Health writing can be a daunting field for new writers. Understanding the nuances of the health writing industry isn’t easy, and health communication is continuously changing as new technologies develop.
If you’re looking to explore career options for health writers and learn how to enhance your health writing skills, this beginner’s guide is the perfect starting point.
How to be a health writer in 2019: The beginner’s guide includes dozens of links to my top blogs and resources for becoming a successful health writer and writing high-quality, engaging health content. The guide is perfect for you if you want to learn more about health writing.
Bookmark the guide so you can refer to it again and again!
Contents of How to be a health writer in 2019: The beginner’s guide
- Where can I find paid work as a health writer?
- What skills and qualifications do I need to be a health writer?
- How can I develop a portfolio to showcase my health writing skills?
- How can I break into the health writing field?
- How can I assess the quality of my health writing?
- How can I write clearer health content?
- What writing exercises can I do to practice?
- How can I find courses to develop my health writing skills?
- What are some effective writing strategies for health writers?
- How can I improve my writing processes?
- How can I become a more confident writer?
- How can I write better health blogs?
- How can I write better about medical research?
- How can I write better health features?
- How can I write better health news?
- What are some essential tools for my health writer’s toolkit?
- How can I conduct more effective expert interviews?
- How can I improve my medical knowledge?
- How can I work more productively and efficiently?
- How do I reference my health content correctly?
- Where can I meet other health writers?
- What is the plan if I want to be a health writer?
Finding paid work is a topic I get asked about a lot. First, you need to decide if you want to be a freelance or an employed health writer.
Then, consider which types of clients or employers you’d like to work for – brainstorm a list of ideal brands and business types. As a freelance writer, you’ll need to seek out proven strategies for finding your first clients.
At the same time, think about the writing services you’d like to offer – for example, health feature article writing, health copywriting, health blogging or scientific literature review article writing.
You’ll then need to find the crossover between the writing services you want to offer and the clients or employers who need – and will pay for – those services.
In short, you’ll need to do some industry research and hone your niche!
There are no rules about the qualifications you need to become a health writer, though many people in this field have writing/communications degrees and/or a degree in the life sciences.
If you have neither of those things, though, don’t despair – what’s most important is that you can write high-quality health content and be easy to work with.
If you’re trying to decide if you need a writing degree to be a health writer or a medical degree to write about medicine, think about where the gaps in your skillset lie. Often, work experience is more valuable than getting a degree.
In terms of skills – of course, you need exceptional written and communicative skills to be a health writer. You also need excellent medical knowledge, and you should be organised, reliable, professional, able to work efficiently, have a quality and credibility mindset, and care about producing high-quality health writing that makes a difference.
Research your ideal clients and employers to see what skills and experience they’re looking for in a health writer.
A portfolio is a collection of your work – published or unpublished. You can write pieces for your portfolio if you don’t have any published work yet.
Choose two or three high-quality pieces that demonstrate your full range of abilities.
Ask someone to check and proofread your pieces – these are the pieces that will sell your services, so they need to be strong and convincing.
We all enter the field in different ways. Some people transition consciously while others just fall into health writing.
If you’re feeling stuck, take a look at our Breaking Into Health Writing course which is full of insider advice to help you plan your career change.
If you’re not sure whether you have what it takes to write industry-standard health content, start by reviewing other best-practice examples on websites and in magazines.
Compare published articles to yours, and look for the similarities and differences.
Benchmark your work against the work of professional writers. You can start with this list of 9 award-winning health articles every health writer should read.
You can also check out this guide to help you assess your writing and identify quick fixes if you’re struggling to edit or proofread your work.
First, check out our clear health writing checklist for a simple breakdown of the art and science of clear health writing. Understanding when and how people read your online content is important for creating well-formatted content, too.
But, how simple is too simple? It’s a question we need to consider for every new project.
The real skill of quality health writing lies in the balance between writing clearly without “dumbing down” – I call this “wising up.”
Wising up is about educating your readers while explaining complex concepts clearly and simply.
