As I start my 7th week with Bham Pharma as a medical writing intern, I thought I would sit down and compile a list of top tips for starting out in medical writing. With no previous work experience within this sector, I was applying to medical writing positions from the outside looking in and found it difficult to know what medical writing was really like and what medical writers actually do. So, I am very grateful that I have been given this opportunity as an intern with Bham Pharma to allow me to do exactly that and I now have a much greater understanding of medical writing, as a whole.
I hope these tips will help you appreciate what is required to be a “good” medical writer and give you a general insight into this sector regardless of whether you are new to it or have 20 years of experience.
- Be methodical and organised. As medical writers work to deadlines, it’s a given that there will be an aspect of project management involved. What needs to be done? How long will this take (always overcompensate for this, especially as a junior!)? What needs to be done first? You can then work out how best to spend your time to always be one step ahead of any given deadline.
- Break it up. Having viewed documents that are over 100 pages long, with in‑depth tables and figures, it can be quite daunting to realise that at one point, you will start with a blank page and need to add in the information to build up a story. To add to the complexity, the document will be drafted, sent to the client, re-drafted, edited, finalised, and undergo a quality control (QC) check. Do not be overwhelmed by this, focus on one part of the process and document at a time. It takes many brains and pairs of eyes to take a document from beginning to completion.
- Attention to detail. This may come naturally or take more work, but it is hugely important to have good attention to detail. You will soon pick up what to look out for in a document (unnecessary spacing, formatting, grammar, etc.), and this will become second nature with time. It can also be helpful to come back to a document with fresh eyes, you will almost certainly spot something you missed last time. Never send something off that hasn’t been checked by you and someone else.
- Put in the work. If you know that you put in your best work, the less work your colleagues will have to do. If you can pick up the basics quickly, the steep learning curve that is medical writing should be that bit easier.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is no such thing as a stupid question, only the one you didn’t ask. Many things will be taken for granted and done automatically, so don’t be afraid to ask why something is done a certain way. There will often be a reason for it.
- Make friends with Microsoft Word. I have quickly realised that I was only really scratching the surface of what Word can do (and still am!). Being able to successfully use Word to help you format and write a document is essential. If you can, try to get accustomed to using Word through practice and watch lots of YouTube videos, if you get stuck!
- Be an eager student. Can you help with projects? Be proactive in helping out on projects and working with others. The more exposure you have to different projects/documents/writing styles/therapeutic areas, the better. Make notes as you go of things you are learning – you will be surprised at how quickly this builds up.
- Be consistent. A key aspect of medical writing is consistency, and this is particularly important for regulatory writing. If something is written or formatted in a certain way, this should be followed throughout the rest of the document. This also comes back to having good attention to detail and being conscious of consistency.
- Learn the rules and exceptions. There are several rules when it comes to medical writing and these are often spelled out in company style guides. The guides will outline the expected way to write, and cover anything from spelling and punctuation, to referencing. I always have the style guide in front of me, as a reminder to align my writing with this guide. Some clients/companies will specify their desired style or have their own style guide, so learning the rules and when to make exceptions are key.
- Clarify. It never hurts to ask and clarify. If you are unsure about anything, show what you have and have not understood. If asked to complete a task, clarify what is being asked of you and you can never go wrong!
Although entering a new sector with little experience can be difficult, it is possible. It is ok to be a beginner and there is strength in showing a willingness and an ability to learn. Don’t underestimate previous experiences – even if it isn’t medical writing-related. Developing and growing as a medical writer will take time, I am excited about my future as a medical writer.