Celebrating over 50 years of serving medical writers in the Delaware Valley

New Medical Writer's Toolkit

 Updated February 1, 2012
(Originally developed by Lori De Milto in 1998, in consultation with many AMWA colleagues)


Medical Writing as a Career (top)

Medical writing is a great career! The work is interesting and often lucrative, and the demand for medical writers is high.

Until recently, few people started out to be medical writers; most of us fell into it. Some of us have scientific or medical degrees (eg, MD, PharmD, or PhD in a scientific field) and have worked in the field (eg, as an academic, bench scientist, physician, or pharmacist) or in administration and somehow found ourselves doing medical communications work. Some of us have Journalism or English degrees, work in communications, and end up writing about health and medicine.

These days, there are some certificate programs, degree programs, and college courses in medical writing, health communications, and medical or science journalism.  Some people are now studying different types of medical communications and choosing this as a career. 

Learn more about ways to build the skills needed for a career in medical communication.

Types of Medical Writers
Medical writing is a diverse profession. The specific tasks that medical writers perform and the projects on which they work can differ greatly, depending on a person’s training, experience, and work setting.  For simplicity, medical writing can be broadly classified into two types: scientific and non-scientific.

Scientific medical writers generally work on communications projects for professional medical or scientific audiences, sometimes in very specialized content areas. Many (though not all) of these writers have advanced degrees in a basic or clinical science area. They often learn about writing by becoming a medical writer.

Non-scientific medical writers generally work on communications projects with less technical content, such as health and medical articles for newspapers or magazines, patient education materials, or marketing products. These writers may write for professional or lay audiences. Many (though not all) have a degree in journalism, English, communications, or a related discipline.  They often learn about medicine by becoming a medical writer.

Scientific and non-scientific medical writing are usually two distinct career tracks, especially when you’re getting started. Some people do both types of medical writing.  It is more common for established medical writers, than for new medical writers, to do both types of medical writing.

Good career opportunities exist for both scientific and non-scientific medical writers.

Opportunities in Scientific Medical Writing (top)

Types of projects on which scientific medical writers work include:

  • Abstracts and posters for medical conferences
  • Advertising copy for pharmaceuticals and other products
  • Advisory board summaries
  • Books
  • Editing (including substantive editing, proofreading, and fact checking)
  • Journal abstracts
  • Managed market training
  • Medical education materials, including continuing medical education needs assessments and programs, physician and medical science liaison training, and patient education (including web-based interactive educational programs)
  • Monographs
  • Multimedia projects
  • Pharmaceutical marketing and advertising
  • Physician speeches and presentations
  • Practice management materials
  • Proposal writing
  • Regulatory documents (including clinical trial reports, Common Technical Documentation, integrated summaries of efficacy and safety, investigator brochures, Investigational New Drug documents, New Drug Application submissions, protocols)
  • Sales training materials including e-learning modules
  • Slide presentations and kits
  • Scripts for DVD and other multimedia and Web-based formats
  • Web content
  • White papers

Employers and clients for scientific medical writers include:

  • Academic medical centers
  • Associations, including disease associations and professional associations
  • Biotechnology companies
  • Contract research organizations
  • Device companies
  • Foundations
  • Health information technology companies
  • Hospitals/Health care systems
  • Managed care organizations
  • Medical advertising/communication agencies
  • Medical education companies
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Physicians
  • Publishers
  • Web sites

Sample jobs for scientific medical writers (from the American Medical Writers Association’s Job Market, available to members through the Members Only section of the Web site) include:

  • Medical writer/senior medical writer for a biopharmaceutial company: To write, edit, and coordinate team review of clinical regulatory documents for submission to regulatory health authorities and manuscripts based on these data for publication or presentation.
  • Editorial director for a medical communications and marketing agency: To manage development of promotional materials for clients, including leading a team of medical writers and editors.
  • CME medical director, needs assessments for a medical education/publishing company: To conduct gap analyses and write corresponding needs assessments.
  • Regulatory writer for a provider of medical writing solutions: To write regulatory submissions for respiratory disorder indications.
  • Director of scientific communications for a biopharmaceutial company: To manage communication of key scientific/clinical information for products within specified therapeutic area and build a scientific communications team. Drive strategic publication planning and provide strategic oversight for publication strategy.
  • Medical director (experienced medical writer) for medical information, education, training, and multimedia content development company specializing in Web-based interactive educational programs: To write high-quality scientific copy for a variety of audiences (examples: pharmaceutical sales representatives, physicians, patients) and review copy.
  • Medical writer for medical communications company: To research, write, and edit customized medical communications initiatives (scientific publications, promotional slide decks, meeting reports, and consumer-oriented content).
  • Medical writer for a pharmaceutical company: To write Investigational New Drug (IND) and Institutional Review Board (IRB) documents and final clinical reports, summarize preclinical data, review and edit documents, and compile the elements for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) submissions. Also to assist in creating abstracts and manuscripts.

