Articles - 5th July 2019

Getting Into Freelance Health Writing

Words by Jenny Stallard
Illustration by Jon McCormack

As a writer, it’s easy to pick the area you’d like to write in and about, but not always so easy to get a foot in the door. And so it was for me, with health writing, that I came to it through different areas of my career, rather than jumping into the genre full-on after leaving college. When I began my journalism training I always knew I wanted to write features, but I first went to a local newspaper to train, learn shorthand and wrote stories ranging from planning permission disputes to allotment burglaries and more serious things, such as court cases and local politics.

However, my interest in health writing began right there – I was the health reporter on the newspaper for a while, covering stories at the local hospital, and I realised that health, and specifically health and wellbeing, were of great interest to me. Indeed, as I moved through to working for a news and features agency and then on to women’s weekly magazines, it was always the stories with a health angle that really grabbed my attention. For me, there was something very rewarding in telling a story where someone had overcome an illness, or fought hard to balance their emotional or mental health.


Beginning as a health writer

I first went freelance in 2005, when, after a year on a weekly women’s mag, I wanted to spread my wings and write about more health-focused content. I pitched to and wrote for magazines such as Weight Watchers, Zest, Bella and Reveal, focusing on health issues ranging from severe morning sickness to how to get the perfect smile. While my day-to-day was often real life stories, I wrote about health when I could, building my contacts and portfolio as much as possible. 

In November 2014, I moved to the features desk of Metro newspaper, where I looked after the ‘Trends’ pages, which were all about women’s interest stories. There, health took a new turn for me, as I would write about and commission others to write about breaking trends, and we’d work as a features team to cover health trends – everything from fertility testing to supplements. As someone who has commissioned health articles, I would say I always looked out for a trend that’s not been talked about much elsewhere, and with a celebrity or news hook that gives a publication a strong reason to run it.


Health writing in-house

I often work in-house with different publications, and I find that can bring more health writing to my portfolio. At the Press Association, where I was on a three-month contract until March this year, I wrote a lot of health pieces, some personal, some more report-style – topics covered ranged from fear of failure to SAD.

I’d encourage anyone who wants to get into health writing to find in-house work, for example on the health desk of a newspaper or magazine. Alternatively, try and find the health editor if you’re in-house with another department, and introduce yourself.

The biggest thing to do is, of course, read and listen to the brands you want to work with. Make sure you know the ins and outs of their health content, so what you pitch is on the same lines, topic and trend, but doesn’t repeat something they’ve already run. 

Seek out the right work for your portfolio as much as you can. There are lots of niche wellbeing magazines and websites now – find out who is commissioning and study how they do things. Saying ‘This could work for your ‘WELLBEING’ section’ could really pique a commissioning editor’s interest as they’ll know that you know they have a section called Wellbeing. They’re often looking for new voices, so be that new voice, take the chance on pitching.

Similarly, if you can say ‘this feature would follow the same format as the recent piece on …’ then it shows you’re paying attention to their brand. Perseverance is key. After all, this is a fairly crowded niche, and you want to stand out. Try not to be disheartened if your pitch doesn’t hit the spot straight away. Instead, think about how it might work for someone else – could it be spun into a first person piece, or would it shine more if you had a case study to offer to illustrate the condition? I would encourage any writer to follow the Cision alerts, which show you who’s moving where, as lots of health editors details are often listed there.


Writing about your own health

It can feel strange to write about health when you are not always feeling in top health yourself. For example, I shared my story about having corrective eye surgery, taking a photo with an eye patch on, knowing it was needed for the article I produced. I have, too, been guilty of not looking after my own health while writing about a health topic. I think this can really apply to mental health, and so-called ‘Op Ed’ pieces – first person opinion pieces.

It’s a big step to begin wearing your heart on your editorial sleeve, and I have done it and still do. However, a word of caution: it can affect your mental health to write about your mental health! It’s true – if you are digging deep into your emotional reserves for an article, remember some self care. Space out the pitches if you can. Ask to see the copy before it runs if it’s a sensitive subject. But for so many of us, sharing our health issues can be hugely liberating and inspirational for our readers, or listeners if you run a health podcast.


The rewards of writing about health

Writing about health is hugely rewarding – on a personal level, I always learn so much, and when I talk to experts I often joke it’s free therapy but it really can help align your thoughts if you are speaking to them on a topic that rings true for you. Knowing you are informing people, not just entertaining with words, is also powerful.

If you’re deciding health writing is for you, then I’d urge you to start today – subscribe to some websites, see what they’re writing on, challenge yourself to find five health contacts this week (social media is invaluable for this) and pitch at least one health piece. Good luck!

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