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Writer Heal Thyself

Panelists: Terry Murray has been a medical journalist for more than 20 years. Currently clinical editor of The Medical Post, a weekly newspaper for Canadian physicians, she also freelances for U.S., European and Australian publications. She's been a member of PWAC
for more than 10 years.

Mark Witten is a long-time PWAC member who has written many feature articles on a wide range of medical and health topics for leading consumer magazines over the past 20 years. His health articles have appeared in Saturday Night, Toronto Life, Chatelaine, Canadian Living and ClickSmart Living, where he writes a regular wellness column. Mark has won a number of Gold National Magazine Awards, and national awards from the Canadian Science Writers' Association and the Canadian Nurses Association for health writing.

Judylaine Fine is an award-winning author and medical journalist. Her books on cancer and back pain, which are written for laypeople, have been published in the U.S. and Australia as well as Canada. She is also the founder of the Back Association of Canada and its journal Back to Back, which published educational information for sufferers and health care professionals for 22 years.


Writer, Heal Thyself: Writing for Health/Medical Writing & Markets
January 13, 2004. The notes paraphrase the talks of each speaker

Judylaine Fine: Medical/Health writing is a nightmare from an economic view. My opinion is that the web is responsible for much of it. My impression is that people who pay for the sites have a product to sell. The health info is secondary. I run a website for one company that gets more hits on product information than the health education articles. I've been in the industry for 30 years. When I wrote a book on cancer, it took a year. I spoke to 50 families before writing it. One company who hired me to 'write' for them told me to just cut and paste from other sites. That's not what I do. Actually, it's not really what they wanted, either, but that's what they wanted to pay me for. Some of the sites are bogus. The information is wrong. I have found sites that publish information that's the opposite of what the research shows, to promote their own purpose. 

Where's the money? [Judylaine holds up several pamphlet-sized booklets.] These booklets are on back pain. I'm proud of them, got paid for it, and feel I did a good job. [She holds up a newsletter in the form of a tabloid-size newspaper.] This was published in French and English. It contains a non-smoking message, but it's not obvious about it. Instead, the health information is delivered in a fun way.

One of my books was republished in a new edition. I was surprised to see a quote from a review that appeared in the New York Times printed on the back cover. My publisher hadn't mentioned it. I could have used the positive feedback two years earlier! My book was published in Canada and the United States. Word for word, it's the same. The only thing that was changed was the title. The Canadian title was Coping with Back Pain. The American title was Conquering Back Pain. Shoppers agreed to publish and distribute a pamphlet I wrote about back pain. They have a bad habit of putting their copyright on other people's work. When I looked it over for mistakes, etc., it was fine. But on the day it was to go to print, I had a bad feeling about it. I called the printer and told them I made a terrible mistake that had to be corrected before getting printed. They sent the proofs over, and sure enough, Shoppers had put their copyright on it. But they didn't own the copyright. I hit the roof and called Shoppers. They refused to take it off. If they were going to print it, they were going to own it. So I took out a loan and published it myself. 

Terry Murray: [Terry's handout is reprinted, below.] Even if you don't want to become a medical writer, you can write about medicine for many places. For example, sports. I received a degree in Journalism and ended up doing clinical writing. You're not going to want to buy all the references unless you really, really want to be a medical writer. One dictionary (Dorland's, Steadman) can cost over $100. These two are used as the standards in medical writing. Tabers Encyclopedic is written for nurses, and is a good place to start. If you stick with it, you'll want to upgrade to Steadman later.

Online medical dictionaries can also be quite good. Apply critical thinking to each site, and check to see who is sponsoring the website. If you can't find out who's sponsoring it, move on to another site. Merck manual is available online however, you might as well buy it. The paperback version is only $10. If you know the name of a doctor you need to talk to, you can find everything online. You can also find contact information through the licensing bodies for doctors whether you're trying to contact someone from Ontario, or anywhere else.

When writing articles, avoid using abbreviations because they cause problems. If I find information or charts I think I'll use later, I put it in an A-Z file and it sits on my bookcase. News and Numbers is a good source (abridged version on web) and Health Writer's Handbook by a Texas teacher of Health Writing. The best chapter is about statistics. Very user friendly. There's the Medical Post, which I write for. At a smaller edition, it runs 60 to 90 pages. Clinical media coverage (i.e., American Heart Association, Canadian Cancer Society) have annual meetings where new medical information is presented. We cover these meetings so We get the information 1 to 1-1/2 years before it hits the mainstream media. Mainstream doesn't cover it until it's been published in the Medical Journal.

Make sure you know what the publication is like. Read it. We write for physicians. Our coverage is very targeted. The Medical Post is a 40-year publication and we have not and do not write from the patient's perspective. Anyone who takes the time to get to know our publications, who reads it on a regular basis or reads back issues, will know that. If you have a great idea that you want to do something on the Romanoff Report, for example, you don't want to send it to us. We've done it to death. Take the time to get to know a publication before you send in an idea.

