Marijke is an RN and while she writes for other healthcare professionals, her strength and preference is to write for the general public.
“I write articles (online and print), web content, patient education material, newsletters, and more. I’ve been working online in editing and then writing since the late 1990s and now work full time, earning a salary that would be more than working full time as a nurse. And in much more comfortable conditions! I’ve also had the pleasure of talking on panels and in workshops about writing. I’m a teacher at heart and being able to talk about writing allows me to do something else I enjoy.”
Why did you decide to become a health writer?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated from high school. Among other things, I wanted to be a writer but this wasn’t considered to be a practical career choice. Since it was pre-Internet days, writing was a much tougher field to get into. So, I chose something practical and I went to college to become a nurse.
I worked as a nurse for many years but never lost my desire to write. As I began to learn more about opportunities in writing, I tried my hand at it – and since my background was in health, it made sense to make that my specialty.
How did you get your ‘big break’ as a health writer?
I was still working as an RN when I saw a tiny ad in our daily paper. The company was looking for a nurse with good communication skills who knew how to use a computer. In the mid-to-late-90s, this was a niche skill, so I applied. It was a company that was offering health information online – still early days in this field. I was perfect for the job and they hired me. I worked full-time from home, interviewing physicians, writing questionnaires, moderating forums, and so on. It was with this job that I learned that working from home and using my nursing background and love of language was possible, and it whetted my appetite for more. When this company closed up shop, I looked around for similar work and I ended up working for seven years for a large educational site for physicians, again from home. It was during this time that I started freelancing on the side – and the rest is history.
What’s your best piece of advice for those who are considering a career in health writing or who are just starting out?
There are two things that are important. First is to be good at what you do. That may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen some people think that because they like to write, they can. Sadly, that’s not necessarily true. Study writing, read about writing, take courses, ask for help. And that brings me to my second piece of advice. When you do get help from others – thank those who do help you.
I receive emails from healthcare professionals who are looking for advice on how to get started in writing. I can count on one hand the number of people who have sent me at least a bare minimum “thank you” after I’ve responded. I take the time to answer each and every email and this takes time away from my work or my personal life. Every time I don’t get a thank you, I wonder if I should respond the next time I get such a request. I still do, because I know that it’s not fair, but it is discouraging sometimes.
What’s the most challenging topic you’ve ever had to cover?
I can’t think of a particular topic. Some are a bit more difficult than others and I know I have had some big challenges, but I can’t think of any specific one right now.
What’s the hardest thing about being a health writer?
Potential clients who try to make me feel that I am being greedy for requesting reasonable rates for my work. As a consumer, I understand wanting to get the best deal for my dollar, but as a supplier, I have to get the best dollar for my work – or at least the best deal, because there may be other issues that can sweeten a pot.
When people approach me to work for them, they are getting more than a health writer – they are getting a writer with an extensive background in nursing. I’ve talked to thousands of patients and families over the years. I often know what someone will ask about a health issue or treatment before they even ask it. I know what language to use to get the message across. This has to be worth something. So when someone contacts me and expresses a desire for me to do work, and then to be upset when they find out my rates – that’s just wrong.
What do you love most about health writing and why?
I’ve told clients that when I’m writing for the public, I feel like I’m doing the patient teaching that we’re supposed to do at the bedside, but don’t have the time to do. When I was working as a nurse, I could reach a few patients a day, but as a writer, I have the potential to reach thousands of people.
I have an ebook coming out soon. It’s about a topic that touches millions of people – taking prescription medications. I love that my experience – both in nursing and writing – is making this project possible. And I believe that it can have a significant impact by helping people better understand a very important part of their life.
What inspires you in your career?
I think it’s more who inspires me rather than what. I belong to a few professional associations and have met some very successful health writers. When I see what they have accomplished, who their clients are, and the things they do, I want to be like them. I want to be successful like that.