Dr Sarah McKay is an intelligent, knowledgeable and savvy medical writer who has built a highly successful career. Her ability to translate complicated neuroscience for everyday individuals with no scientific background is evident in the success of her healthy brain blog, Your Brain Health. Sarah is a writer we should all be following.
How did you get started as a health writer and what made you pursue a career in this field?
Ever since I was a small girl my first love was science, particularly medical science (I remember hiding under my parent’s bed reading a First Aid manual – the nearest thing to a medical textbook we owned). Naturally, I went to university to study medicine, but once there I quickly discovered that I quite liked intellectual freedom of academic life. I ended up studying for a PhD in neuroscience with the aim of a career in medical research.
I was very happy initially. I had a well-funded PhD position in a prestigious lab with a very hands-off supervisor. But as my career progressed, I got increasing frustrated with the ‘gatekeepers’ – lab heads, journal editors, grant application committees. Many researchers will know what I’m talking about! Basically, I discovered being a post-doc wasn’t like being an undergraduate when I could do what I wanted!
I also realised that I preferred reading the news and views column of New Scientist to reading original research, and I preferred talking about science at conferences or to Rotary tour groups than actually spending time in the lab. After a few years of soul-searching and a couple of disastrous postdoc positions, one day I simply typed ‘science writer’ into Seek. Within a couple of days I’d landed a job as a medical writer in a medical education agency. I haven’t looked back.
What’s your best piece of advice for those who are considering a career as a freelance health or medical writer?
I suggest trying to get a year or two of experience in the industry before going freelance. Almost all of my clients in my first couple of years as a freelancer came from contacts I’d made when I was employed. I imagine it would be very hard to start from scratch without some sort of industry network. If you don’t have clients you don’t have a business. And I personally found pitching to magazines to be more soul destroying that submitting manuscripts to academic journals.
It’s hard to narrow it down, as there have been a few. Some more entertaining than others! For example, I once had to write about ‘manual handling’ techniques for couples dealing with premature ejaculation.
Perhaps the most emotionally challenging piece – but the one I’m proudest of, was writing a pamphlet for people newly diagnosed with schizophrenia on decision-making around disclosing information about their diagnosis.
And one of my first freelance projects was to write about managed clinical networks in the NHS in Scotland. As a neuroscientist it wasn’t exactly my niche subject!
What’s the hardest thing about being a freelance health writer?
The main thing I struggle with is not being able to leverage my time. I’m trading my time for dollars, and we can’t clone ourselves just yet. But I do suspect that if I spent less time on social media things might change.
How has health and medical writing changed the course of your career?
It’s totally transformed it! It sounds very cheesy to say, but I felt like I was always searching for my place in the world until I started my own business.
What do you love most about health reporting and why?
The craft of translating science into a story.
What’s the number one thing that all health and medical writers need to know?
How to access journal articles without having to pay for them!
Dr Sarah McKay is an Oxford-educated neuroscientist, science and medical writer, and creator of Your Brain Health. She likes to break down brain science research into simple actionable steps to improve brain health. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.