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Mastering Good Medical Writing: How to Tell a Story, Engage, and Educate

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Medical writing is an excellent niche for ghostwriters, as many healthcare providers are eager to publish, but don’t have the time or expertise to craft something themselves. And with the pandemic still raging, there’s been an increased demand for books and articles on health. I’ve worked with a number of healthcare providers in various specialties, including neurology, dermatology, radiology, holistic medicine, plastic surgery, psychology, and nursing. Like med school rotations, I learn something new with each book and expert. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to enter the healthcare writing field: 

Use the “K-I-S-S Rule”

Keep It Super Simple is a handy reminder to write simple explanations for clinical material. Not every doctor has a great bedside manner, so I ask my clients to explain medical information as if they are talking to patients, not colleagues. I see myself as the typical lay reader, and I ask follow up questions until everything is crystal clear. Assume readers know nothing about the subject you are writing about.

Avoid clinical jargon

Every specialty has its own jargon, and medicine is rife with long, unpronounceable terms. Put the Latin words in parentheses and define them in simple English. Do you know what a diastasis recti is, for example? I sure didn’t, until I started writing about it. (It’s the separation of abdominal muscles that can occur after childbirth.)

Fact check your work

We are in a misinformation age where “alternative facts” can go viral online. Medical writing must be evidence-based and well-researched. Your readers could be making life-saving decisions based on the information you provide. Always use legitimate sources, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or the Mayo Clinic. Some of the top, go-to journals are the Journal of Medical Association (JAMA), the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and Lancet. Most specialties have their own associations and publications as well. Press releases and Wikipedia don’t count.

Ask the right questions

Depending on the medical condition you’re writing about, there are basic questions that should be answered, such as: What is the cause of the condition? What are the common symptoms? How many people have the condition and what is the demographic breakdown (e.g., more men than women over the age of 60)? What are the most effective treatments (including non-medicinal options, if any). What is the natural course of the disease if left untreated? Ask yourself what you would want to know if you were given a similar diagnosis.

Use real-life anecdotes

Stories from patients engage the reader by showing how a disease can impact someone’s everyday life. Avoid dry, clinical writing by including stories from patients who overcame or coped with their condition. Doctors and therapists are forbidden from sharing patient information without consent, so always make sure your subjects are willing participants and that you disguise their identity if they want to be anonymous.

Learn how to find, read, and cite studies

Most health books use scientific studies to back up the advice given. Published studies can be dense and confusing, so start with the summary that crunches the data and explains why the trial is significant. You can find studies and trials on PubMed, which has 21 million citations from MEDLINE

Write for health publications and blogs

If you haven’t written for medical experts before, you might want to break in by writing for health publications and blogs. WebMD and Healthline are two of the biggest health blogs. Bottom Line Health, which has a hardcopy and digital version, has ghostwritten articles by healthcare professionals. Proofreading or copyediting scientific or pharmaceutical manuals is another way to get experience.                    

Join industry organizations

The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) offers an educational certificate that will give you credentials in the field. For medical/science editing, you might also want to take the BELS exam to get your Editor in the Life Sciences (ELS) certificate. The Council of Science Editors is another premier industry organization for medical editors. NOTE: The above is not necessary to be a medical writer or editor, but it might give you a leg up.

Learn AMA style

That’s American Medical Association style, which is the standard for medical editing; AP and Chicago Manual of Style is used for consumer and trade publications. Simply knowing AMA isn’t enough to become a medical writer, but it can get you in the door as a medical copy editor.                   

Remember, good health writing shouldn’t read like a PowerPoint presentation. It should tell a story, engage, and educate. Beware of clients whose goal is to sell unregulated products or supplements that are either dangerous money guzzlers. As medical scribes, like the doctors we write for, we must first do no harm. 

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