Opportunities in Non-Scientific Medical Writing (top)

Types of projects on which non-scientific medical writers work include:

  • Advertising copy
  • Books
  • Brochures
  • Competitive research
  • Editing (including substantive editing, proofreading, and fact checking)
  • Executive summaries
  • Magazine articles
  • Marketing materials
  • Medical conference coverage
  • Medical script writing
  • Newsletters
  • Patient advocacy materials
  • Patient education materials
  • Posters
  • Public relations materials (e.g., press releases, backgrounds, and fact sheets)
  • Proposal writing
  • Reporting for newspapers, magazines, Web sites, etc.
  • Sales materials
  • Scripts for DVD and other multimedia and web-based formats
  • Training manuals
  • Web content

Employers and clients for non-scientific medical writers include:

  • Academic medical centers
  • Advertising and public relations agencies
  • Associations, including disease associations and professional associations
  • Foundations
  • Government agencies
  • Health information technology companies
  • Hospitals/Health care systems
  • Managed care organizations
  • Medical advertising/communication agencies (to some extent)
  • Pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and device companies (to some extent)
  • Physicians
  • Publishers
  • Web sites

Sample jobs for non-scientific medical writers (from the American Medical Writers Association’s Job Market, available to members through the Members Only section of the Web site) include:

  • Health writer and editor for an interactive health care agency: To create content for consumers and clinicians.
  • Managing editor for a peer-reviewed medical journal: Edit and revise all types of scientific content written by physician-authors for publication in the journal.
  • Medical copyeditor for medical education agency: To edit, copyedit, proofread, fact check, and style scientific publications, slide kits, meeting materials, and multimedia content.
  • Assistant managing editor for a professional society: To oversee submission and peer-review for the society´s journals and provide editorial and administrative support to the editors-in-chief and publications director.
  • Science writer/public information officer for an academic medical center: To write news releases, develop Web content, write articles for newsletter/newspaper, and work with media.

Other sample jobs for non-scientific medical writers (from reputable Web sites) include:

  • Managing director for a major disease association.
  • Web reporter for a health news service.
  • Senior generalist healthcare reporter/researcher for an intelligence service for institutional investors.
  • Public health reporter for a newspaper.
  • Health care reporter for a consulting firm.

Characteristics of Successful Medical Writers (top)

Although successful medical writers come from many backgrounds, we share certain attributes:

  • Knowledge of medicine or an aptitude for understanding it
  • Ability to write (most medical writing does not require us to write like Hemingway, but medical writers must be able to write clearly at a level appropriate to the audience and the project)
  • Solid computer skills for writing and doing research
  • Education: College degree in science, pharmacy, medicine, journalism, English, or other related field. Scientific medical writing generally requires a scientific degree (science, pharmacy, medicine). Non-scientific medical writing generally requires a degree in journalism or English.
  • Deadline orientation.

Characteristics of good medical writing include:

  • Thorough research
  • Accuracy
  • Logical organization
  • Clear thinking and writing
  • Readability.

Medical writers must also be aware of ethical considerations and standards in medical writing, including the American Medical Writers Association’s Code of Ethics. Learn more about ethics and medical communication.

Getting Started (top)

Learning About Medical Writing (top)

The best way to learn about medical writing, build your skills, make useful contacts, and explore career opportunities is by joining the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and getting involved with local and national activities. Learn more about AMWA.

You can also pursue other types of informal and formal training.

Informal Medical Writing Training

  • Read medical and pharmaceutical journals
  • Use Web-based services to follow information about pharmaceutical company pipelines
  • Study basic textbooks on statistics
  • Read about the latest drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration (http://www.fda.gov/)
  • Study medical terminology online
  • Purchase and study medical writing dictionaries, style guides, and books on writing (see Resources)
  • Familiarize yourself with FDA guidelines for preparing regulatory documents (See Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations)
  • Keep your computer skills up to date

Formal Medical Writing Training

  • Take one course in pharmacology and one course in statistics
  • Complete a program of study in a basic science
  • Take workshops and enroll in AMWA’s continuing education program
  • Take medical writing courses or enroll in a medical writing program offered through colleges and universities (e.g., in the Delaware Valley: Thomas Jefferson University, Drexel University, University of the Sciences, etc. offer programs)

Learn more about ways to build the skills needed for a career in medical communication.

AMWA Collection on Careers in Medical Communication
The AMWA Journal also offers a collection of articles about getting started as a medical writer, “AMWA Collections: Exploring a Career in Medical Communication.” You can order this online.

