When I started out as a writer, I didn’t really have much of a clue about what I was doing. I knew I wanted to write about science and I knew I loved playing with words, but that was about it.
So how did I learn how to write?
A lot of trial and error. I was very lucky to be trained in the craft of copywriting by some very patient people at the award winning agency Langland. The writers and art directors there all helped teach me about writing for healthcare and the essentials of good advertising. I’ll never forget presenting my first detail aid – it was terrifying. Quite rightly, it was torn to shreds. I was gutted and it was years later before I appreciated the depth of constructive criticism I received at Langland.
Because that’s what you need when you’re learning to write. Criticism. That’s the only way to learn what works and just as importantly, what doesn’t work. This is where the old Chinese (or is it Japanese?) proverb fall down seven times, stand up eight rings true.
Writing, rewriting, rewriting again
To learn to write, I wrote. Then I wrote it again. And again. And again. I had my word choice challenged by art directors, account handlers, brand managers and medics. Some words I changed (choose your battles writers), some words I fought hard to keep. Some words just naturally fell by the wayside while others clung on for dear life. But that is what crafting copy is all about. Accepting the criticism and letting people help you improve your writing.
In the beginning, you find yourself back at the drawing board (or writing slate) all too often. But starting afresh is exhilarating. A clean sheet of paper, an empty word document. Just waiting to be improved by the addition of some carefully chosen words.
The secret formula
After 12 years I have a tried and tested formula for writing. It has 3 stages: Immersion, Procrastination and Panic.
The first stage, is all about research. Reading the brief, understanding the brief, learning about the disease area if it’s new to me. I search online for insights into what it’s like to live with the disease, how doctors feel about treating it and what they think about the drug in question.
Then I procrastinate. Actually, I’m filtering all I’ve absorbed in stage 1, but it can look like procrastination to the untrained eye (ahem). But it all seriousness, stage 2, whatever you call it, is necessary. Go for a walk, eat lunch, watch an episode of Mad Men. Whatever it takes.
Then comes stage 3. Again, to the untrained eye, it can look like panic in the face of a looming deadline. But it’s actually Focus. By the time I’ve absorbed and filtered and digested all I need to, I’m itching to get those words captured in a word document.
But the real secret behind my tried and tested formula is…do you really want to know?
It’s the brief. A well written, carefully produced, thought out, insightful and inspiring brief.
That’s the real key to producing compelling healthcare communications.
If like me you were a child of the 80’s, you’ll remember Jackanory. In fact, it’s still going strong today.
But what does Jackanory have to do with healthcare copywriting? In a nutshell: Storytelling.
Telling a compelling story that draws your audience in, engages them and leaves them feeling they’ve spent their time wisely is as relevant in a children’s storybook as it is in a detail aid.
Even the driest of medical facts can be engaging if you weave them into a story. You just need to find a narrative that your audience will respond to.
Easier said than done, I know. But while we’re on the subject of audience, it’s worth keeping in mind that even the most respected consultants and key opinion leaders are, at the end of the day, just people. Individuals with hopes and dreams, desires and personal preferences. Just people. And people love stories. Some people like a good thriller, others a bit of romance. Some people will tell you that they only read non-fiction or that they only read autobiographies. It makes no difference – they’re all still stories in one shape or form. History? One big story from the dawn of time. The theory of evolution? The story of how we came to be here. Politics? Lots of stories if you look hard enough.
So my advice to any budding copywriter out there is to find the story. Dig into the data, read up on patient experiences, absorb the guidelines, digest the brief. Immerse yourself in the subject area and before long, you’ll find your story.
I discovered this beautiful animation today thanks to the lovely +Christine Mosler. It has nothing to do with science or healthcare, but everything to do with persistence, belief and letting your instinct guide you (with a dash of blind faith for extra measure). All key qualities for a freelance writer no?
Antibiotics from mould, chemotherapy from pine trees, analgesics from willow trees and treatment for heart failure from foxgloves. It all fascinated me. So why didn’t I pursue pharmacology or pharmacy?
How could our DNA, when combined with another person’s DNA, result in a fully formed human being in just a mere 9 months? Everything from eyelashes to liver function was coded for. Amazing.
What about when it doesn’t go to plan though? Trisomy 21, Klinefelter’s syndrome, the philadelphia chromosome…discovering the genetics of all these situations and so many more was like finding the key to Willie Wonka’s factory. I’d found the golden ticket and could stay as long as I wanted. It was magical and all that knowledge was just waiting to be devoured.
After 4 years though, I knew lab-based research wasn’t for me. Just to make sure, I worked as a cytogeneticist for a year. But I missed the desk research of my undergraduate years. The weaving of facts into coherent arguments, the moulding of conclusions and the crafting of sentences that were both grammatically and scientifically correct.
