Medical writing explained (badly)

“So… what do you do?”

If you’re at a wedding or a networking event… or even making polite chat with the bloke servicing your boiler, chances are you’ve been asked this question at least a dozen times.

I’ve been a medical writer for the best part of a decade, yet I still struggle to answer this question. In fact conversations typically go something like this:

Person: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a medical writer
Person: Oh, so medical reports and stuff?
Me: No, it’s more like copywriting
Person: Oh, my cousin’s a patent lawyer too!
Me: No, that’s copyright. I mean copy WRITING, like content
Person: So, like the New Scientist, stuff like that?
Me: Not exactly. I write for the pharmaceutical industry. About drugs.
Person: Oh, like aspirin?
Me: It’s mainly prescription drugs and medical devices
Person: Like mobility scooters?
Me: Not exactly…
Person: Would I have seen any of your work?
Me: No, you can’t advertise prescription-only medicines to the public in the UK
Person: So, who do you write for?
Me: Mainly HCPs. Also MSLs, and KAMs…
Person: …
Me: Anyway, how’s your dog?

As you can imagine, I’m great fun at parties.

But why do I find explaining my job so hard? And am I the only one? To find out, I asked my fellow writing monsters to describe their experiences of talking to people about their work.

The struggle is real

Firstly, it turns out I’m not alone.

Many of my colleagues at Word Monster have also been met with blank stares and confusion at buffet tables/school gates/the MOT centre. People tend to make certain assumptions, which vary widely depending on who we’re talking to. Here are just a few examples of misconceptions we’ve been met with:

“I find that people usually assume I write for medical journals”

“Initial presumptions (when mentioning ‘medical writer’) seem to be that I write patient information leaflets for a living”

“A lot of people assume ‘medical writer’ = ‘medical secretary’”

“Once when I told a GP friend about my new role she said ‘oooh would you like to interview me?’. Erm…”

As medical writing is such a niche career path, it doesn’t have its own tick box on forms and surveys, as one of our referencing monsters discovered:

“I tried explaining what I do to my car insurance provider a couple of weeks ago. They didn’t know what to categorise it as, so it went to head office and they came back to me with a title of ‘editor’ and a fat fee to amend the policy”

And it’s not just strangers and acquaintances who struggle to grasp what we do. For one of our monsters, explaining her role to family members was the most challenging of all:

“I find that in the UK people are more or less likely to get the idea behind medical writing, but when it comes to explaining it to my family back home, all hope is lost”

Why medical writing makes us awkward at parties

So, why is it so hard to describe our job to people. We came up with a few possible theories. Firstly, explaining medical writing isn’t easy because medical writing isn’t easy. It’s a specialist role that requires scientific acumen, a heap of on-the-job training, and a lot of red pen! Medical writers develop a very specific set of skills (resisting the urge to drop in a Liam Neeson meme here!) that we can’t talk to our neighbours about. Not in a ‘if I told you I’d have to kill you’ sort of way, more like in a ‘it’s hard to explain and I haven’t got all day’ way.

For many of us, no two days are the same. One day you have your head down in slide deck amends, the next you’re flying to Brussels for an advisory board meeting. Your answer to the “what do you do?” question could vary day-by-day, depending on when someone asks you.

Not to mention that no two medical writers are alike. Some of us are pros at publications. Others are medical education maestros. Even if the person you’re talking to is familiar with our industry, chances are they may not have encountered your particular flavour of medical writing before.

Context is key

So, how do we answer the question without tying ourselves in knots? Ellie Judd, our Australian Head Monster, says that context is everything when answering the question of how she earns a crust:

“I feel like I’ve gone through phases of explaining what I do over the years and I definitely say different things depending on who’s asking… If I want the conversation to be really short and it’s someone who is unlikely to know anything about it, I just say ‘I work in pharmaceuticals’ and usually it ends there!”

And if it doesn’t end there?

“I follow up by explaining that I write educational materials and adverts about various prescription drugs for pharmaceutical companies. That usually seems to give people a better sense, although I think often they still don’t have a great handle on it!”

The value of being vague

To avoid the risk of lengthy and confusing explanations, some of our monsters take the approach of being as furtive as possible when explaining how they make a living.

“I usually explain that I write for pharma companies, which people seem to be a lot more familiar with since COVID. I don’t tend to go into more detail than this and I think it is enough!

“I tend to veer away from ‘medical writer’ now and just say I work in healthcare comms. And hope no one asks me anymore!”

So, there you have it. If you’ve come away from this article with a clearer idea of what medical writers do, then (let’s face it) you’re probably in the minority. So if you’d like to learn more about medical writing, we have some great blogs here, here and here.