3 February 1998
850 words

Medical Education:
Medical writers needed for specialty jobs,
24-hour CME meeting reports

By Norman Bauman

"We have a great deal of business and we're always looking for good freelance help," said Stef Stendardo, vp and editorial director, World Health Communications, New York.

"So everybody send me your resume and writing samples," Stendardo told the 23 members of the Editorial Freelancers Association, at the first meeting of the revived Medical Writers and Editors Affinity Group on January 22.

"We still need good medical editors," said Stendardo. "We also need qualified writers." They particularly need people with skills for specific, and sometimes unusual jobs.

One unusual skill is the willingness to "stay up all night" reporting at medical meetings, and turn in copy to the CME course director in the morning, said Stendardo.

There are some areas of medicine that people love to write about, "and other areas in which I can't find anybody," said Stendardo. "Nobody wants to write about antibiotics," she said, because transplantation, cloning and HIV are so much more glamorous and exciting.

"I have 7 project editors, all of whom have multiple projects, practically all of which need writers," said Stendardo. "We also need good medical editor/fact checkers."

World Health prepares educational materials. "We're writing 21 oncology and HIV publications," for doctors and other health care providers, with pharmaceutical funding and university sponsorship. Stendardo passed out 2 projects--HIV Frontline, a periodical (which is also online at www.hivline.com), and Emesis in Oncology, a monograph and slide kit.

HIV Frontline is written to counselors. A different edition is written to nurses. "Now we're starting a managed care edition," said Stendardo. "we're talking about starting a pharmacist edition." The same writer does each edition, and the copy is basically the same, with a slight change in focus. But they usually use a different freelancer with a different subject expertise for each issue.

Write all night

"Some of them come out every 2 months with a planned topic, but a lot of them are newsletters covering meetings," said Stendardo. "And we turn them out within 24 hours of the meeting." Fast turnaround is one of their competitive advantages.

World Health's rates are "negotiated," said Stendardo, but she gave typical rates for the different editing jobs at typical agencies. The last time she did technical medical editing herself, she was paid $50 an hour. "$40 to $50 is nice," she said. "For copy editing, the going rate is $30 to $35."

For attending meetings, "going to sessions during the day, and writing them up on your laptop in your hotel room at night," the per diem rate might be $500 a day, and the fee for writing might be $1,500 to $2,000, for 10 to 12 manuscript pages, or 2,500 to 3,000 words, said Stendardo.

"We need good journalistic medical writers who can go on site and get what's important, and have the most important sentence be the lead sentence, so I don't have to sit there circling something and put an arrow to the top," said Stendardo.

Stendardo had a bad experience with one freelancer. She said, "It's going to be an all-nighter," and the freelancer said, "Great, it sounds really exciting!" The first morning after the first session, the freelancer turned up with no copy, and said, "I don't do well on no sleep, so I went to sleep instead."

Ridiculous deadlines, premium pay

Agencies are increasingly demanding fast turnaround, and that pays a premium. "The lament of every editorial department of every agency in New York and New Jersey," said Stendardo, is, "Why did the account services people promise the client we'd do this in such a short time, without asking us how long it would actually take?"

Their solution, said Stendardo, is, "Let's call a freelancer and tell them they have to turn this around in a ridiculous amount of time, and we'll send them the references sometimes soon."

"Negotiate your fee in part based on how soon you're expected to deliver your material from the time you get direction and references," said Stendardo. For those tight deadlines, she tries to get her freelancers a 50% premium, but sometimes she can only get 25%.

How to get hired

"In New York and New Jersey, there are countless agencies like ours," said Stendardo. The best way to find work is to network. Medical writers are "not really competitive with each other." Those who are "become outcasts."

Describe the variety of what you've done, Stendardo advised. "Oh, I've done everything, I can handle anything. I've written this, I've written that, I've done it in 10 minutes, I've done it in 8 weeks, I do oncology, I do psychiatry, I do podiatry, I do herbal, I do anything. I've written abstracts, I've written bios." The American Medical Writers Association freelance directory listing is useful.

"Don't lie because you don't want to be asked something you can't do," warned Stendardo, "but don't hold back either."

"I'm always pleased when a writer can bring a sample that hasn't been edited," said Stendardo. "With an editor I love to see a manuscript with writing on it."