Want to Break Into Medical Writing? Interview with Medical Writer Nancy Monson

Thursday, July 26, 2012
by Rosrin Wuithiran

Award-winning medical writer Nancy Monson has been writing professionally for the past 20 years. Writing for both consumers and medical professionals, she has covered medical topics for websites, videos, blogs, and more. Her articles range in topics in health, nutrition, psychology, and medicine and have appeared in Woman’s Day, Glamour, and Fitness, among many titles. She has also written health books such as Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes and The Smart Guide to Boosting Your Energy. Nancy also offers a medical freelance writing how-to book, Just What the Doctor Ordered: An Insider’s Guide to Medical Writing at www.medicalwritingbook.com.

She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association of Health Care Journalists. You can find her writing porfolio at www.nancymonson.com. WOW! is excited to speak with Nancy about the world of medical writing.

WOW: Welcome, Nancy! What steered you into the field of medical writing?

Nancy: I actually fell into the field about 25 years ago. I originally wanted to be an actress, but I always had a facility for writing.

WOW: So how did you get started in medical writing?

Nancy: I got a job as a freelance typist for a New York City medical communications company, working evenings, so I had days free to go to acting auditions. Over the course of several years, a couple of editors at the company realized I had potential and gave me opportunities to go to medical meetings and report on presentations, and taught me to edit medical materials.

WOW: That's great they encouraged you to get into the field. Do you have a medical degree?

Nancy: No. I have a Bachelor of Science degree magna cum laude in communications from Boston University’s College of Communications.

WOW: Did not having a degree cause a problem? Did editors inquire whether you had the sufficient background to write on medical subjects?

Nancy: No, not really, because I started when the medical communications industry was still fairly young and that wasn’t an issue. They were looking more for editors and writers and were willing to teach people the medicine. I’ve since been in the business for so long and I have so much experience that it’s not an issue. I also have a lot of contacts who know I’m very competent and dependable. However, it appears that advanced degrees are being requested more and more of medical writers.

WOW: How difficult is it to find references and experts to support findings and statistics for your articles?

Nancy: It’s not difficult thanks to the Internet—it used to be a lot harder when I physically had to go to a medical library and do research. The National Library of Medicine website Pubmed provides access to abstracts of thousands of new and old articles each year, so that’s the first place to go to do research.

WOW: That's a fantastic resource! So where do you find experts for your articles?

Nancy: Through literature searches and recommendations from other experts and organizations.

WOW: How do you find medical journals to write for? Or is it a mixture of medical publications and general interest magazines?

Nancy: Actually, I don’t write for medical journals. Rather, I write continuing medical education (CME) custom publications for healthcare professionals, patient education brochures, and web tools, and these projects are typically offered to me by clients I’ve known for a long time and who I keep in touch with to let them know I’m available. I also write consumer magazine articles and blog posts on health and nutrition topics; I get these assignments by pitching story ideas to editors at magazines that interest me, such as More, Shape, Vivmag.com, and Weight Watchers Magazine. Finally, I write books, as well as assist doctors, psychologists, and other authors with writing their books and book proposals.

WOW: It's great to know medical writing can be so diverse. How did you find topics of interest or how were you able to punch up topics to suit the needs of publications?

Nancy: I don’t need to find topics of interest for the medical writing—I am assigned those projects by medical communications companies and organizations. For the magazine articles I write for consumers, I peruse medical journal articles and medical meeting news releases, and read the newspaper for reports on new studies that could serve as the “newspeg” for a magazine article.

WOW: Were there any surprises you encountered (such as non-health oriented periodicals being interested in health and medical topics)?

Nancy: I was lucky enough to move from medical writing to consumer magazine writing in the early 1990s. Health and nutrition writing was a new niche back then, and my medical writing experience and contacts with medical experts helped me to succeed in that area. Today, health and nutrition are staples of most consumer magazines, given the interest most people have in the topics.

WOW: What propelled you to write your books?

Nancy: My first book, The Smart Guide to Boosting Your Energy, was offered to me. It was part of a series and seemed like a nice way to try my hand at book writing. My second book, Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes, is a labor of love and was a concept that I developed and pitched to many publishers (through a book agent). I’m very interested in crafts, hobbies, and creativity, and I uncovered research that these pursuits can have mental, physical, and spiritual benefits. I look at the book as a self-help guide to tapping these benefits for yourself. My third book is an e-book with a co-author, Linda Peckel. It arose out of the question from my fellow consumer writers “How do you become a medical writer?” It’s called Just What the Doctor Ordered: An Insider’s Guide to Medical Writing.

WOW: How did you make the choice of selling books on your own rather than trying for a big publisher?

Nancy: My first book was published by John Wiley and Sons. Craft to Heal was purchased by a craft publisher that folded, so I ended up self-publishing the book. That’s been a great experience, as I have complete control over the copy and cover. I also have control over the marketing, which is good and bad, as that’s a massive effort (but I’m told it’s a massive effort even if your book is published by a mainstream publisher). I revised the book with some new research and text this past summer. The third book, my co-author and I wanted to get out quickly, so we wrote the copy based on our many years of experience in the field of medical writing, and contracted with a web designer to create the e-book and our website.

