Medical Writing–What’s It Like?

Medical writing is not one of my specialties. It is, however, one of the higher paying freelance writing fields.

For this post, I’m trying something different. I turned to my Twitter community and two medical writers stepped forward to share their medical writing experience with us. Lorraine Thompson of MarketCopywriter Blog and Darline Turner-Lee of Mamas on Bedrest & Beyond both specialize in medical writing.

I asked each writer the same questions about medical writing. I think you’ll agree that their answers are helpful to freelance writers considering the medical writing niche.

Getting Started As a Medical Writer

Medical writing is not necessarily an easy writing field to break into.

Lorraine Thompson started out in general copywriting working “for market research companies–FIND/SVP, Kalorama, Packaged Facts–that produced analyses for many markets,” but quickly shifted gears. “When they found out I could handle the healthcare and pharmaceutical markets, those packages became sort of a specialty for me.” Now she works “with marketing directors at NYC hospitals, marketing and ad agencies and pharma companies.”

In contrast, Darline Turner-Lee has a very technical background. She began as a research biologist and then went to graduate school to become a Physician’s Assistant (PA). While she had written scientific materials in school, her medical writing career started “after I had my daughter in 2002. A local magazine needed a health care columnist and it was perfect for me as a stay at home mom. That project lead to other projects…”

What Does a Medical Writer Do?

You may be wondering what a medical writer does. I asked.

Thompson indicated that her medical writing projects are varied. She handles:

  • Direct mail
  • Press materials
  • Web content
  • Advertising
  • Internal communications
  • Strategic plans
  • Newsletters
  • Magazine features
  • Physician profiles
  • Specialty services fliers
  • Collateral

Thompson writes both “direct-to-patient as well as to-physician materials.”

Turner-Lee indicated that she likes “to write about a wide variety of topics in health care because it gives me a chance to learn something new.” However, her favorite topics are “woman’s health and wellness, in particular the menopausal transition, assisted reproductive technologies, and infertility and anything related to conception, pregnancy and childbirth.” Turner-Lee also blogs and writes the copy for her two web pages. She has created various flyers, marketing materials, workshop materials, seminars, and written other educational pieces.

Do Medical Writers Need Special Training?

I asked both writers whether medical writing requires special training.

According to Thompson, a medical degree is not required. However, she did state that medical writers must be “curious, willing to research thoroughly and able to make sense of science and research texts. To gain credibility and the respect of the physicians with whom you work you must be very familiar with the doctors disease specialties and the latest procedural breakthroughs, tech advances and treatment options.”

Thompson also stressed that medical writers should be familiar with special privacy and legal issues, such as HIPAA.

Turner-Lee believes her training as a Physician’s Assistant is an asset in her medical writing business. “Most physicians that I interview open up once they know that I am a physician assistant because they know that they don’t have to explain a lot of things to me. I’ve been invited to view presentations, observe in surgeries and be a part of discussions that I don’t think I’d have been invited to if I hadn’t been a PA.”

As a PA, Turner-Lee knows medical terminology and she feels her writing is better for it. “I can give a lot of body to my articles because I am able to take in medical information at a deeper level. Even though I may not use much of what I get for what I am writing, I am able to give my pieces more ‘meat’ because I take the difficult concepts and nuances that someone not in the medical field may have missed and integrate them into a piece.”

Is There a Future for Medical Writing?

With many writing fields in flux, and traditional writing media such as newspapers and magazines cutting back you may wonder what the future is like for medical writers. I asked both writers for their feedback on the future of medical writing.

“Healthcare is one of the only sectors that grew during the recession and growth is expected to remain strong.” Thompson answered. She elaborates, “healthcare clients need tons of content in many different media. On the downside, hospital culture is academic, i.e., slow moving. Many physicians, administrators and policy makers are reticent to blog or use social media.”

Turner-Lee is also optimistic about the future of medical writing. “Physicians often don’t have time to do these little PR/Branding types of things so they farm them out. Likewise, and this probably applies more to someone with a medical background who writes, if a physician group or medical corporation has done some research, they may not have the time to write the actual paper, so all the information is passed to a freelance writer (perhaps a former nurse, a PA like me or other health professional who writes) and they put it all together…”

Medical Writing Wrap Up

There you have it. Two different medical writers…two different experiences. Each medical writer had a few additional words of advice.