Writing leads to better writing – it’s as simple as that! Practice is the most effective way to learn the craft and hone your skills.
In your own time, try writing blogs or articles. You can also try summarising research into a consumer-friendly spiel.
If you’d like some practical exercises, here are three simple health writing exercises to do today.
Medical writing training is a growing field, and there are short courses for many genres within health writing.
General editing courses and resources are also essential for many health and medical writers who also want to specialise in editing, copywriting, and proofreading.
When you’re getting started as a health writer, there’s a lot to learn. But, when you’re established, the learning doesn’t stop – and, even experienced writers need to develop their skills.
At Health Writer Hub, we offer a variety of health writing courses to help you develop your skills. Introduction To Health Writing is our flagship 6-week online course, while Principles Of Health & Medical Copywriting is a dedicated course for people who want to focus on health copywriting.
If you’re not ready to invest in a paid course yes, you can check out 10 Steps To Help You Write Clearly (About Complex Topics) which is a free health writing course.
Also, there are industry-wide best practices to adhere to, local and national guidelines to follow, and standards to exceed. My health writing courses explore these topics in detail.
Here are some concepts to get you started:
- Include more detail to your evidence-based writing – think beyond ‘research suggests’
- Inspire behaviour change – as health writers, we don’t just write facts; we encourage our readers to make a healthy change
- Myth-busting and debunking – while a key part of health writing in the post-truth era is myth-busting, there’s a lot of research suggesting debunking doesn’t work – so it’s important to debunk a myth properly, with an evidence-based approach
- Understand the appeal to authority – The appeal to authority, a tactic many writers use in the absence of evidence, relies on a basic misconception: if an authority figure says something, it must be true
- Enhance motivation – a key aspect of inspiring health change in writing is selling the desire to change
- ‘Short and sweet’ content helps people quit smoking – anti-smoking messages that are brief persuaded smokers to kick the habit
- Understand if and how fear-mongering works – fear-mongering and scare tactics are used in public health campaigns to drive behavioural changes, but how effective are these fear-based messages?
- Writing about awkward health topics – if you’re new to health writing altogether, remember that you have to write about a variety of health topics; some may be awkward, so learn how to write about health topics without blushing.
Working efficiently is a vital goal of any health writer, but when you’re the only person responsible for researching, writing, editing and proofreading your work, it can be hard to work productively.
Develop strategies to avoid bad habits like word repetition in your writing. Similarly, self-plagiarism happens often and accidentally, so include a dedicated check as part of your editing processes to avoid plagiarism.
Confidence is a common concern for writers, but it is possible to build self-assurance and courage. Check out these science-backed tips to boost confidence and courage.
You can also read our post on five mindset attributes to help you thrive as a writer for tips to help you feel more positive and self-assured about your writing work.
Health blogging is a specialty field of its own within health writing. Check our comprehensive beginner’s guide on How to be a health blogger to get started.
There are many critical considerations when it comes to writing about medical research. These are different for health writers who write for the general public as opposed to medical or scientific writers.
For health writers who are new to scientific writing, it’s important to take the time to learn about topics like the world’s top medical journals, the trusted medical journal search engines and in particular PubMed, and how to find free journal articles online.
We also wrote a series about medical research, including when to use case studies, how to understand observational studies, how to write about randomised controlled trials as well as systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
Also, remember that not all findings are breakthroughs, so learn about the difference between new research versus what constitutes a medical breakthrough. You can check out this helpful article about how to assess a medical breakthrough as well as our post, how to write about advances in medicine.
Remember, an essential part of a health writer’s work is to keep up with new medical research, so set aside time to follow the latest developments in the areas of interest to you; this can also give you ideas for future stories and health content.
Health features are one of the most popular genres or niches of health writing, and most freelance health writers dabble in feature writing. That’s not to say that even experienced writers find feature writing difficult from time to time, though.
Idea generation is one of the main challenges of creating engaging features, so check out these tips for finding health article ideas when you need a little inspiration.
As well, reading quality health features helps you write better health features, so take the time to read excellent features on quality websites you trust. I like the New York Times health section.
