Careers in Medical Writing: A Keen Eye for Detail


Are you a world-class negotiator? Can you juggle more than 10 balls in the air at any one time? Do you thrive on working to seemingly impossible deadlines? If so, you may well have the skills needed to become a medical editor in one of the growing number of medical agencies that have sprung up in recent years.

If you've seen the adverts for this type of work, you will have noticed that the core competencies are common to all--that "keen eye for detail" that seems so popular but is so difficult to define, at least 2 years' experience in a similar environment, and a scientific background. To get the initial experience often requires hard work and dedication, but there are ways to get a head start above the other candidates for the job, despite your lack of experience. Working on college magazines, getting papers published, or any kind of work experience within a publishing or pharmaceutical environment will help.

The CV of a Scientific Editor

  • BSc (Hons) Biomedical Technology--Sheffield Hallam University Placement year at UpJohn Pharmaceuticals in research laboratories

  • Graduate Gateway course in marketing

  • Editorial assistant--Adelphi Communications Ltd (medical communications agency)

  • Assistant editor--Science Press Ltd (working on sponsored medical books)

  • Editor--Medicom Excel (medical communications agency)

  • Managing Editor--Medicom Publishing (working on sponsored journals and peer-reviewed articles for IJCP Group of Publications)

  • Editor-- CMC International Ltd. (medical communications agency)

    Senior Editor
    Managing Editor--line manager for team of 10 editors

The obvious skills needed for the job are copy editing (improving the grammar and flow of a piece) and proofreading (checking for errors). While some people are naturals at this, there are courses available that can improve your skills and explain what you should be looking for in different types of documents. Courses are available at the BookHouse Training Centre for scientific editing and proofreading, and there are many other proofreading courses around, many of which can be completed by distance learning. While you can learn a certain amount from these courses, experience is the best teacher. And either way, some natural ability and attention to detail will be needed if you are going to succeed.

You will need to be fully competent on a computer--typing, word processing, and desktop publishing courses will all be available at your local night school. In order to explain changes to design and editorial support staff, and to ensure that manuscripts are produced in the easiest, most consistent way, you need to know many of the advanced features of packages, and nothing beats the experience of having used them yourself. In some companies you may well be incorporating all your own amends and even doing your own layout. More advanced IT skills such as HTML are also useful as the publishing processes are changing to include ever increasing numbers of Internet sites and CD-ROMs, as well as the more traditional printed materials.

Organisational skills are vital as you need to be aware of where all your projects are up to--if you are submitting 23 abstracts to a meeting, you need to know which stage each one is at. One of the main functions of the editor is to keep things moving in a fast-paced environment, and you do need to react well to pressure. The editing stage is often at the end of a project (and proofreading always is) so you need to work well to tight deadlines without letting quality fall.

You also need to be able to negotiate well both with design and project leaders to get those all important deadlines moved, and with clients and opinion leaders to come to a satisfactory agreement about "unsatisfactory" changes from either party. Your communication skills should be excellent, whether by phone, fax, e-mail, or in meetings so that you can ensure there are no costly misunderstandings in the process.

Getting Work Experience

  • Contact relevant agencies/publishing houses to offer your services

  • Get the name of the editorial director--and make sure you know how to spell it

  • Keep in contact, even if they don't need you now--it's a small world in this business

  • Make sure your CV and cover letter are perfect--no editor will get a job with mistakes in their own CV. Always get a second pair of eyes to look at it before you send it anywhere!

Working for a medical agency often involves late nights and long hours, more so for editors than anyone else because, in the end, it will be down to you to ensure the deadline is met and the work is of the highest quality. It is often a challenge, but on the plus side you get to work on a wide range of products, from slides to monographs to primary research papers, in a range of areas, from respiratory to oncology--certainly, no two days are ever the same. And nothing beats the feeling when you see the finished product, or hear that a meeting has been well received--until you spot the first mistake, that is!

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