There are lots of places where you can get published. Some examples include the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Nurses publications, MD Canada, and a new publication, The National Review of Medicine published out of Montreal. Payment: Medical Post pays 40-cents a word. Our assigning editor decides what goes in. "The only way to make money in freelance is to recycle your stories," and she suggests tweaking them to fit different markets covered by different publications. Check out the news sites. PR companies Medical Education companies. You may end up writing teaching kits, slide sets, proceedings of a conference, etc. Pharmaceutical companies are looking for promotional material and educational kits. Associations tend not to pay well.

Medical writing includes many topics: clinical writing, political writing, financial (i.e., pay for doctors). Medical writing is fascinating. I spent two years writing for a trade publication on refrigerators, etc. Medical writing is so much more interesting. If you've never done any medical writing, try writing a profile of a doctor. Don't cover those people who have already been done. Find someone who is doing something of interest that would interest people all across Canada. It's a good way to get in and get known. Don't pitch doctor stories to nurse's publications and vice versa. Don't tell editors what their publication should be covering, especially one that's been successfully meeting a niche market for years.

Mark Witten: If you do have a story about being a patient, pitch it to consumer magazines. There is a fascination with medical writing and problems, and you have to get that fascination across to the reader. There's a new magazine called the Walrus, and some well-established magazines like Toronto Life and Saturday Night, where you can write 3000 words or longer to tell a narrative. You can tell a story in your own voice. They want you to come up with the best way to tell your story to their readers. 3000-60000 words. Fees: $3000 to $10,000. You won't get rich but it's nice to get paid for your work. They offer some of the best challenges and best editors in the business. Health writing is very well suited to storytelling. There is usually a life and death struggle, a human interest, and a good narrative. You're not just communicating information.

The three elements of a good feature story are: 

  • good narrative 
  • fascinating people 
  • an interesting discovery

[Mark had written a dramatic narrative about a doctor who had discovered a new way of doing heart surgery on infants that saved lives. He wrote about how she discovered this, and how it related to the life and death of the infants and parents.]

Do the research first. Is there an interesting story how they did it? I've heard it said that you should never do a story proposal more than one page. That's true, if it's less than 500 words. If you're writing a feature, it's very hard to put these three elements into a one-page proposal. The lead in the proposal should be as intense as it would be for the story. The editors need to visualize the story to get excited about it. You can do service pieces for Click Smart, Homemakers, Canadian Living -- it's faster to do, you're just conveying information. It's important to have the bread and butter stuff (the stuff that pays your rent) but it's also important to do feature articles that fill your need for more creative expression. 

The Panelists took questions from the audience

Q: Online writing: are there paying markets? 
A: Judy--they usually have a webmaster. I don't think they'll pay well. How much will they pay for 100 words for a week? It's through advertising where you can make money. I admire Richard (I forget his last name) who writes his own website. He gets all these pharmaceuticals to pay him to advertise on his web site, writing his articles.

Q: Some people write the article first then look for the market, others query first. Which is best? 
A: Mark--the query has to be targeted to a specific market. If you know an editor, you can pass the idea by them first, to see if they give you encouragement. You can give them a certain amount of time and then follow-up after three weeks.
Judy--I've never done a query. I use the telephone. I don't think you owe anyone anything. I've heard back on something like a phone call and submission eight months later.
ALL-- agree that three months is too long. Follow up with a phone call after a couple of weeks. 
Judy-- has a little doll she has hangs near her computer. She envisions that this doll is her audience. Helps her to really focus on who her audience is. She wrote an article for one magazine that sent her to Northern Manitoba to write about women who worked in the mines. It was a great article, but then the magazine wanted her to write up what recipes these women used. She fought about this and won the argument 'by the skin of my teeth.'

Q: Trends? 
A: Mark: Chatelaine, Canadian Living, it's been popular for awhile to write about health in consumer magazines. Terry: the Globe expanded their health coverage to four pages a few years ago. They had four on-staff people writing health coverage. Judy: I once read an article about colostomy, for the people who have everything, you can buy them a colostomy, somewhere in Alberta. The point is, the article was charming. It wasn't just fluff, but it bothered me that there was no mention about the fact that approximately 90% of diagnostic in the US are not necessary. 

Q: Do you have to tell the people you query that you've already been published somewhere else? Do you need to tell your first publication that you're shopping the story around to other places? 
A: No. It's not anyone's business that you're writing for more than one magazine. However, if you're a staff writer, you don't want to write for the competition. And you have to keep in mind where your main cheque is coming from. The 'new' editor doesn't want to buy stuff that's not 'fresh" so you don't want to tell them it's a recycled article. Who is paying your salary? It's a judgment call. If you can get away with it, don't tell them.