Also, a lot of people ask me how long it takes to write a 500-word article, but the answer is different for everyone.
You’ll find that you will become an efficient writer with time, but if you’re starting out it’s normal to take 8 or more hours to write a feature. That’s completely fine – writing is not a race, so don’t put pressure on yourself. As with any skill, improvement takes time.
Health news review is the best source to help you analyse and understand how to write better health news articles. I recommend Health News Review as a must-read resource in all my courses. Unfortunately, the site has run out of funding, but you can still read all the resources online now.
You can also check out reading health news: behind the headlines and these tips on medical news reporting and credibility for more health news reporting tips. And, if you’re required to write health news in a hurry, here are seven tips for reporting on health under pressure.
Often, in health news, all is not as it seems. The classic example of this was when the media took off and ran with this fish oil and prostate cancer research in 2015.
All health writers need a good laptop, phone, internet connection and working station. Beyond that, you may also need to think about:
- Voice recorder apps – to record expert interviews
- Journal subscriptions – to access research
- Editing and proofreading tools – to help you check your content for errors
- Health news apps – to help you monitor breaking news
- Medical magazines to find trending research
- Medical dictionary apps to review medical and scientific terms
- Various computer programs and software – from graphic design to accounting
- Podcasts for health writers – to help you learn new tips on the go!
As a health writer, you’ll need to interview experts for articles and even patient information resources.
Health experts are often busy and have limited time – and it can be hard to schedule follow up interviews if you don’t get what you need the first time around. Learn how to conduct expert interviews with confidence.
As well as enhancing your interviewing confidence, asking the right questions to help you get the best responses is critical. See our post on interviewing medical specialists – 10 tips for great responses.
More and more general writers are getting into health writing without a medical or scientific background which isn’t a problem as long as you take the time to improve your medical knowledge.
As well as learning basic medical terminology you’ll need to learn the difference between words like cure or treatment and disease, disorder, condition, syndrome. Often, there are slight but essential differences in the meaning of these important terms – and, if misused, these words can completely change the definition of a sentence or claim. There could be serious legal or regulatory consequences for misusing words.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that working productively and efficiently is a goal of any health writer!
My number one tip for productive work is to make sure you gather requirements before you start writing as this saves so much time during the writing process. Ask as many questions as possible, so you know exactly what’s expected of you. Always ask for previous examples of similar work to use as a benchmark.
Also, never underestimate the importance of being prepared before you start working and taking on projects if you’re freelancing. Don’t take on projects unless you have your contracts, processes and other key business details sorted.
As a writer, especially if you’re freelancing, you’ll need strategies to help stop procrastinating and start writing. Procrastination truly is a writer’s worse enemy! But, the good news is that procrastination can be managed and prevented.
Unlike academic writing, there are no universal rules for referencing in a consumer health article. That’s why we put together this post on five tips for effective referencing in consumer health writing.
My number one tip is to ask! Get the referencing style confirmed in writing, as this will save time and avoid you going back and re-referencing your work after you’ve written the first draft.
And, if you are using referencing software, we wrote a piece comparing EndNote and Mendeley.
There are more and more health writers entering the field which is exciting! If you’re looking to network in the health writing industry, here are some ideas:
- Go to AMWA or EMWA events – meet other health & medical writers at medical writing conferences
- Join online groups – there are plenty of freelance writing and freelancing groups online
- Connect with students in relevant courses – our Health Writer Hub Alumni group has more than 300 health writers from around the world
- Read tips from experienced writers – in this post, a medical student writer shares his top tips
There’s no ‘one way’ to become a health writer. If you’re looking to transition to the field, you’ll need to consider:
- Your approach – will you be freelance or employed?
- Industry knowledge – do you know enough about the field to confidently change careers?
- Skills – do you need to enhance your skills with a health writing course?
- Long-term goals – why do you want to be a health writer, and what do you want to achieve?
If you need help getting started, check out Health Writer Hub’s courses. We’ve helped hundreds of aspiring writers around the world to develop their skills and launch their careers – and, we can help you, too!
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