How do you write?

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?

Listening

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.

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Not forgetting cake of course, essential for inspiring (bribing) account handlers with

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Inspiration and the path to healthcare copywriting

Inspiration can come from anywhere. But back when I was trying to decide which academic path to follow, it was reading about medicines derived from nature that pushed me towards science and medicine.

Nature medicine

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?

Jeff Goldblum. That’s why.

I saw him play James Watson in a BBC adaptation of Watson’s book The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA and I was hooked on DNA. I wanted to know more about the secrets held within those beautifully intertwined strands of molecular code. Code that was hidden deep within cells, code that could spell new life or certain death.

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.

Daydream believer

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…

 

KOL infographic videos

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:

An infographic for the scientific geek (including myself in that category obviously)

 I'm a big fan of a good infographic. They tell a story, draw you in and communicate messages very effectively. Here's one I stumbled across today that appealed to the wannabe CSI inside me:

The CSI Effect: Fact vs. Fiction
by ejfox. Browse more data visualization.
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.

Glaucoma – The silent thief of sight

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a healthcare copywriter in possession of a brief for a particular therapy area almost immediately notices symptoms frightening similar to those they are writing about.

Some might say it is the writer’s version of method acting. Immersing yourself in a subject brings certain things to the attention of your conscious mind, things that you would normally dismiss. This can be helpful if you are writing emotive copy, designed to evoke empathy from your reader. But if you’re prone to the odd bout of hypochondria, it merely serves to raise your blood pressure.

This past month has been dominated by writing about glaucoma. So it was no surprise that on Saturday morning I awoke to discover my right eye swollen shut and my left eye distinctly unhappy. To be fair, these symptoms bore no resemblance to those associated with glaucoma in any way, shape or form. Glaucoma is known as the silent thief of sight because it can develop so slowly and with very little warning, patients rarely notice it. Very cleverly, your brain compensates for the blind spots in your vision by filling in the gaps. Unfortunately, this often results in ‘seeing’ things that are not there in reality.

But in my case, it was simply my overactive imagination running slightly amok coupled with a stubborn feline that ignores my strict instructions to stay off my bed. But take myself to the optician I did, post-haste. Hypochondria? Maybe, but when it comes to looking after the windows of the soul, there’s no point taking any chances is there?

Quite fancy a new pair of spectacles anyway.