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Monday, December 20, 2010

Eight Ways to Break into Health Writing

Want to break into one of the most lucrative and fastest-growing freelance fields? Start writing about health. First, you'll find no shortage of timely ideas, nor potential markets for your work. Establishing a background in this area makes you a valuable commodity to editors, and often lets you command higher rates for your work as well.

And you needn't be a physician or researcher to make your mark in the competitive world of health writing--if you keep the following in mind:

Tap into trends. Yesterday's news is just that--yesterday's. If you want to write about health, you've got to stay up what's happening now. I always try to have a newsy, time peg in my health-related queries to first, show the editor I've done my homework, and second, convince her that's it a hot, current topic.

Stay specific. To catch an editor’s attention, you’re better off pitching a narrower story idea than something more general. Instead of suggesting a piece about asthma, for example, pitch a parenting magazine with a piece on how to asthma-proof your home. Instead of a piece on back injuries, pitch a story on simple exercises to maintain core strength (and flatten your tummy!) to a fitness magazine.

Match the market. Make sure that the story you’re pitching is a good fit for that particular publication. Tailor your query to the market—a beach body workout might sell to Fitness while Prevention may be more interested in exercises that help maintain flexibility and strength as you age.

Move to the front. If you’re a freelancer without a lot of health-writing experience, pitching ideas to the “front-of-the-book” or FOB section is the easiest way to break in. In most magazines, these pages consist of short, often news-driven items. The editors usually need material to fill these sections every issue, and it’s a great way to get your foot in the door and prove yourself for longer assignments.

Use yourself. Many of my first health clips resulted from my own experiences or that of friends and family. After I started using a heart rate monitor, I wrote about how they can make you fitter for Fit. Years of battling urinary tract infections led to a short piece on the latest treatment methods for Good Housekeeping while my sister-in-law’s sleep apnea was the spark for a story on women and fatigue for Woman’s Day. A personal connection with a topic can easily become a selling point, so constantly scout for ideas.

Develop a Rolodex. When writing about health, you've got to have expert sources--and that means looking beyond your chiropractor or Spinning instructor. You’ll need to find and interview credentialed, recognized experts to back up any claims you make.

Develop a specialty. It’s impossible to keep tabs on every aspect of health and fitness today—MEDLINE, the National Library of Medicine’s database of journal articles, contains more than twenty million citations and that number grows daily. You're better off specializing and focusing on a specific area or two than to try to cover every possible health topic.

Back it up. Finally, expect to provide fact-checking material to your editor. I turn in an annotated copy of the finished story with references, names of experts and contact information, and journal citations (as well as copies of the articles) noted thereon. Make sure you keep your backup material--most magazines are very careful to fact-check any health information they publish. You can’t simply cite a statistic you read in the paper or heard on the news; you’ll need to find and confirm the source.

Want to know more about turning your health woes into cash? Health writing is one of the top ten specialties I cover in Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, second edition. You'll also find out how to break into related specialties like writing about food/nutrition and fitness/sports.