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Could you manage being a medical writer as well?

GPs can use their fund of experiences as great material for writing, says Dr Tina Ambury

Being a medical writer is fun, fascinating and a nice little earner ­ sometimes. Emphasis on 'little'.

I've been a medical journalist since 1986 when my first article was published, though I've been writing for much longer.

I've worked in all media; all print formats, web-based, broadcast and editorial work from proof reading, through ghost writing to editing publications. And I still practise as a GP.

Getting started

Write from what you know. Passion about a subject comes through in the writing.

Write to one of the general medical publications ­ like Pulse ­ offering an unsolicited piece. This could be an article or a letter in response to something they have published.

If you want a career in writing, however big or small, my advice is to learn the tools of the trade first, by taking a writing skills course. This will teach you how to present your work so the editor at least reads it.

Something as simple as typing rather than long hand really makes a difference ­ editors are busy people and won't waste time looking for the silk purse if the submission looks like a sow's ear.

Never submit the same piece ­ even a letter ­ to more than one publication at a time. Nothing is more likely to damage your budding reputation than an editor seeing 'his' article somewhere else. If you've signed a copyright agreement, you'll certainly end up in hot water.

The technical stuff

Get hold of the authors' guidelines and follow them. Stick to the maximum word count and never submit more. Submit your work in the required format, usually electronic, though you still shouldn't ignore presentation. Avoid over-exuberant punctuation!!

Stay relevant and ensure your work is structured; an introduction, a middle

and conclusion is the most tried and tested format.

Submit your article and await the decision. You may wait a long time and may receive a rejection. Don't get disheartened.

Recontact the publication saying you wish to submit it elsewhere. That might even prompt a reconsideration by the original editor.


Once your name starts to appear in print, editors may contact you with a commission for a specific article. Editors recognise talent and will want to use a reliable author again. As your reputation grows, so will the number of commissions you receive.

You'll receive an outline of what is required. This will include:


·Word count

·Deadline for submission

·Payment being offered

Never miss a deadline

Editors work to tight schedules. They are not interested in the dog or kids being sick. They need your article at a particular point in the publication process. Miss the deadline and you will not be published. Worse still, you will damage your reputation irreparably.

Reaching deadlines is simple. Negotiate a reasonable one at the outset. If you can't make or renegotiate it, don't accept the commission. Editors respect this far more than being let down.

Time-keeping is fluid when you are juggling your writing with other commitments and it pays to forward plan. Mounting stress as a deadline approaches is best avoided.

When negotiating a deadline you need to consider not only the time needed for writing the piece. There is research beforehand and proofing and redrafting afterwards. All these have a bearing on whether a deadline is achievable.

Juggling, not dropping, balls

Fitting writing in with general practice is achievable. Being a practising GP is perfect for finding subject matter.

Don't write about identifiable patients,

but a morning's surgery often throws up ideas for a piece. Make a note at the time or you'll forget. I started with a notebook,

then moved to a Dictaphone and now use a PDA.

I often do my 'thinking time' at the gym or travelling, but you will need to set aside protected time to write. I did the initial draft of this while waiting in for a repair man.


·Start with what you know ­ this cuts down research

·Follow editor's guidelines

·Negotiate realistic deadline and never miss it

·Never submit same article to different publications at same time

Keep track of:

·Submissions ­ what, when, who to

·Awaiting ­ decision, publication, payment


·Payment ­ for tax purposes

A word on payment

Don't do it for the money. Different publications and articles attract different fees. Commissioned pieces often attract a higher fee. Most are paid on publication, not acceptance, and this can mean a long delay before the cheque arrives.

Treat yourself when it does. You've earned it.


Society of Medical Writers

Membership is open to anyone ­ undergraduate or graduate ­ in any branch of medicine or its allied professions, who publishes, or aspires to, their written work.

Chair: Professor Brian McGuinness (

Medical Journalists Association

With more than 350 of the UK's leading medical and health journalists, it exists to support and encourage its members and enable them to work efficiently and at high levels of accuracy.

For information, e-mail:

Association of Broadcasting Doctors

Membership numbers some 680 practising clinicians ­ family doctors, hospital doctors and consultants in all the major specialties ­ who are also experienced radio and television broadcasters.

For information, e-mail the administrator

Tina Ambury is a

GP in Preston

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