So I turned to the world of pharmaceuticals. Writing and reporting not consuming, obviously.
12 years later, I still love it. Diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, overactive bladder, ankylosing spondylitis, glaucoma. Every day is different and although I’ve written about most therapeutic areas over the years, the pharmaceutical industry very kindly keeps launching new drugs and publishing new data for me to discover. New facts to weave into detail aids and infographic videos. New survival rates to report on, the many facets of personalised medicine to explore, new graphs to animate.
It’s an amazing job. Thanks for inspiring me Jeff.
I have come to the conclusion that I am an advertiser’s dream.
Now, before you get all hot and bothered about how much of a megalomaniac that makes me sound, hear me out:
I am gullible.
I’ll believe anything an advert tells me. Why would it lie or bend the truth? As a healthcare copywriter, there are strict rules I must abide by when writing about products. So my brain mistakenly assumes the same is true for all copy, pharmaceutical or not.
Latest diet craze? I’m there like swimwear.
Shorts that help you spot reduce fat? I’ll have 2 pairs please. (seriously Suzanne? You fell for that one?)
An elixir that promises eternal youth? Oh go on then.
Even when there’s isn’t an overt promise, I find myself imaging exactly how my life will be transformed by this product.
“Feeling good starts from within”…oh, I must eat more yogurt…by tomorrow I’ll be bouncing out of bed full of joie de vivre, go for a quick 5 mile run before returning home to my cherubic family, their rosy cheeks and eager smiles greeting me as they sit peacefully eating porridge at the breakfast table (reality: none of my children eat porridge peacefully and they are only cherubic when they sleep).
“Flying in the face of ordinary”…oh, that’s what we need. A holiday. Using that airline to get us to our destination. I’ll wear a classic and understated outfit that exudes glamour, in a classic and understated way of course. We’ll probably be upgraded to first class. We’ll arrive at our exotic destination rested and looking fabulous, ready to embrace adventure and discovery. What fun! (reality: we tend to be that family on the aeroplane. You know, the one with at least one screaming child, looking like nervous wrecks and smelling of vomit and hand sanitiser).
But isn’t that the fabulous thing about advertising? Those swift, little daydreams a good ad can inspire. Good advertising doesn’t just sell the sausage, it sells the sizzle. It sells you a dream, which, if you’re like me, you buy into lock, stock and barrel.
I know I’m gullible. But maybe, just maybe, a copywriter needs a dose of gullibility to believe in the products they wax lyrical about? That’s my excuse anyway.
Now, who needs some sausages? I’ve got a fridge full of amazing sausages, organic of course. From a pig called Betsy. She lived a lovely life, snuffling out windfall apples in a pretty little orchard, with a cosy little barn to protect her from the elements and happy hens to keep her company. But when you put those sausages in a frying pan…
Many creatives I know are easily distracted. There we are, busy writing/designing/art directing when *ping* an interesting email pops into your inbox. Of course, being the inquisitive type, you immediately check it. It could be an offer of work, that amazing project you’ve always dreamed of, or notification that all your outstanding invoices have been paid with an extra 10% added on for good measure (because you’re worth it). But no, it’s an email from your creative partner enthusing about a blog/you-tube video/article they’ve just seen that you must simply turn your attention to immediately.
So you do. You have a look. Then quickly check your news feed for any interesting articles…pop into twitter for quick exchange of banter…click on an interesting link…check Facebook to see if so-and-so has had that baby yet…browse the BBC website for anything interesting…and before you know it, you’ve wasted an hour far too much time pissing around online.
So what’s the answer? Well, you could switch off your internet completely of course, but being a freelancer, I often find I need to know there are other people out there (albeit in the virtual world of social media) that I can interact with if I need a spot of distracting inspiration.
So thank goodness for the Pomodoro technique. It’s been a revelation to me. I installed a Chrome extension a couple of days ago and I love it. It restricts the usage of popular website sites for 25 minute chunks of time before permitting a 5 minute unrestricted ‘break time’.
Genius! There’s absolutely no stopping me now. Unless you catch me in a Pomodoro permitted break of course…
I was lucky enough to be at the filming of a new KOL infographic video today. I must admit, I do love this part of my job. Hearing and seeing a script I’ve written come alive on the big screen gives me goosebumps.
The KOL was an absolute dream to work with. A bit of a thesp in a previous life, he was a natural in front of the camera and delivered the script with authority and passion. Goosebumps I tell you.
By 5pm we had the rushes and I cannot wait until the team weave some magic into that film with graphics and animation.
Here’s a peak at a fabulous infographic video, that shows just how engaging they can be:
When you combine infographics, video and and key opinion leaders, the results can be pretty darn cool. For some truly stunning infographic videos, I know just the people. These guys are innovators and pioneers of the infographic video in pharma land. Check them out. You won’t be disappointed.