The hardest thing I’ve ever written

(And why you don’t always need to hire a copywriter ‘with experience in X, Y and Z’)

For the last few years, I’ve worked on and off for an agency with a client who manufactures medical technology. (I can’t name the client or any of their products as an NDA is in place). Much of the work is aimed at patients and salespeople, so it’s often a case of writing for the layperson, although some of the products are complex to say the least.

Then, one day in 2021, a job came along that involved writing a technical white paper about a product used in heart valve surgery. Aimed at consultant cardiologists. The client had actually requested a ‘proper’ medical writer*, but the agency asked me to do the work anyway. No problem at all, I thought! I’ve done lots of medical / healthcare writing; it’ll be a breeze. How wrong I was…

My first task was to read and amalgamate the findings of six research reports written by – and for – experts in cardiac surgery. The initial impression I got from these was that they were deliberately written to be as inaccessible (and, to me, incomprehensible) as possible. They were riddled with abbreviations, acronyms and medical jargon, only some of which were explained within the papers as the target readership would be familiar with them.

Needless to say, I was not a member of the target readership.

After A LOT of time spent on Google looking things up, I managed to get the gist of what the papers were all about and, critically, what made the client’s product stand out from the others on the market. Bingo! Time to start planning and writing the new white paper.

At this point, I did what most copywriters would do after conducting their initial research: re-read the brief from the agency. In the tone of voice section, the brief stated that the paper would be a departure from the client’s usual approach, as the target audience would be consultant cardiologists rather than patients or salespeople. In other words, I needed to essentially replicate the tone and style of the six research papers.

As someone who’s always flown the flag for Plain English and accessible language, this went against the grain with me – big time. But, being an experienced writer and something of a tone of voice expert (it’s one of the topics I teach to apprentices and corporate coaching clients), I relished the challenge of writing in a more academic / high level style for once.

Using the structure within the six research papers as a guide, I set about planning out the white paper with placeholder headings and sub-heads that signposted the ‘story’ I wanted to tell about the client’s product. As always, this involved identifying key messages and positioning them in order of importance and interest to the reader. (The product’s USP was described in the main sub-heading underneath the title of the white paper.) Once all the headings were in place, I filled in the body copy.

As I went along, I constantly checked and re-checked the all-essential cardiac terminology, acronyms, abbreviations and so on to make sure I wasn’t dropping any clangers. I inserted some suitable images from the client’s existing product literature and suggested sections that could be presented visually as infographics or similar.

All sounds quite straightforward, doesn’t it? Believe me, it wasn’t. It was hard work and there was a huge amount of moving information around, deleting superfluous details and expanding other sections that needed more meat on the bones. I rewrote, reworded and reordered the headings and sub-headings multiple times. I inserted, deleted and edited what I thought were relevant quotations from the six research papers. (The agency and client were providing regular feedback throughout this process.)

In total, I think the white paper went through five or six iterations before it was signed off by the happy client (yippee!). Which isn’t actually that many iterations, as I think my record is something like 16 or 17 versions of a white paper for a different agency and client. Nevertheless, it was a long slog to complete the job.

But do you know what? I really enjoyed it! And I know exactly why. I was learning all about something new to me and writing in a completely different tone and style to most of my usual work. It was a refreshing change and, above all, a serious challenge – and I do love a good writing challenge.

Which brings me to the point made in the sub-heading of this blog. All too often, I see job posts on LinkedIn, Indeed et al looking for a copywriter with ‘experience in X, Y and Z.’ These posts are often missing a huge trick in terms of what it actually means to be a copywriter. Unless they choose to specialise in a certain niche, most writers can turn their hand to literally any subject under the sun – and, what’s more, they’ll enjoy researching and writing about it.

This constant learning curve is, for me, one of the biggest joys of being a generalist rather than a specialist copywriter and content writer. No matter how simple or complex the subject matter, I’m always up for learning about something new.

So, if you’re thinking of hiring a writer for your business or organisation, I suggest you don’t restrict your pool of candidates by specifying experience in a certain sector, unless this is genuinely essential. You’ll only shut yourself off from writers who may not have much prior knowledge, but who are 100% keen to learn and, better still, don’t bring any preconceptions or baggage to the table. Oh, and you’ll probably have some fun along the way too 😊

If you’d like to hire a copywriter (me!), visit my Copywriting page to find out more about my services.

* Medical writers normally have a life sciences, healthcare or medical academic background and/or have undertaken specialist training. I haven’t.