[From Audience: One suggestion is to take same article and sell it to different, non-competing markets. As long as you own the copyright you can sell it to whomever you want and recycle the articles. Freelance writers are paid so little that you have to sell your articles to as many markets as you can. Try to recycle your material as much as possible to make it worth your while to write. Don't sell all rights. Try for 10-15% extra is they want web rights.]

CLOSING COMMENTS: 

Mark: When you're writing for consumers you're writing about health, more so than medical. 
Sometimes it's not a news story that just happened. If you look in the paper and see something that was just touched on, you can explore it and see if you can turn it into a feature. For example, I read in the New England Journals of Medicine about the doctor who had saved at least ten infants. I approached the families through the doctor. It's often easier and if the doctor is the subject of the article, you don't want to go behind their back. The doctor asked others if they were open to being interviewed. I was able to interview more than those first ten who were originally written about. You don't have to have all the interviews in place for the query. [When Mark decided to focus on writing features, he worked towards it by focusing on the three key elements and wrote his proposals to help the editors envision the articles. Terry has met some writers through networking. Mark says the best way to get work from someone is to show how well you write and when you get work from them, do a great job.]

Terry: Look for things that are becoming prominent, but it's hard to avoid what's been written to death, like childhood obesity and diabetes. Think outside the box. Brainstorm the different types of magazines you can write for. You can write about folic acid for medical magazines and for food magazines. Think of offshoots; trade and consumer, food and medicine, doctors and nurses and specialist markets, etc. Business mags.

Judylaine: Don't get your back up when someone is editing your work. They're not being mean. They have questions, and they're trying to make your article better.

BACK TO TOP


Handout from Terry Murray:

Medical Writer's REFERENCE SHELF

The Basics:

Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties:

Other Medical Reference:

  • Canadian Immunization Guide (6th ed.) - Health Canada

Statistics:

  • Victor Cohn and Lewis Cope: News & Numbers : A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields, Iowa State University Press; ISBN: 0813814243; 2nd edition (August 2001), Paperback: 224 pages. Older, abridged version available on the Web site of Foundation for American Communications (FACS, an independent, nonprofit educational organization based in Pasadena, Calif., founded in 1976) http://www.facsnet.org/tools/ref_tutor/newsandnumbers/index.php3

RECOMMENDED READING:

Medical reporting/writing
Barbara Gastel: Health Writer's Handbook
Iowa State University Press; ISBN: 0813821134; November 1997
Paperback: 204 pages
(especially the chapter on statistics)
(Dr. Gastel is currently preparing a revised edition)

Deborah Blum and Mary Knudson (editors): A Field Guide for Science Writers
Oxford University Press; ISBN: 0195124944; November 1998
Paperback: 287 pages 

Daniel Wartenberg, Doug Ramsey and John Warner,Doris Ober: Epidemiology for journalists.

Foundation for American Communications (FACS), an independent, nonprofit educational organization based in Pasadena, Calif., founded in 1976
http://www.facsnet.org/tools/ref_tutor/epidem/index.php3 
Posted April 23, 1996 / Revised Jan. 24, 2000

Gordon Guyatt, MD, Joel Ray, MD, Neil Gibson, MD, Deborah Cook, MD, Barry Ashpole, Cornelia Baines, MD, Candace Gibson, PhD, June Engel, PhD, Bruce Histed, RN, MA, Joan Hollobon, David Spencer, PhD, Paul Taylor: A Journalist's Guide to Writing Health Stories, AMWA Journal, Volume 14 Number 1, Winter 1999 

Trudy Lieberman: Covering medical technology.
Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 2001
http://www.cjr.org/year/01/5/lieberman.asp

Melinda Voss: Clinical Trials.
Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 2001
http://www.cjr.org/year/01/5/voss.asp


Writing
Paula LaRocque: Championship Writing : 50 Ways to Improve Your Writing
Marion Street Press; ISBN: 0966517636; December 2000
Paperback: 212 pages

Paula LaRocque: The Book on Writing.
Marion Street Press; ISBN: 0966517695; September 2003
Paperback - 260 pages

Some Canadian markets for medical/health writing and editing
NOTE: Specific publications, Web sites, etc. listed here may not currently be using freelancers

Professional publications
The Medical Post
Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ)
Canadian Family Physician (CFP)
Pharmacy Post
Pharmacy Practice
MD Canada
National Review of Medicine

Consumer publications
Daily newspapers
Chatelaine
Flare
Canadian Living
Homemakers
Today's Parent
Today's Grandparent
Elm Street
Saturday Night
Maclean's
The Health Journal (PharmaPlus magazine) ?

News services
Reuters Health
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - Radio, Web site
Doctor's Guide (Web site)

Other
Public relations companies
Continuing education companies
Pharmaceutical companies
Associations - publications and Web sites (e.g., arthritis, diabetes, pharmacy, pharmaceutical)
Book publishers



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Please see PWAC Toronto's list of Evening Seminars and workshops conducted by PWAC members.