The overlapping niches of science and medical marcom writing are intimidating to most people with a liberal arts degree — even folks who are capable of complex research on other topics. This is understandable, and there are certainly categories of science and medical content that laypeople shouldn’t attempt to write. But crafting consumer-facing content, B2B marketing content, PR materials and even internal corporate presentations are often handled by teams of people. A few of the people overseeing the project will have the subject matter expertise, but the rest will be professional content creators from a variety of backgrounds.
A professional demeanor, meticulous eye, excellent core skills, and grace in navigating bureaucratic channels are as important to a medical marcom career as is an advanced medical degree. Writers must be skilled at creating engaging copy from dense subject material, while editors and proofreaders need to have keen eyes and excellent memory. Since private companies, public institutions and nonprofits alike tend to be large with many layers, traits like patience and tact help a person thrive in this field. And the the compensation is excellent.
For this installment of The Niche Freelancer, we interviewed Julie Kendrick, a former agency marketing director who jumped into freelance copywriting and editing eight years ago. While Ms. Kendrick has written everything from digital ads for mobile games to editorial features for specialty food magazines, she has a few anchor clients in the biotech and medical fields. She also manages to bridge a gap between food and science writing — an inspiring accomplishment considering how many food companies are trying to increase trust with consumers, and how many food writers are struggling to find a “next chapter” as their paying markets dry up.
Read on, for insights into how she does it…
Describe your expertise and what clients typically call upon you to write.
My experience includes a vigorous mix of editorial, content development and bylined journalism in a variety of sectors, including biotechnology, medical malpractice, consumer health issues, nutrition and medicine. I have worked in everything from short form (140 characters) to 3,000-word+ feature articles for national consumer publications.
How did you build your roster of expert sources?
In an average week, I talk with agronomists, scientists, medical doctors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and and business people (among many others). I have 10,000+ connections on LinkedIn. I treat sources well and check facts vigorously. I also make sure sources receive links to finals of stories. Finally, I cast a wide net with crowdsourcing when I need to, and I usually get some great sources that way.
Is medical/science writing a more nuanced niche than others?
I do believe that sometimes it’s easy for a journalist to simplify a topic so it “makes sense,” but then loses a key bit of information. That’s why I check all my facts and quotes with my sources very carefully.
Did you have any specialized training in the subject matter?
Just lots of hour-before-the-interview cramming on Wikipedia. I have a daughter studying for her MCAT now, so I’m picking up more medical terms. I’m more a writer than a scientist, but most of my readers are not as well-versed as my interview subjects, so I think I’m a good stand-in for the audience: If I think it’s confusing, it probably is.
How did you start out in this kind of writing?
Clients in one field referred me to clients in this one. There’s a great need for writers willing to dig deeper into complex subjects, so I found it was an area in which I succeeded and thrived.
How did the Internet change this niche of writing?
I believe it’s made well-interviewed, thoroughly sourced information even more valuable, since there is so much lazy, unattributed writing out there.
Are your clients beginning to adopt social media?
It depends on the field. My biotech ag client is all over social; some healthcare clients are moving more cautiously.
As a freelancer, how do you gauge whether your skills are a match for the project?
I ask a lot of questions up front, and I ask what has/hasn’t worked with previous writers. That usually gives me a pretty good idea of whether or not we’ll be a good fit.
Medical/science writing generally involves a rigorous approval process. Do you have tips on streamlining that, or making it easier for you/your client?
I do simple things like pasting only relevant passages into the body of an email, not attaching a cumbersome document. I also try to allow as much time as possible for review. Journalism deadlines are not the same as academic deadlines, I’ve learned.
What is the biggest challenge in this type of writing?
Finding an image, analogy or explanation that makes a knotty topic into an “aha” for the reader.
What qualities do you think clients are looking for in a medical/science writer?
Well, I’m not a client, but I’d guess a facility with sources, native curiosity, a willingness to dig deep, the ability to say “I don’t understand,” and — of course — good, clear, audience-focused writing.
Why do you think you have been successful in this area?
I do all the things I mentioned above, plus I have never missed a deadline.
What is the most memorable project you can share with us, and why?
I recently wrote about a University of Minnesota professor who discovered a vital piece of DNA in a 13-million-year old fish fossil (called the Sleeping Beauty transposon). The timeline was short. the professor did not suffer fools gladly, and I believe the story turned a complex process into an understandable one. Here’s the story: Sleeping Beauty Transposon, extinct for 13 million years, may hold a clue to cancer research.
On a totally different theme, I had a ball writing about hangovers and the people who research them in this story: My head hurts and I’m never drinking again: The latest in hangover research.