Developing a medical writing career

Professor Rodger Charlton considers how to combine GP work with a writing career.

To present your findings in a scientific paper invovles a very precise way of writing (SPL)

I was bitten by the writing bug when I published my first article as a GP registrar in 1987.

I was completing a master's dissertation in medical ethics and my supervisor suggested I should try to publish some of my work.

My first article appeared in Modern Medicine, a magazine for GPs (now out of print). I had no confidence that anyone would want to publish what I had written and it was with great surprise and pride that I saw my article go into print, to be read by my colleagues.

Scientific papers

As a university academic, I am expected to submit scientific papers for publication in journals such as the BMJ and The Lancet.

This is a very different sort of writing, as the more important a journal is, the greater its 'impact factor' - the number of times papers in that journal are cited by authors, in comparison to those in other journals.

To be published in the medical journal with the highest impact factor (New England Journal of Medicine) means your findings have to be original, significant and of great importance to medicine.

To present your findings and write them up as a paper, including statistical analysis, involves a very precise way of writing and such a paper will take months to complete. This is not to mention the research behind it.

There is also the possibility of rejection, or a request for extensive revisions by the editor. This can happen to anyone - I understand Fleming's original paper on penicillin was rejected by The Lancet.

Medical magazines

This is another kind of writing, where you expand knowledge on a topic, often through your reflection as a practitioner in an area you know about, but in a manner that is interesting to colleagues.

You may be writing about a condition, such as diabetes, or offering a viewpoint about an area of work, such as preparing for revalidation. Here you have to write succinctly, because your article may be limited to less than 1,000 words and there is usually no expectation of lots of references that have been critically discussed, as in a scientific paper.

A word of caution

If you write about patients, discuss a case or wish to publish a clinical photograph, you must have your patient's consent, unless it is so anonymised that the patient cannot be recognised.

Similarly, when giving opinions about the latest health reform in a letter to the editor, for example, ensure you are correct in what you are saying, because the responsibility lies with you for any statements you make. Bear in mind that what you are writing may be published on the internet, even though you thought you were writing for a print magazine.

Take care when answering a call from a journalist who wants your opinion about a health matter in your locality - you could find yourself being quoted in the press.

Creative writing

This is the most difficult area of writing, but often the most satisfying and therapeutic. Attempting to write poetry or a short story may be for yourself or for a wider audience.

There are many courses available and lots of magazines and internet resources if you are interested.

Many famous writers were not successful overnight, but some medical writers have achieved amazing things, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Society of Medical Writers ( encourages and nurtures new writers.


Often words do not come easily and for me, there is no specific definition of what poetry is. Remember, what you are trying to express is likely to be difficult for you. It is painting a picture with a few words, leaving room for mystery, where interpretations may be different, just as pictures appear different to all of us.

Look out for poetry competitions, which seem to be everywhere. Revisit things you wrote at school (you may be pleasantly surprised) or join a writers' group where you can share ideas, read each other's work and get as much feedback as possible.

The well-known First World War poem 'In Flanders Fields' was written by a physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.


Many aspiring writers will find it easier to start with something factual, such as the history of an organisation in which you are involved - for example, a local sports club or the church. This can be very satisfying and involves interesting research and exploration of a topic with which you are personally associated.

Whatever you write, seeing your work in print is a good way to diversify your interests as a busy GP. Expect failures and difficulties at the start, but persevere. You will get there in the end - just keep writing.

  • Professor Charlton is a GP in Hampton-in-Arden and director of undergraduate primary care education, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham.

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