I’ve written and read a lot of health feature articles over the past decade – but there was one time in particular when I worked with health features all day, every day. I was working as an editor, managing a team of freelance health writers, and I used to edit 20 articles every month about ten different subject areas related to health and wellbeing. The content was published on a very high-traffic site and was also sent to almost half a million subscribers every fortnight.
This content ranged from tips for staying healthy in winter to new information about medical research and disease advice. I edited this content with a medical editor, who was also a doctor, and we worked hard to make sure the claims made in the articles were medically and scientifically accurate – yet still engaging and appealing to the general public.
What is a health feature article?
Features are essentially detailed pieces of writing exploring a range of issues, opinions, experiences and ideas.
While a news article may report on one newsworthy item, such as how a new study indicated that taking the Pill can lower your risk of cancer, features explore this item in depth.
If you were writing a corresponding feature, you could look at the body of evidence surrounding the pill and various forms of cancer, interview some relevant health experts and women who take the Pill, and create an article with a specific focus based on what you find out. The focus could be how our perception of the Pill and cancer has changed over time, or how the Pill may be beneficial in the prevention of some cancers but not others.
Features may not be as time critical as news pieces, though some can be.
5 common health feature writing mistakes
These are some of the most common mistakes that health features tend to have. If you can work on trying to avoid these, you’ll be on your way to producing a fantastic feature article. These are all things that I was probably guilty of when I was starting out, too – nobody gets it right straight away, but with time, practice and effort, these become second nature.
1. Not enough evidence
The main example of not having enough evidence includes making claims that need to be supported by research without any reference to any sort of evidence at all.
At the very least, you should be indicating that research supports your argument, however it’s best if you can somehow indicate where the research has come from, by including a publication year, a journal title and/or reference to the study design. If you’re writing online content, simply hyperlink some of the text to the PubMed abstract.
Including scientific research not only produces a more convincing feature, it also helps you to become a better writer because it makes you take the time to understand what you’re writing about in detail. The more you look into the evidence behind a claim, the better you’ll understand the issue as a whole.
2. Poor quality evidence
Further to the first point, simply citing research doesn’t automatically give you points for credibility and quality. Some examples of poor quality research include studies with a very small sample size (though this can depend on the health topic), lab or animal studies and those that haven’t yet been peer reviewed or published in a reputable medical journal.
If you’re interviewing health experts for perspective on medical issues, ensure that they are qualified and have a relevant background to comment. This will always depend on the seriousness of the topic.
Try and find high-quality evidence to support your arguments – and if there is none, perhaps you need to rethink what you’re trying to argue.
3. Weak article structure
A feature that is just a bunch of facts thrown together with no beginning, middle or end isn’t a feature at all. It is going to be difficult to read and isn’t engaging. The structure of a health feature article needs work and attention. Every feature needs an engaging title, a lede to hook in readers, a clear introduction and a strong conclusion.
Headlines are important in every context. Your headline should aim to speak to your target audience in a language they resonate with. A headline like ‘Vitamin C and immunity’ is far less engaging than ‘How new evidence is changing what we thought we knew about vitamin C’. Similarly, ‘Fish oil and the brain’ might be specific, but it isn’t as interesting as a headline like, ‘Can fish oil really improve your memory?’
There are few things worse than an abrupt ending to an article you were really enjoying – or an article that didn’t answer the question it was posing. Don’t spend all your effort on hooking in your reader only to underpromise in the body of the article.
Health features can be tailored to the publication medium. Online health features will need lots of subheadings, bullet lists, internal and external links – while printed features can include a few key breakout boxes and even some Did You Know-style interesting facts.
4. Repetition of facts
Articles that repeat the same facts and points, just worded slightly differently, do crop up a lot. Be aware of repetition. Every sentence should be introducing a new idea or fact – it shouldn’t be summarising what’s already been said.
Also, take care with the words you use and check that you’re not accidentally repeating words often – I know I can be guilty of this.
5. Too scientific for the general public
It once took me four hours to edit a 500 word feature about immunity for a consumer audience. The article delved into the science of adaptive and innate immunity. In the end I rewrote the article entirely, yet it was still a difficult subject matter to tackle.
Choose your health feature subject wisely. If there are a lot of biological terms that can’t be written in lay person’s speak, perhaps it’s not going to be a suitable topic for your audience – meaning it can’t be written in a way that ticks all the boxes and engages. Write for your audience first and foremost.
If you’re a writer with a scientific background, you may have the tendency to assume your reader knows more than they actually do. When your writing is more scientific and doesn’t explain key terms or arguments, your audience could feel confused. This could also mean they switch off, aren’t able to engage in your piece, and won’t understand what you’re trying to convey.
How to avoid these mistakes
Simply being aware of these issues when you write will help you to avoid them. Some writers like to have checklists to remind them of what to look for before they submit their finished piece. I also recommend trying to leave some time between your final edit and your final review – 24 hours is ideal, but even a few hours can help. This just gives you a break from your work and enables you to look at your writing with fresh eyes – which can make all the difference.
Are you a health feature article writer? What areas do you struggle with?