Monday, February 6, 2017

Medical Writing: The Cool, Smart Practicality of It All

OK, folks. Let me bend your ear (eyes?) a little bit. There are many facets to writing. We all know this, but sometimes forget it as we get sucked into our own projects and read our comfort books on our favorite topics. But I'm not talking genre differences--literary versus sci-fi versus romance (oh, but watch me try my hand at some sci-fi this year! Scary in an out-of-my-element sort of way but SO MUCH FUN!). I'm talking fiction versus non-fiction and then traveling one level deeper to break non-fiction into creative non-fiction, technical writing, medical writing... Wait. Did I say medical writing?

Yes. Yes, I did.

Medical writing is a thing. A hidden-in-plain-sight sort of thing I was only aware of at the very fringes. Medical writing to me used to be like a shadow that catches at the corner of your eye--you're not really sure what it is but you're vaguely aware of it.
Recently I talked to Laurie Anne Walden, DVM. Laurie Anne just so happens to be both a veterinarian and a medical writer and she enlightened me on this fascinating writing niche, which I'm thrilled to share with you all now. Ready? Let's meet Laurie Anne.

First things first. Laurie Anne opened her medical writing business, Walden Medical Writing, LLC, in 2014. Her journey to her present professional place has not been the typical path medical writers follow. But, as each of our own lives leads a tortuous path and one never knows where she is going to pop out of the woods, Laurie Anne is taking it all in stride. She went from vet school to internship to private practice for more than ten years before she made the gradual shift to writing.

Here's how she explains her beginnings: "I blame it all on the kids." (I suspected I was going to like Laurie Anne before I talked to her and this confirmed it.)

Seriously, Laurie Anne was a full time small animal vet until deciding to go part time when she had her first child. She continued part time after having her second child, but as the kids got older and went to elementary school, Laurie Anne started thinking. "I enjoyed being in charge of my own schedule," she says. "I wondered what I could do at home as a vet."

"I love editing. It's not about being critical. It's about helping people be clearer with their writing."

Some exploration online and contact with a colleague piqued Laurie Anne's interest along the lines of technical writing. "I had always liked writing and reading," she says. "So, the more I looked, I found out that medical writing was actually a thing."

Laurie Anne got her start editing research articles written by non-native English speakers. She says this experience was interesting and positive, though not a sole way to make a living. "I had so much fun doing that," she says.

With the pay for that sort of editing being quite low, Laurie Anne considered it as sort of her "internship" into medical writing. "It was a way of starting to get home-based employment in the field," she says. She spent a little more than a year editing in this way and loved it. "To me, I love editing," she says. "It's so much fun. It's not about being critical. It's about helping people be clearer with their writing. It's like being a hairdresser to their writing. Especially when their first language isn't even English. I think the fact that they're even trying is great."

After dipping her toes in the self-employed editing world, Laurie Anne got serious. She joined the American Medical Writers Association and then passed a certification exam. She's now on the Board of Editors of Life Sciences. "You don't have to have any qualification to say you're an editor," she cautions. "Just go online and announce you're an editor and there you go. I decided a certification would be at least something I could show people." After earning her editing certification and a writing certification from the AMWA, Laurie Anne says she feels better about her editing credentials.

Currently, Laurie Anne has shifted to writing more copy. While she still does editing (because she loves it so!), she primarily is now a medical writer. Laurie Anne is an interesting example of a freelance medical writer who--important point here--still practices part time. "Most people who do medical writing either work for drug companies or for medical publication firms," she says. "So starting as a freelancer is not the way I'd recommend doing it. I never wanted to quit practice so working full time at a company was not an option for me."

"Actually, veterinary training prepares you really well for being a medical writer. You understand the language of medicine."

Opportunities for freelance medical writers can vary widely. Currently, Laurie Anne has a bulk of work writing articles that summarize recent research in the scientific literature. "I'm summarizing what's relevant in these articles and what will make veterinarians' lives easier," she explains. She says this work has been interesting and challenging. "Some of the research articles I have to summarize are not in the areas I have any expertise in, so it's great that I have this opportunity to learn about new stuff," she says. And then Laurie Anne taps into one of every clinician's fears: hard core radiology. "I have had to edit some radiology documents that were basically all physics," she says. "Oh god." I feel your pain, Laurie Anne. I feel your pain.
Radiation physics??? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
She's also recently written various client education articles, which she enjoys, as it's a marriage of her clinical and writing skills. "Actually, veterinary training prepares you really well for being a medical writer because you understand the language of medicine and understand where it all comes from," she says.

Laurie Anne stressed that her path isn't likely the most usual path for those interested in pursuing a career in medical writing and encourages folks who might be interested in medical writing to do their research first. The American Medical Writers Association is a great place to start and has lots of resources.

Until next month, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting!