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Nine Steps to Dissecting the Medical Market
by Lisa B. Samalonis

Writing for medical newspapers and journals can be lucrative and reliable source of income. This area is not without challenges. You may have to learn tricky medical terminology like ophthalmology and trabeculectomy. However, there are a plethora of medical magazines targeted to physicians in the United States that you can tap. Most specialties--such as cardiology, ophthalmology, orthopedics or pediatrics--have several competing or complementary magazines. Accurate and reliable freelance medical writers are in demand.

Writing for medical newspapers usually entails one of several types of assignments: news article based on talks given at major medical meetings, articles based on an interviews with prominent doctors on the latest research or products; or medical literature reviews (summaries) of a specific topic.

The physician medical newspaper market isn't really hidden, but it may seem that way to the novice medical writer. With a little investigative work, the proper medical dictionary, a tape recorder, access to the Internet and a healthy dose of perseverance, the novice writer is well on the way.

Cracking the Market

1) Select a specialty. Select a specialty of interest, an area you have some knowledge of, or use key resources to find one. Ways to select a specialty include reading the magazines at the doctor's office, the pharmacy and at the vet. Newsletters from hospitals and health insurance companies are parallel markets, which you can contact. Publication information can also be found in the SRDS at a major library. This reference book lists by subject all the healthcare magazines published in the United States. Searching the web by specialty name (such as "pediatrics" or "ophthalmology") will also pull up magazines and some content. Study the selected market.

2) Make direct and brief contact. Call the editor of the magazine and get writer's guidelines or ask how to get on the freelance assignment list. Succinctly explain your writing background and ask for the opportunity to write an article. Send clips if you have them. Often these editors have a hard time finding good, reliable writers and will welcome your offer. Be prepared to follow up on initial your contact.

3) Expect a low rate at first. Rates for medical writing can be as low 25 cents per word. These low rates can lead to rates well beyond the starting price. In addition, these magazines are monthly or bimonthly and require many freelance articles per issue. As you gain experience in a specialty and begin to write articles more quickly, the hourly rate will exceed the per word count. For example, you may get 50 cents per word for a $1000 word piece ($500). However, the article may take ten hours (or less), so you will be making $50 (or more) an hour regardless. Not too bad.

4) Aim for 100% accuracy. Interviews should be brief and recorded (with permission) so you can go over the information carefully at a later time. Physicians talk quickly and in medical jargon. Writing articles from tapes from medical meeting also can be difficult. The recordings may be garbled and the terminology can be confusing at first. Be accurate or credibility is compromised. If you are unsure of a term or procedure, call the doctor for clarification or check the Internet. Many times, the doctor or a colleague has published a peer-review journal article on the same topic as the presentation or interview. The abstract can help you decipher words, spelling or medical meaning.

5) When in doubt fax it out. Once the draft is completed and checked carefully, you may want to fax it to the doctor who is mentioned in the piece (after calling first). Although "traditional journalism" frowns upon this practice, many physician magazines routinely fax all physicians mentioned before publication to avoid mistakes. In the beginning you may want to perform this extra step and then correct the draft before sending it on to the editor. This saves face (and future assignments) with the editors if you make a mistake.

6) Never miss a deadline. Always make the deadline or call before deadline to inform the editor of any problems with story development. Once established as a reliable writer, ask to be put on their monthly assignment list. Also, ask for feedback on assignments and then work to improve writing based on comments. This process can "set you up" because the magazines have a high assignment volume, especially around convention time.

7) Branch out. Many medical publishing companies produce magazines for a multitude of specialties. Once you become known as a reliable medical writer, the editor may pass your name around to others. Also you can inquire on your own with other publications within one company.

8) Recycle and Resell. Consider adapting topical articles--such as practice management pieces or technology stories--to numerous specialties. (For example, an article on a computer system that keeps track of patient appointments and records can be relevant to many practice specialties and many different magazines.) This may require only several new interviews and can be lucrative.

9) Be patient and open to learning. Remember as the writer you haven't attended medical school. There is a lot to learn. Also, when interviewing a busy physician or setting up an appointment for an interview with an assistant, a pleasant disposition goes a long way. Establish relationships. If hired as a steady freelancer, you will invariably talk to these physicians again and again.

© Copyright 2003, Lisa B. Samalonis

Lisa B. Samalonis writes from Gloucester Township, New Jersey, where she is working on a variety of projects both large and small.

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