Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Jenna Glatzer
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I used to think so. I had studied communications, not medicine. How could I write about those elusive things that only doctors knew? To me, stitches were for needlepoint, and tongue depressors were what I used to build dollhouses. Yet today I receive regular assignments from health publications. Here's how it began:
Write About What You Know...
My brother has Down's Syndrome, and when I mentioned this in a query to the editor of a small disabilities website, she gave me several assignments related to Down's Syndrome and other developmental disabilities. The most meaningful was the story of a young girl with Down's Syndrome who couldn't get on a waiting list for a heart transplant.
In the course of this research, I became quite an expert on transplant policies. I had to learn why organ rationing is so fierce -- and why so many people are turned down for even the smallest excuses. This inspired me to propose articles about organ transplants to other markets. The story offered all kinds of angles: political, medical, human interest, ethical, regional, international - the possibilities were endless!
What amazed me more was that I was suddenly getting well-paying assignments from health markets. I felt like a fraud, as if I'd snuck in the back door, and that sooner or later they'd discover I didn't have the right "pedigree." But finally I realized that most health writers don't have any special background: They just understood a few simple plans of attack that I hadn't recognized earlier.
Pick a Topic that Interests You
Instead of looking at the health market in broad terms, break it down into areas that interest you or relate to problems you've had. Does your spouse snore? Are you concerned with bad breath? Do you wonder what all those herbal remedies really do? Are you concerned about your risk for Alzheimer's Disease? Would you like to overcome your fear of needles?
These are all health topics. They don't need to sound clinical; you won't be writing for medical journals. You'll be writing for people just like you -- people who don't have medical degrees -- so you need to pick topics that will interest them. You'll also want to write about those topics as you might write on any other subject -- in a way that won't send your reader to a dictionary.
Most importantly, make sure your piece has a service angle. How will your article help the lives of readers? They don't need "just the facts;" they need your article to provide a solution to a problem.
Of course, you're not expected to come up with those solutions by yourself. Your next job is to find out which experts will be willing to speak with you and help you flesh out your article.
You can find plenty of experts online. Yahoo offers a listing of medical associations online. Many have "member bios" on site, or a contact e-mail for someone who can refer you to an appropriate member.
Also, do keywords searches related to your topic. For example, for an article I'm writing for a pediatrics website, I needed to find an expert who could talk to me about how to help obese children lose weight. I searched using keywords "child psychologist" or "pediatrician," plus "obesity," "overweight children," or "losing weight," and instantly found more than ten experts appropriate for the article.
You can also contact your local university and ask to speak to the department chairperson or a professor in the appropriate field. Explain your situation and ask for an interview, and/or ask for recommendations for appropriate interview candidates.
Finally, don't overlook the obvious: Your local yellow pages are a fine source of potential interviewees!
Make The Pitch
With a few facts and a few experts behind you, you're ready to query the markets. Find the contact information for the appropriate section editor, and send your perfect query letter -- no more than one page, including a strong hook, a short synopsis of your intended piece, and the names and titles of experts you plan to quote.
I would suggest that you "test the waters" by querying smaller markets first. It will make it easier to get your foot in the door with the dollar-a-word markets if you can list a few health publications in your credits, and show a clip or two that prove you can write for this niche market.
Do Your Homework
The main reason health writers get paid well is that their work requires research. Not only do you have to understand the information, you have to know it so well that you can explain it to someone else. You will often end up reading technical, difficult heaps of information and learning to translate it for the "everyman." If you can learn this skill, you'll be well on your way to a terrific new career turn.
Check Your Facts
Typically, writers are advised never to show their interviewees a copy of an article before it is published. With health writing, though, it's imperative that you have a professional read your piece to make sure that all your facts are accurate.
Once you find an expert you like, you can use this person again and again to proofread your work, as long as he or she is willing. Be sure to reward this person with as much publicity as you can. You may even offer a barter of some kind -- maybe you can rewrite their office's boring brochure in exchange for proofreading.
When you submit your article, be sure that you've enclosed a source sheet that gives contact information for anyone you've quoted. Also include footnotes for any specific data or medical advice that you found in books, magazines, newspapers, online, etc.
Strike While the Iron Is Hot
As soon as your first piece has been accepted, don't wait for the editor to come to you with a new assignment. Query again! Think hard -- what else interests you within the health field? Remember how diverse a topic this is. How about the benefits of aromatherapy, or massage therapy, or wax treatments? How about the dangers of electrolysis? How about the real differences between HMOs?
Being a health writer isn't so much about writing what you know -- but writing what you can learn. Happy learning!
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Jenna Glatzer is the author of several books, including a number of books on writing, and a contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Visit her website at http://www.jennaglatzer.com/.