How To Become a Medical Writer

Female medical writer working from home office

Are you looking for a career in health science, but not interested in providing patient care or otherwise working in a hospital? If you also enjoy researching and writing, then perhaps becoming a medical writer could be the right career move for you.

Just as the job title implies, a medical writer is a type of technical writer who specializes in scientific topics pertaining to healthcare and medical science. These professionals develop documentation about medicines and other topics in the medical science field. If this sparks your interest, take a look at this career guide to explore the process of how to become a medical writer.

Table of Contents:

What Exactly Is a Medical Writer?

If you browse job boards looking at descriptions of medical writing jobs, you’ll likely realize that there are different types of medical writing. In fact, medical writing can be broken down into three main categories: health writing, medical writing and scientific communications.

Scientific communications is technical writing that can encompass a range of subject areas, from engineering to medical science. Scientific writers often submit their work to academic journals and similar publications. For example, a scientific writer may partner with a doctor to develop a research article, making this a good niche for people who enjoy staying on the cutting-edge of advancements in the field.

Health writing involves creating patient-facing or consumer-facing materials. For example, a health writer might create a blog titled “How to Recognize the Warning Signs of Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy” for a website, or a brochure on “Questions to Ask Your Doctor” intended for placement in a physician’s waiting room. Health writing for an audience of patients or consumers tends to be conversational in tone and written without technical jargon that patients might not be familiar with.

In sharp contrast, medical writing is highly technical, formal writing that is written with an audience of professionals in mind. The sphere of medical writing significantly overlaps with that of scientific communications. It can involve various forms of writing, such as developing new drug applications for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.

What Does a Medical Writer Do?

A day in the life of a medical writer can look very different from one company to the next. In general, medical writers are responsible for consulting other professionals, such as medical scientists or physicians, to determine the type of documentation required for any given project. They may work with subject matter experts to determine the specifics of the documentation before writing it.

Medical writers must ensure that everything they write is both completely accurate and in full compliance with all applicable regulations. Sometimes, medical writers may source graphs or illustrations for their documents. Some of them may also be responsible for editing the work of other medical writers.

Every day can look a little different for a medical writer. Medical writers may choose to specialize in a particular type of documentation. For example, consider the following specialty areas:

  • Regulatory writing – Regulatory agencies, such as the FDA, require pharmaceutical and medical device companies to submit specific types of documents in order to have their drugs and other products approved for sale. This type of writing is highly technical and can be challenging. However, regulatory writers tend to be well compensated as a result.
  • Scientific publications – If you choose to specialize in scientific writing, you’ll work with physicians and researchers to write abstracts and manuscripts for academic journals. You may also create oral presentations for physicians or researchers to give at medical conferences. 
  • Medical education – All physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide direct patient care must periodically complete continuing medical education (CME) credits. These courses are available through professional associations, board review programs and even medical app developers. If you choose to specialize in medical education, you’ll devote much of your day to item writing—constructing various medical scenarios and questions to go along with them. 
  • Promotional medical writing – Promotional medical writing is far less clinical than medical education or regulatory writing, but it still requires scientific knowledge. As the name suggests, it involves creating promotional pieces for drugs, medical devices and other medical interventions. Although promotional writing is less clinical, it’s still technical writing. In addition, it requires very strict adherence to regulations regarding medical advertising.

If you’re passionate about healthcare and science, but you aren’t quite sure that you want to develop the depth of clinical knowledge required for highly technical medical writing, then you may want to consider becoming a health writer instead. Health writers who write for a lay audience of patients and consumers may work on materials such as the following:

  • Website pages
  • Decision guides
  • Patient education pamphlets
  • Health news items

In short, there are many choices to consider for your career.

The Role of a Medical Writer

The process of how to become a medical writer can begin in high school. Strive to take as many science courses as possible. In particular, focus on the life sciences and health-related classes, as well as mathematics courses like statistics.

In addition to STEM classes, you’ll want to focus on improving your communication skills. Talk to your guidance counselor about whether you might be able to take advanced English classes or other advanced writing classes. While in high school, look for relevant internship and volunteer positions, such as those at local hospitals or publications.

You’ll need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree after high school in either life sciences (such as biology) or communications. If you plan to become a technical medical writer, you should also expect to go to graduate school. On the other hand, if you’ve decided you’d rather write patient-facing materials that are less technical, a graduate degree may not be necessary.

