You Want to Be a Medical Writer?
By Lori Alexander, MTPW, ELS, MWC™
I want to be a medical writer, but I have no experience, and no one will hire me because I have no experience. This age-old Catch-22 challenges many who want to break into medical writing and editing, often after spending years in another career. The career outlook for the medical writing professional is outstanding, yet getting that first job can seem impossible.
Several would-be medical writers attended the September AMWA Florida Chapter Business Meeting and Networking Event, and they came to the right place for advice! In no other organization will you find members who are as willing as AMWA members to share their expertise. The veteran medical writers around the table at the Orlando event offered a range of tips.
One of the first topics of discussion focused on the need to be flexible, maybe even adventurous. Medical writing is a somewhat “hidden” profession; as we all know, most people outside of the industry don’t have a clue about what we do. People who want to be a medical writer often focus on a particular area of medical writing; for many, that area is regulatory writing. But regulatory writing is notoriously difficult to break into. When you’re looking for your first job in medical writing, it may be better not to have your heart set on a particular area. Medical writers work in a wide variety of settings, from university press offices to health insurance companies to continuing medical education companies to book publishers. Explore the variety of medical writing settings—you may find one you like even more than your original choice.
In discussing how to get experience, one hiring manager in our group pointed out that the definition of experience is sometimes difficult to quantify. Say, for example, that you want a position as a medical writer at a pharmaceutical company. You don’t have direct experience, but you have written some manuscripts. And you’re enthusiastic…and eager to learn…and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. Does any of that matter? It may. Sometimes employers think that a particular skill set or a specific knowledge base plus attitude will be the best fit for the position and team, regardless of direct experience. Also, many employers are reluctant to post an opening for an entry-level medical writer but will consider an applicant with less experience than requested. In short, if you really want a specific job and think it could be a match for your knowledge and skills, go for it. At the very least, you’ll gain great experience in writing cover letters that highlight your strengths and you’ll become more comfortable in interviews.
The need for writing samples is a major concern for budding medical writers. How do you develop a portfolio if you have no experience? Those of us with experience noted that your portfolio does not need to consist entirely of published pieces or documents you wrote for a previous employer or client. You can take advantage of many opportunities to put your pen to paper (well, your fingers to keyboard) and earn portfolio pieces. The following are just a few ideas.
If you’re passionate about a particular medical cause, contact an advocacy organization and ask if you can volunteer to write an article or website content. Who knows, you may get a job out of this, and even if not, you’ve created a new contact, which is always important for networking.
Professional conferences are the perfect place to hone your writing skills on a topic you’re familiar with. Write a summary of a session you attend and share it with your colleagues or ask to have it published in your employee newsletter or a publication related to your profession. If you’re going to the AMWA Medical Writing and Communication Conference, write a summary of a session for our chapter website.
You can also write a summary of any of the valuable educational resources on the AMWA (national) website (www.amwa.org). Browse the website and find a resource (or two) that you find particularly useful and then write a summary and send it to us to post on our chapter website. In addition to increasing your writing experience, you’ll help other AMWA members take advantage of a great resource.
AMWA is always looking for reviews of books related to medicine, health care, or the medical writing profession. Share your enthusiasm for a book by writing a book review for our chapter website.
These are just a few ways to gain writing experience outside of an employer. With every piece you write, you learn, and the more you learn, the better writer you become. AMWA is a valuable professional resource, not only for the education and networking it provides but also for the opportunities it offers to enhance your writing. And, sharing is the AMWA way, so writing for our website is a great way to share your own expertise. Now go write something!