By Sarah Brenckman Leida | STC Member
I started my career as a secondary English teacher. I have since leveraged my technical writing skillset into a role that includes writing, project management, and training as a Project Manager for Research and Development at Smiths Medical, a global medical device manufacturer known for infusion, vital care, and vascular access products. People often wonder how I transitioned into technical writing for a medical device company. I tell them two things:
- Most jobs have more transferrable skills than first come to mind.
- It’s very possible to get into medical communication without a clinical background.
This advice generally applies to both working in a specific technical writing job for a company, and doing freelance medical writing work for different clients.
Jumping into Medical Writing
If you’re looking to make the jump into the medical industry—or perhaps to go beyond writing Instructions for Use (IFUs) for your organization—here are a few pointers.
Be able to articulate your transferrable skillset. The skillset I developed in my early years of teaching was akin to user experience design, instructional design, and technical writing. These skills are not unique to teaching, and they can be developed across many other industries and roles as well. Working with high volumes of students each year (anywhere from 110–325), I learned how to explain things simply and clearly to people with a range of personalities and backgrounds (a core skill in medical writing).
After five years of teaching, I could predict how my students would react to different materials. I also knew what background knowledge I could assume, and I understood what order of delivery would make the most sense to them. In similar ways, medical communicators organize information and deliver it logically for a variety of audiences. This similarity allows me to constantly draw on my experience as a teacher in my current role.
Consider targeting your job search to smaller companies. When I decided to switch careers, I applied to a small medical software company with around 200 employees. The job description mentioned authoring a wide range of materials for their patient billing software module, and I wrote a carefully-worded cover letter to show how my skillset could translate into a flexible addition to their technical writing team.
The interview process involved a 45-minute writing test where they showed me a screen of their software, asked me to figure out what it did, and then document it to the best of my ability. This interview component worked to my advantage. I didn’t have formal education in technical writing, but I could prove that I could learn quickly and explain things clearly. After all, doing so involves common technical communication activities like playing around with new software features to understand them; writing in a simple, active voice; and thinking about what new users would need to know and in what order they would want to learn it. The only difference here was that I had initially developed these skills outside of the technical communication field.
After I was hired, I learned that my new employer often looked past gaps in formal education or tool knowledge to hire employees who fit with their culture and were eager to learn. Because our team was small, I worked very closely with software designers and understood the software product both broadly and deeply. To keep up in this environment, I drew on skills key to teaching and technical writing—adaptability, attention to detail, and the ability to understand different user perspectives. In a short time, I had experience authoring every type of technical document that the organization needed. Because my first role was in a small, fast-paced company with a lean technical writing team, this initial role provided an excellent foundation for a medical writing career.
Look for roles that fit your writer personality, and go after the work you want. In the health and medical industry, there is a wide range of roles filled by technical writers. While it’s important to build experience with a variety of documentation types, many technical writers develop a specialty in their writing—instructions for use, software documentation, or standard operating procedures. At companies such as Medtronic, technical writers might work in a specific product area to create documentation for a particular type or line of products—for example, pacemakers or leads that connect pacemakers to the heart. Others might specialize in a specific type of documentation—for example, Smiths Medical has technical writers who focus on software documentation, while others specialize in standard operating procedures.
I have always held jack-of-all-trades technical writing roles involving some project management, instructional design, training, and even marketing. For example, when I write procedures and work instructions, I draw on my technical communication skills in organization and instructional writing. When I develop overview presentations on product data management for the marketing team or training for the systems engineers, I draw on my skillsets in user experience and working with diverse audiences.
So you’re thinking of making the move to medical writing. What are some things you can do now to start this process? Consider strategies such as:
Watch free webinars on health and medical topics. Medtech Europe, British Standards Institution (BSI), and even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have webinars that are great resources for becoming familiar with industry trends and regulations. More information on each organization can be found online (see Resources).
Get involved with medical and health professional organizations. A number of organizations focus on health and medical communication and provide resources and events that help with career development. They include:
- American Medical Writers Association (AMWA)
- Association for Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI)
- Drug Information Association (DIA)
Reading some of their articles or joining a Facebook group for the organization will give you a better idea of the areas within medical and health that appeal to you.
STC’s newly formed Health and Medicine Special Interest Group (SIG) can also provide information on a range of topics in this area. See the Resources for the SIG’s website and Facebook page for more information.
Browse the websites of companies that are established leaders such as Philips, Medtronic, Siemens, and Abbott Laboratories. Their websites cite and publish articles about key trends that could come up in an interview.
You might also review additional resources (see Resources for links), such as:
- New Medical Writer Toolkit available on the AMWA website.
- Information about Medical Writing through the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK).
- Courses and webinars through STC’s website, such as the Fundamentals of Healthcare Writing.
The key is to consider how your technical communication skills can be adapted to certain medical contexts, then hone those skills for such settings. It’s easier than you might realize, but it does take practice to begin thinking this way.
I was drawn to the medical and healthcare industries because they resonated with my values and experiences as a teacher. By expanding my knowledge base, I adapted the technical communication skills refined through teaching. The skills to make the transition into medical writing, however, can be built in any industry. One of the greatest benefits to making this transition is working with people who all want to be a part of creating products and services that improve health or save lives.
American Medical Writers Association (AMWA): https://www.amwa.org/
Association for Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI): https://www.aami.org/
British Standards Institution (BSI): https://www.bsigroup.com/
Courses and webinars through STC’s website, such as the Fundamentals of Healthcare Writing: https://www.stc.org/course/fundamentals-healthcare-writing/
Drug Information Association (DIA): https://www.diaglobal.org/
STC Health and Medicine Special Interest Group (SIG):
- Website: https://www.stc.org/wiki/health-and-medicine-sig-healthmed/
- Facebook page: STC HealthMed
Information about Medical Writing through the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge: https://www.tcbok.org/wiki/careers/career-paths/medical-writing-and-editing/
Medtech Europe: https://www.medtecheurope.org/
New Medical Writer Toolkit available on the AMWA website: https://www.amwa.org/page/toolkit_Details
SARAH BRENCKMAN LEIDA (firstname.lastname@example.org) has worked as a technical writer for medical software and medical device organizations for five years after transitioning from a career as a secondary English teacher. Sarah is a Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) and a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). In her current role as Project Manager for Smiths Medical in Plymouth, MN, she enjoys diving deep into complex programs to deliver approachable communication, efficient processes, and straightforward training for all involved. Sarah can be reached on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-leida-ma-capm-918b705b/.