Another effective way to establish your qualifications as a medical writer is to earn a certification after graduation. Some certifications may require you to demonstrate a certain amount of professional work experience.

Do Aspiring Medical Writers Need To Earn a Medical Science Degree?

All aspiring medical writers do need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, there is no one universal degree program intended specifically for medical writers. People come to this career field with a variety of backgrounds and academic qualifications.

You may indeed decide to pursue a medical science degree. This would give you a thorough grounding in the types of topics you’ll be writing about. However, you might instead decide to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology

A biology degree would also give you the firm foundation of scientific knowledge and research skills you will need as a medical writer. Even better, consider choosing a biology degree intended for future educators, as medical writers are somewhat like educators. A typical biology degree program will also cover topics such as chemistry, anatomy, physiology and cellular biology—all important competencies for aspiring medical writers. 

Another possibility to consider is a communications degree. Medical writers do need a thorough understanding of scientific topics, but they also need to be effective communicators. A communications degree would help you become a skilled researcher and writer. 

Still another option to consider is to choose a hybrid approach. You might decide to major in biology and minor in communications, for instance. Or, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you could declare a double major in both subject areas.

When deciding which type of degree to earn, it’s helpful to consider which type of medical writer you’d like to be. If you’d like to be a medical writer in the strictest definition of the term, then you’ll need a life sciences degree. On the other hand, if you would prefer to be a health writer who writes for an audience of patients, then a communications degree may be the right choice for you; you could then pair this major with a minor in life sciences.

Whichever undergraduate degree you choose, you can look beyond the classroom to further improve your knowledge and skills. Talk to your student services department about local internship opportunities in healthcare and publishing settings. You can also likely find on-campus activities that would help bolster your resume, such as writing for the campus newspaper.

Should You Earn a Graduate Degree to Become a Medical Writer?

It’s highly advantageous for an aspiring medical writer to earn at least a master’s degree, as many employers require them. In addition, many employers prefer to hire medical writers who have a PhD in life sciences. Some medical writers choose to specialize, such as by earning a pharmacy degree, and some have even gone to medical school to become licensed physicians.

However, it is certainly possible to land a job as a medical writer with a master’s degree, rather than a PhD. In addition, if you plan to become a health writer, rather than a medical or scientific writer, then you may not necessarily need to go to graduate school at all. Health writers often have just a bachelor’s degree; however, you may decide to return to school for your master’s later on in order to qualify for higher-level positions.

Should Aspiring Medical Writers Earn a Certification or a License?

Medical writers aren’t required to have a license or a certification. However, earning a certification on top of your degree can allow you to become a better qualified and more desirable job applicant. It may even put you in a better position for a higher-level role with more lucrative compensation.

There are a few certification options, but perhaps the most well-known one is offered by the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). The AMWA developed their certification program along with the Medical Writing Certification Commission (MWCC). Writers who successfully complete the program are allowed to use the prestigious Medical Writer Certified (MWC®) credential on their resume.

Do note that you will not be eligible to take the certification exam right away after graduation. Eligibility requirements include at least a bachelor’s degree in any subject area and at least two years of professional, paid work experience in the field.

While you’re working to become eligible for the certification exam, you may want to consider earning the Essential Skills (ES) certificate, also offered by the AMWA. This certificate isn’t as prestigious as the MWC® credential, but it is available to new graduates. In addition, it will help you further refine your competencies as a new medical writer.

Essential Skills and Qualities for Becoming a Medical Writer

There are a number of skills and characteristics you can actively cultivate as you work on becoming a medical writer. These include the following:

  • Writing skills
  • Interpersonal skills and teamwork
  • An inquisitive mind and a lifelong love of learning
  • Research and fact-checking skills
  • Project management

Is There a Demand for Medical Writers?

Some new job openings are attributable to the retirement of existing technical writers, as well as the transfer of writers into other professions. Others are due to the rapid growth of the scientific and technical products market. It’s speculated that documentation for web-based information products will be in high demand during the years to come.

If you’ve decided that you’re ready to take the first step in the process of how to become a medical writer, then it’s time to take a look at all that Grand Canyon University has to offer. We have a number of undergraduate degree programs that can effectively prepare graduates to pursue a career as a medical writer. For example, you could apply for enrollment in the Bachelor of Arts in Communications degree or the Bachelor of Science in Biology for Secondary Education program. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.