The Writer (March 2003)
A Healthy Opportunity
10 ways to tap into health and fitness markets
While I am a health nut, I didn’t plan on becoming a health writer. But for over a decade (despite my goal to be a romance novelist), it’s the health-related projects that have kept my busy. And there’s plenty of work to go around.
Welcome to the wide, wide world of medical, health and fitness consumers. The trend is for people to get well and stay well. And it’s this kind of attitude that opens up doors to a variety of departments such as health, diet and nutrition, diseases and conditions, fitness and exercise, family health and sexual health.
Looking back, it would have helped to know the potential pitfalls-and practical pointers to help meet the challenges of writing magazines articles and health books. Here are 10 tips, gleaned from my experience, that you can use to crack the health market.
1. Find cutting-edge news. Think like a consumer. Find a timely topic in the health world, and you can get one step closer to landing an assignment. I learned fast that catchy spin on a weight loss or disease idea grabs the attention of editors big time. For example, my article “Lose 12 pounds in one week!” turned into the cover story of Woman’s World. Later, American Media Mini Mags, Inc., assigned me a mini-project to expand on the diet article, which led to several quickie diet books (1,750 to 25,000 words, with payment ranging from $1,500 to $4,000 or more).
How you can do it: Make old topics newsworthy. That means thinking like a consumer: “I would love to read a story on an anti-aging trend or miracle sex drug.” To stay informed, check out JNet’s U.S. health news at www.journalismnet.com/beats/healthus.htm.
2. Target your audience. If your heart isn’t into your subject, you’ll get the big chill from an editor. Devin Alexander, Muscle & Fitness editorial assistant, advises, “Know our magazine and the kinds of stories we do so you’re not pitching off-the-wall topics. For example, don’t send an idea on beauty make overs. It’s clear you don’t know what we’re about.” In other words, you’ve got to brainstorm and put your creativity to work.
How you can do it: Ask yourself, “Do I really have the right slant and format to fit the publication?” A super-fitness magazine, for example, publishes articles like “Six-Week Killer Workout,” but that would be a poor fit for a mainstream family magazine. Try to sculpt your idea to fit your audience. Pick up a copy of the health publication-and read it.
3. Add statistics and facts. The numbers game can also hook an editor. In Doctors’ Orders, I wrote, “Breast cancer: the statistics are sobering. One in eight women will contract this disease.” It’s a startling statistic that shows no woman is immune-and dishes out instant and wide audience appeal.
How you can do it: You can use statistics in the lead paragraph to lure an editor. If you have several interesting facts, put them in a sidebar for oomph. Get up-to-date numbers from a nationwide organization such as the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org). Sources like these often provide fact sheets on their Web sites.
4. Team up with experts. Several years ago, I wrote a column on diet and nutrition for Woman’s World. I paired up with registered dietitians and interviewed medical doctors. The pros fed me their knowledge, and I wrote credible articles without having to get a health credential.
How you can do it: You, too, will find that collaboration has its perks. While dietitians may charge a fee (e.g., to devise a diet plan), you’ll be more apt to get an assignment if you work with one on a nutrition article. And note: High-profile doctors are busy, so cater to their schedule. Bonus tip: Doctors are always looking for ghostwriters.
5. Lose the medical-ESE. You’ll discover that doctors and academics may use a five-syllable vocabulary full of technical words. And if you don’t stay alert, you’ll wake up dazed and confused when writing your article or book.
How you can do it: To avoid a too-heady interview, take control. Try saying, “Pretend I am 5 years old, and please repeat what you said.” Or rephrase their words out loud and get the experts’ blessings. Always tape your interview. If you don’t understand a word or doubt a meaning during transcription, go back to the expert and double-check the quote.
6. Devour great quotes. Good health articles come with good quotes. Get colorful and concise language straight from your sources to paint a picture. The best quotes are ones that leave you thinking, “Wow!” In my book The Healing Powers of Vinegar: A Complete Guide to Nature’s Most Remarkable Remedy, one doctor struggled with weight loss.
(In 2015 VINEGAR received the #1 Best Seller banner! on amazon.com and kobo.com (in many health-related categories).The 3rd edition will be released in the summer of 2016.)
To connect with readers, I quoted her saying, “I lost 50 pounds-five times! I tried every diet you can name. I’d finally attained my dream of becoming a doctor, but I was miserable because I weighed over 200 pounds. It was time to get off the roller coaster.” Her comments have more of an impact than anything I could have written.
How you can do it: The trick to getting quotes is threefold: Bond with your subject by sharing experiences; listen for words that lead to a gold mind; and ask: “How did that make you feel?”
7. Use metaphors. Good quotes are nice; metaphors are nicer. Health writing can be a dry subject. In my story “Eat With Ease” for Energy Times, I had to discuss digestive enzymes. Boring, right? Wrong. Mighty metaphor came to the rescue. I paraphrased a doctor: “Like little Pac-Men and women, enzymes can speed up the digestive process and help break down the food so your body can absorb it.”
How you can do it: To get a visual image of a topic, go for it like a dog chasing a ball. It will make your work more interesting, and show that you’ve got a handle on the subject.
8. Digest good studies. People want scientific proof. It is your job to back up your words of wisdom. Animal research is lower in importance than research on humans. Testimonials and anecdotal evidence are not hard-hitting health studies. Peer-reviewed journal articles (such as those in The New England Journal of Medicine) are the best.
How you can do it: The more subjects in a controlled study (where sick people are compared to healthy people), the better. For up-to-date studies, contact EurekAlert at www.eurekalert.org.
9. Sprinkle in anecdotes. Adding real-life people brings life to health projects. Lora Wintz, executive editor of Complete Woman, says, “I like a health article that includes first-person stories because they help draw my reader in and give them something to relate to immediately: “This could happen to me if it could happen to her.”
In Doctors’ Orders, for instance, Susan Lark’s story rings true in this paragraph: “During medical school, I had both PMS and cramps. The last couple of years, I was sometimes on call all night taking care of patients. And the days were incredibly long and difficult. I often compare it to boot camp. I remember having severe cramps, so that I’d have to leave work and go to the on-call room and just sit there in misery.”
How you can do it: Good connections-and connecting-will get you that dream anecdote. (If you have trouble, practice, tip #6.) To find anecdotes, contact health clinics, national health organizations and authors of health books.
10. Check your facts. Once you have finished your work, fact-check. Sloppy reporting will end up
as a rewrite or worse-rejected. “Proofread,” caution all health editors.
How you can do it: Check the spelling of names, titles and medical terms. (Pick up a medical dictionary.) It will annoy your editor (and you) if your work contains a blooper. And yes, do include the vitals of study information (i.e., journal and date).
And finally, here’s some overall good advice: “I evaluate whether the piece is newsworthy, well-written, focused, informative and credible. I admire the use of humor and off-the-cuff analogies, too,” says Kerrie-Lee Brown, editor of American Health & Fitness.
These tips will help you survive the hunt and fill your belly in the health market.