Employee or Freelance? (top)

Medical writing offers many opportunities for both part- or full-time employees and freelances. Whether to work for an organization or strike out on your own depends upon many factors, including your experience, financial needs, tolerance for risk, need to be around people, ability to sell your services, and personal drive. As an employee, you’ll have a steady paycheck, paid vacations, and benefits. As a freelance, you can set your own hours but often work longer than employees, and you must be very focused to succeed. Your cash flow is uneven and your income may not be steady.

Most successful freelances work for years as a medical writer (or at least as a writer) before deciding to freelance. Freelancers work for the same types of organizations and do the same types of work as discussed under Opportunities for Scientific Medical Writers and Opportunities for Non-Scientific Medical Writers. Freelances work for clients by the job (on a project or hourly basis) and also on a contract basis. Sample freelance opportunities include:

  • Advertising copy for medical communications companies
  • Clinical regulatory documents for pharmaceutical companies and technical writing firms
  • Copy-editing journal articles for publishers or associations
  • Newsletter articles for associations, foundations, or hospitals/health care systems
  • Web content for hospitals/health care systems, pharmaceutical companies, and other clients
  • Peer-reviewed manuscripts for medical communications companies and health care technology firms
  • Proofreading various materials for medical communications companies, foundations, pharmaceutical companies, publishers, etc.
  • Slide kits for medical communications companies

American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) (top)

The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) is the leading professional organization for writers, editors, and other communicators of medical information.. If you are interested in any aspect of medical communication, you are eligible to join AMWA, which has more than 5,600 members in the US, Canada, and 30 other countries (as of September 2011) who work as medical communicators, including:

  • Administrators
  • Advertisers
  • Audiovisual producers
  • Authors' editors
  • College and university professors
  • Journal editors
  • Pharmaceutical writers, editors, and managers
  • Public relations specialists
  • Publishers
  • Reporters
  • Scriptwriters
  • Statisticians
  • Translators

AMWA offers national and chapter activities. Our chapter is the Delaware Valley Chapter.

National activities include AMWA’s continuing education certificate programs, the annual conference, Jobs Online, and publications. Explore areas of medical writing and build the skills you need to succeed through AMWA’s certificate programs: Essential Skills, Specialty, and Advanced. Workshops for certificate programs are offered at the annual conference and chapter conferences. Some workshops are also available as self-study workshop modules.

To earn a specialty certificate, you must first earn the Essential Skills certificate. This requires completion of 8 workshops, including the Essential Skills ethics workshop. You can earn nearly all of the credits necessary for this certificate via self-study workshop modules.

Four specialty certificates are available:

1. Business: Workshops are designed to provide information on developing and expanding a freelance business, as well as providing management and operation skills.

2. Composition & Publication: Workshops provide experienced medical communicators with specialized editorial and publication skills, as well as in-depth consideration of issues in writing, editing, bibliographic research, education, and other topics of interest.

3. Concepts in Science & Medicine: Workshops provide medical communicators with an opportunity to deepen their understanding of basic concepts in science and medicine. For those who are educated in nonscience fields, the workshops provide an orientation to a scientific area and a foundation for further study. The workshops can provide those educated in science with opportunities to increase their knowledge and to learn about areas outside their specialties.

4. Regulatory & Research: Workshops provide experienced medical communicators with specialized regulatory and drug development writing and science skills.
Some sample workshops:

  • Essential Skills Certificate:
    • Basic Grammar II and Usage
    • Elements of Medical Terminology
    • Effectively Searching Online Databases
  • Business:
    • Business Aspects of a Freelance Career
    • Educating Sales Representatives About Science and Medicine
    • Public Relations Materials and Techniques
  • Composition & Publication:
    • Creating Effective Poster Presentations
    • Improving Comprehension: Theories and Research Findings
    • Preparing CME Materials: Concepts, Strategies, and Ethical Issues
  • Concepts in Science & Medicine:
    • Basics of Human Anatomy and Physiology
    • Evidence-Based Medicine for Medical Communicators
    • Introduction to the Musculoskeletal System
  • Regulatory & Research:
    • Basics of Health Care Compliance
    • Investigational New Drug Applications
    • Writing the Final Report of a Clinical Trial

AMWA also offers non-credit workshops.

Learn more about AMWA’s education program.

The annual conference is a great way to learn about developments in medicine and medical writing, take credit and non-credit workshops in medical writing, get practical advice through breakfast and lunch roundtables, and take advantage of networking opportunities.

 Delaware Valley Chapter (top)

AMWA’s Delaware Valley Chapter is one of the largest and most active chapters in the country. We have seven meetings (usually dinner and a speaker) per year plus an annual Freelance Workshop and a chapter conference (the Princeton Conference). The dinner meetings are held in Pennsylvania and New Jersey from September to June in rotating locations. The Freelance Workshop and the Princeton conference are held in the spring.

