What skills do medical writers need?
I've just been taking part in a fascinating discussion on the "Professional Medical / Scientific Writers" group on LinkedIn about the skills needed to be a medical writer. HT to Gregory Cuppan for starting the thread and asking some interesting questions.
Many job adverts stress the importance of excellent English language skills, and Gregory suggests that they might not be the most important skills. I think I probably agree. Teamworking and interpersonal skills are, as all experienced medical writers know, hugely important. If you are trying to finalise a clinical study protocol when you are dealing with 12 different team members all of whom have different ideas about what should be in the protocol, then you need to be a diplomat first, and a writer second.
Another important skill in medical writing, in fact the most important in my opinion, is an ability to really understand the materials you are given to work with. You can't communicate complex scientific information effectively unless you have a thorough understanding of it yourself. This requires a good grasp of biomedical science and an excellent understanding of statistics. One example of this is that if a medical writer is writing a clinical study report, it is not at all uncommon to find mistakes in the statistical analyses that they have been given (eg numbers that don't add up, the wrong statistical tests used, subjects excluded from an analysis for no apparent reason), particularly if working from un-QC'd data. But even when working from final data, little anomalies pop up more often than we'd like to think. A good medical writer needs to have a kind of 6th sense for spotting such things and getting to the bottom of them, so that either they can be explained clearly in the report or, if appropriate, the statistician can redo the analyses and correct any errors.
It's also desperately important that medical writers know how to draw appropriate conclusions from their data. If the conclusion that the author of a paper wants to draw isn't really supported by the data, it's far better to be told that by the medical writer than by the peer reviewers of the journal that has just rejected the paper.
So where does that leave writing skills? Maybe not quite as important as the above, but in my view, still important. Medical writers need to be able to communicate clearly, in a manner appropriate for the intended audience, so that their readers can easily understand what they are saying. Even little things like getting punctuation wrong can frequently interfere with that understanding, so I believe that without the English language skills, then the other skills are unlikely to make a good medical writer by themselves.
What do you think? I'd love to read any comments submitted in the form below.