WOW: With 300-plus articles and works under your belt, do you feel you have reached a limit of topics? Or did you decide to delve into other writing realms?

Nancy: Oh no, not at all! There are always new health and nutrition studies coming out, and updates to stories to be made, as well as seasonal health and nutrition stories (called “evergreen” stories—for instance, stories about breast cancer in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month). I have, however, moved into writing about other topics that I enjoy, such as psychology and relationships, as well as crafts, hobbies, and creativity.

WOW: That's wonderful you've been able to branch out, and you sound passionate about your book projects--and crafting! (smiles) So what was the best advice you received for medical writing?

Nancy: Pay attention to details and take your time: you have to be accurate. You can’t get medication dosages wrong or fake your understanding of a study design. On the other hand, be dependable, too. Make your deadlines.

WOW: Great advice . . . especially about the medication dosages! All of those details are so important to get right before submitting. What is your typical routine in producing an article?

Nancy: It varies depending on the project. If I’m writing a CME publication, it starts with my doing some preliminary research on the topic and creating an outline. I then participate in a conference call with the medical experts who have been selected for the project, and we review the outline and they give me guidance on what to cover, relevant studies to cite, and other things. These publications must be evidence-based (meaning they are culled from solid research and heavily referenced), as well as clinically useful and balanced rather than promotional in nature. Next, I go off and write the publication, which can take a month or more. When the first draft is ready, it is sent out to the client and the medical experts for review. It comes back to me for revisions, usually at least once, and sometimes twice. It can be a challenge at this stage of the game to reconcile sometimes disparate comments and changes from advisors so everyone is happy with the content. Next, it goes to editing and layout, before ultimately being published and distributed.

WOW: It sounds like a very detailed process. What do you feel is the biggest contribution to your success in a writing career?

Nancy: I feel I am very dependable and always make my deadlines. My copy is also very clean, because I pay attention to details and check my work before I submit it.

WOW: How did you get into continuing education writing? (Where medical professionals take courses to further their studies and to renew their licenses)

Nancy: I knew that I didn’t want to do promotional or marketing writing about drugs. I wanted to educate health professionals and patients, so CME (continuing medical education) was the natural way for me to go.

WOW: How do you find topics for continuing education writing?

Nancy: I am assigned these projects, so I don’t need to come up with the topics myself. I do specialize in certain subject areas, however: women’s health, nutrition, dermatology, neurology, and psychiatry/psychology.

WOW: How about for the consumer magazines you write for . . . Have you had disappointments/regrets in certain topics you queried?

Nancy: I may get excited about a topic, put a lot of effort into writing a query letter, and have it quickly shot down by an editor. That’s disappointing because it’s not always easy to come up with saleable article ideas and a lot goes into crafting a good pitch (magazines are demanding more and more of freelance writers in this regard, even asking them to get quotes from experts).

WOW: How did you deal with the query rejection?

Nancy: I refashioned the query and sent it to another magazine. Some queries never get picked up, and that’s just part of the experience of being a freelance writer.

WOW: What tip can you offer to someone interested in medical writing?

Nancy: Immerse yourself in the medical literature so you get a feel for the style and lingo—that means reading the New England Journal of Medicine or JAMA. Those journals are available at many public libraries. WebMD is also a good source of consumer health information; they have a medical site called Medscape for health professional information. And consider taking courses through the American Medical Writers Association.

WOW: Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your writing life with WOW!


Anonymous said...

Great interview. I'm glad to hear you don't have to have a medical degree.

Nancy, you mentioned magazines you write for... do you write for any websites too?


Roberta said...

I am just dipping my toes into the medical writing pool. I just finished an article for the Springfield Business Journal on medical advancements. I spent two weeks talking to clinicians and researchers about their work in cardiology, neurology and orthopedics. I had one compliment my writing and he also referred me to the American Medical Writers Assocaition. I have also written an article on sleep disorders.

I am a former EMT and sleep technician who has had an overwhelming passion for medicine my entire life. I wanted to be a neurosurgeon when I was younger. Instead, I became a writer. However, I'm afraid that and my two articles aren't enough to compete in this competitive market. Plus, I've read the bios of some of the writers on the American Medical Writers Association web site.

How hard is it to break into this field without an advanced degree today? My degrees are in legal studies and anthropology, not exactly hard sciences. This is an area I want to explore in my depth. WOW ought to offer a class on medical writing.

Roberta said...

*more depth

LuAnn Schindler said...

Fantastic information. Thanks for sharing! When I began freelancing, I wrote for a health and fitness magazine. No medical degree. :) I've also written a number of health-related articles for regional publications. My experience has been research, research, research; find qualified experts, especially for regional markets; and use strong examples.

Unknown said...

I am glad that you are enjoying such a successful career as a medical writing expert. I work for a medical writing company called http://www.researchmedics.com/ which offers the same writing aid you provide plus a few more medical support services.

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