If you’re working with medical research, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of statistics. Can you describe the difference between mean, median, and mode? Can you define a hazard ratio?

Tables and Graphs

  • Tables and graphs are essential tools for communicating complex information. Do you know what kind of graph to use for continuous data? Are your table column headings doing their job?

If you need to fill gaps in your knowledge, AMWA offers a variety of educational activities, including the AMWA Essential Skills Certificate Program, which addresses all of these topics.

3. Explore resources

As you explore the medical writing profession, the next step is to become aware of the resources available to you. AMWA offers many opportunities to support new medical communicators and a wealth of professional development resources to help throughout an evolving career. The following are some examples.

Other resources include a number of recommended books on medical writing, listed in the "Medical Writer Resources" section below.


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4. Network

Although there are plenty of opportunities in medical communication, it is important to recognize that it can be a difficult field to break into. Networking is a crucial part of gaining success as a medical writer.

Throughout your career, but especially at the start, it’s important to connect with other medical communicators in your local area as well as across the country.

Networking is an excellent way to connect with other medical communicators. Not only does it provide informal learning opportunities, but some experts say that 70% to 80% of people found their current position through networking. Others say it’s closer to 85%. Whether you are using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, community boards or conference attendance, it is important to seek out ways to stay connected.

Take the leap!

New and experienced medical writers are finding ways to advance in a solid career and contribute to positive health outcomes through the power of communication. With a greater understanding of the role of the medical communicator and the available opportunities, people with a passion for writing and science can excel in this interesting and ever-changing field.

Join our professional community of skilled medical communicators.

Join AMWA

Medical Writer Resources

Books About Medical Writing

Style Guides

Publication Ethics

Professional Associations & Societies

Medical Communication Programs – Universities, Colleges, Associations

Graduate Programs in Medical/Health Communication/Writing/Journalism

Undergraduate Programs in Medical/Health Communication/Writing/Journalism

Tracks or Minors in Medical Communication

Degree Programs in Regulatory Affairs

University Certificate Programs

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