10 things to consider before becoming a freelance medical writer

I’ve reached a point in my career as a where I’m being asked to dispense advice to other medical writers (wow, time flies). After participating in a recent career panel discussion on VersatilePhD, I decided to distill down some of the main points of the panel. Here are the top 10 things to think about before becoming a freelance medical writer: 
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Learn about careers in Medical Writing

Versatile PhD: Careers in Medical Writing

Next week, I will be a panelist on the Versatile PhD forum for a discussion on “PhD Careers in Medical Writing”.

The discussion is free and open to all. I, and 3 other panelists, will answer any question about a career in medical writing.

The discussion will take place all week, between October 17 and 21, and anyone can drop by and participate during that time.

Find more information and join the discussion at Versatile PhD.

Please join us and ask away. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Tips to prepare a scientific manuscript that gets published

Recently, I gave a webinar on publishing a scientific manuscript for the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). [An archived version of the webinar is located AMWA On Demand Webinars.] In the webinar, I reviewed topics including selecting a compatible journal, online resources for literature searches, and writing strategy.

Following the webinar, there was a Q&A session in which I was asked some great questions by the audience. Here is a condensed version of the questions and my answers from the webinar on publishing a scientific manuscript:
Continue reading Tips to prepare a scientific manuscript that gets published

Why hire a medical writer?

Professional medical communicators (writers, editors, or developers) are skilled at clearly communicating science. Since they are intimately familiar with style guides, reporting requirements, and proper English usage, professional writers can efficiently process your scientific data into a coherent document.

This still life depicts a white ceramic coffee cup in the background, which was placed next to a stack of books. The uppermost book in this stack was opened to the last page read, bookmarking the reader’s place in this text. In the foreground was a computer keyboard atop which a pair of reading glasses had been placed.
Image taken by Amanda Mills, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To someone outside the field of medical communications, the value of a medical writer is not always obvious. You might ask yourself “Why should I work with a medical writer when I can write up my data?”

A good medical writer will add these qualities to your project:

  1. Efficiency – The writer specializes in creating documents that are logically organized, readable, and scientifically thorough. A professional medical writer can complete the job in a shorter amount of time than someone who does not write for a living.
  2. Eye for detail – The writer will take care of endless details that most authors are unaware of but publishers and regulatory bodies take seriously.
  3. Adherence to guidelines and requirements – The writer will seamlessly implement any formatting or content requirements in your document, which will go a long way to facilitate the publication or approval process.


Want data to back up these claims?

A survey of journal editors showed that “poorly written, excessive jargon” topped the list of problems seen in manuscripts, with most editors reporting that it happens “frequently.” This was followed closely by “inadequate or inappropriate presentation” as the second most common problem.
From Byrne DW. Publishing Your Medical Research Papers. 1998.

A recent study showed that authors and editors are not adhering to reporting guidelines in manuscripts that present data from animal studies. “As many as 55% (95% CI 46.7%–62.3%) of studies, however, included analyses based on what we consider to be inappropriate statistical tests.”
From Baker D, et al. “Two Years Later: Journals Are Not Yet Enforcing the ARRIVE Guidelines on Reporting Standards for Pre-Clinical Animal Studies.PLoS Bio, 2014)

“When professional medical writers help authors prepare manuscripts, these manuscripts are less likely to be retracted for misconduct, are more compliant with best-practice reporting guidelines, and are accepted more quickly for publication.
From Wolley KL, et al. “Poor compliance with reporting research results.” Curr Med Res Opin, 2012.


Top 10 attributes of a good Medical Writer, courtesy of SIRO Clinpharm

Medical Writing Resources on the Bookshelf

I love to read and learn.  Nothing satisfies me more than a new-to-me book that is well written and provides tons of useful information. (I’m still a sucker for the paper version!) I’ve compiled a list of books that I would recommend to anyone, loosely organized into several categories.  Please leave your suggestions to add to any of these categories.

Science and Medicine

Fundamentals of Biostatistics by Bernard Rosner
Goodman and Gilman’s The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics (12th ed)
Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology by John E Hall
How to Report Statistics in Medicine by Thomas Lang and Michelle Secic
Neuroscience, edited by Dale Purves, George Augustine, et al
Stedman’s Medical Dictionary
The Merck Manual, edited by Robert Porter and Justin Kaplan


AMA Manual of Style by the American Medical Association
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers by Mimi Zeiger
How to Write It by Sandra Lamb
Scientific Style and Format by the Council of Science Editors
Scientific Teaching by Jo Handelsman, Sara Miller, and Christine Pfund
The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook (NIH, NSF, Any Agency) by Stephen Russell and David Morrison
The Science Writers’ Handbook, edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis

Work-Life Integration and Negotiation

Getting to 50/50 by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober
So What are You Going to Do with That? by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius
Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Business and Freelancing

Getting Started in Consulting by Alan Weiss
The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-timers, and the Self-employed by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan
What to Charge by Laurie Lewis

Science Non-fiction Leisure Reading

Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings
Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs
Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter Willett
Several books by Mary Roach, especially Packing for Mars
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Small Business Workshops: Big Bang for the Buck

Smart Small Business Practices

On a tip from a fellow freelance medical writer, I recently enrolled in small business workshops through the SCORE organization.  SCORE is a non-profit affiliate of the US Small Business Administration.  SCORE offers low-cost workshops (online and in person), free mentoring, and small business tools on its website.

The folks in my workshops ranged from already in business for 10+ years to pondering some unknown future small business.  A woman in the food industry found out how much start-up money a bank would require her to have before approving a loan.  Two psychologists in a private practice realized the benefit of having a social media presence.  A dog daycare determined the best legal entity for the business.  Critical information was also provided to other attendees in professional services, construction, and retail.

Workshop topics covered business plans, marketing, sales, financing, and accounting, to name a few.  If you ever need a crash course in starting and running a small business, SCORE workshops should be on your list.  Attendees all walk away with handy resource packets and some great contacts for future mentoring.