Thompson shared with me that she finds working with physicians to be a mixed blessing. “On one hand you get to work with–and be inspired by–some of the world’s most brilliant medical minds.” She stated. “But, their work often isolates them from marketing realities and patients emotional lives. Doctors often have ‘the curse of too much knowledge.’ When describing their services they tend to stress features–the latest technologies or procedures.”

Turner-Lee recommends that aspiring medical writers have a “basic knowledge of medicine” and “find an area that really interests you and learn all that you can about it.”

While neither medical writer that I interviewed is a member of the American Medical Writer’s Association (AMWA), I found this helpful description of medical writing on the AMWA site.

Feedback Time

Did you find this interview helpful? What questions would you have asked? Are you a medical writer? How would you have answered the questions above?


10 responses
  1. Lorraine Avatar

    Thanks for including me in this terrific post, Laura.

    It was great to read about Darline’s work. As I mentioned, a science/medical background is not crucial to healthcare copywriting, but it’s a huge advantage, as Darline notes. Physicians feel comfortable speaking with their peers and love it when they don’t have to dumb-down concepts.

    As other freelancers can see from the varied work Darline and I do–there’s plenty of opportunity in healthcare copywriting niches.

  2. Laura Spencer Avatar

    Thanks for participating Lorraine!

    I really enjoyed conducting this interview. I hope that our readers learned something as well. 🙂
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Should You Write Your Own Copy? =-.

  3. Melissa Avatar

    Thanks for the great read! I’m interested in medical writing and am curious as how to get started. I am currently a college student trying to earn various degrees in science and have always had a huge interest in the medicine and health.

    Where do you suggest I look? Is it is a good idea to use professors as references, since I currently don’t have a degree?


    1. Laura Spencer Avatar

      Good questions Melissa!

      Maybe one of our interview subjects or one of our readers will be able to answer.
      .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Should You Write Your Own Copy? =-.

    2. weightlossnyc Avatar

      Feel free to contact us if interested in freelance writing and other projects

      1. Janine Avatar

        I’m a 15-year veteran of medical writing, having serviced many of the big pharma companies including Novartis, J&J, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, AstraZeneca, and many more.

        I am also a holistic massage practitioner, so I am interested in wellness topics as well.

        If you need a copywriter, drop me a line at



        PS: It is a great profession for women. Once you have paid your dues as a staff writer (working many long hours), you are very likely to make a very good living solely doing freelance medical writing while working around your family life.

  4. Lorraine Avatar

    @Melissa: “Medical writing” is a broad umbrella that covers everything from academic research papers to to-physician marketing to consumer-focused materials.

    A science degree will surely support your work as a medical writer. But I would also suggest you lay a foundation with strong copywriting and/or editorial writing skills.

    You learn these skills by reading, writing–and rewriting.

    For a wealth of writing how-tos, see The Freelance Writing Jobs blog’s terrific articles and tips.

    My blog also lists favorite copywriting resources.

    Good luck!
    .-= Lorraine´s last blog ..The Marlon Brando Guide to Healthcare Copywriting =-.

  5. tom@Physician Malpractice Avatar

    The term “medical writing” encompasses different kinds of work for clients in media, government, and industry. Pharmaceutical companies, medical-device manufacturers, and clinical-research organizations (CROs) all employ writers to prepare regulatory documents used to seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for drugs and devices. Medical writers help doctors write research articles, monographs, and reviews on medical topics.
    .-= tom@Physician Malpractice´s last blog ..How to Negotiate a Settlement for Medical Debt =-.

    1. Laura Spencer Avatar

      Thanks for that answer Tom!

      That’s good additional information. 🙂
      .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Should Writers Be Paid by Word Count? =-.

  6. Swati Rai Avatar
    Swati Rai

    I have done a Medical writing course.I would like to be a freelance medical writer.As I am new and unexperienced please guide me regarding online medical writing jobs.

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