Attending meetings is a great way to learn about what other medical writers do, make key contacts, get advice, and hear a stimulating presentation. Most AMWA members are very supportive of others and happy to share their experiences with you.See our Web site for information on upcoming chapter meetings.

Annual Princeton Conference

Each spring, our chapter hosts a day-long Princeton conference, featuring core, science fundamentals, advanced, and non-credit workshops. See our Web site for information on the next Princeton conference (details about the Princeton Conference are posted about two months before the conference).

Resources (top)

General Resources (top)

You can buy many of the books mentioned in this section, as well as other books and software, at AMWA Annual Conferences and medical school bookstores, which are open to the public (including at Thomas Jefferson University in Center City Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia). Some medical school libraries (including Thomas Jefferson University and the University of Pennsylvania) are also open to the public, but hours for guests are restricted.

Web sites
       Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
       Food and Drug Administration
       National Institutes of Health
       PubMed (searchable database of journal articles)
       European Medicines Agency

General Medical Reference
       Mayo Clinic.com
       The Merck Manual
       The Online Medical Dictionary

General Reference
       Sharp Writer
       Write Tools (many links to reference sites)
       Writer’s Digest (how to books)

Associations and Societies
       Board of Editors in the Life Sciences
       Council of Science Editors
       Drug Information Association
       Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America
       Disease-specific associations (a wealth of information)
       For example, American Heart Association

Other Web Resources
       Full-text journals
       Instructions to authors
       Pharmaceutical Information Network
       Vancouver Guidelines

Style Guides
AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition. JAMA and Archives Journal, Oxford University Press, 2007. http://www.amamanualofstyle.com//oso/public/index.html, 212-726-6000.

Medical English Usage and Abusage. Edith Schwager (AMWA member), Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1991. Contact information: http://www.greenwood.com/, 800-225-5800.

Mathematics into Type, Ellen Swanson, American Mathematical Society, Providence, RI: 1999. Contact information: http://www.ams.org/.

The Elements of Style, fourth edition, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Boston et al: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. Contact information: http://www.abacon.com/.

Arthur Plotnik, The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists, New York, NY: Collier Books, 1982. Contact information: http://www.abacon.com/.

Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Contact information: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/.

About Writing
William Zinsser, On Writing Well , sixth edition. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1998. Contact information: http://www.harpercollins.com/.

Robert J. Bonk, PhD, Medical Writing in Drug Development: A Practical Guide for Pharmaceutical Research , Haworth Press, 1998. Contact information: http://www.haworthpressinc.com/. Selected by Doody's Journal as one of the best health science books of the year!

“The Science of Science Writing,” George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan, American Scientist, Volume 78, November-December 1990.

“Clinical Trials: An Overview,” Hardeo Sahai, Anwer Khurshid, and Muhammad I. Ageel, Applied Clinical Trials, December 1996.

Medical Dictionaries
Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 28th edition. Philadelphia et al.: W.B. Saunders Company, 1994. Contact information: http://www.harcourthealth.com/WBS/.

Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 26th edition. Baltimore, et al: Williams & Wilkins. Contact information: http://www.lww.com/.

Freelance Resources (top)

Cynthia L. Kryder and Brian G. Bass (AMWA Members). The Accidental Medical Writer, 2008. Contact information:  http://www.theaccidentalmedicalwriter.com

Cynthia L. Kryder (AMWA Member). Nude Mice and Other Medical Writing Terms You Need to Know,  2009. Contact information:  http://www.theaccidentalmedicalwriter.com

 Robert W. Bly. Secrets of a Freelance Writer: How to Make $85,000 a Year , New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1990. Contact information: http://www.henryholt.com/, 888-330-8477.

Marian Faux. Successful Freelancing: The Complete Guide to Establishing and Running Any Kind of Freelance Business, New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Contact information: http://www.stmartins.com/.

Alexander Kopelman. National Writers Union Guide to Freelance Rates & Standard Practice. New York, NY, 1995. Contact info: http://www.nwu.org/, 212-254-0279, nwu@nwu.org.

“A Marketing Primer for Freelance Medical Writers,” Lori De Milto, AMWA Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring 1999.

Resources for Getting Started in Medical Writing (top) 

2005 Getting Started in Medical Writing Workshop, January 15, 2005

Scope of Medical Writing by Debbie Early, PhD (850 kb)

What Employers Look for in Medical Writers by Jim Gurr and Victoria Seidenberger, Wyeth Research (641 kb)

Employers of Medical Writers Survey by Lori DeMilto (December 2004) (140 kb)

New Medical Writers Survey by Lori DeMilto (December 2004) (122 kb)

Resources for New Medical Writers (122 kb)

Brochure for Third Annual Freelance Workshop and Getting Started in Medical Writing (152 kb)

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