Monday, March 8, 2010

Q&A About Nurses Becoming Writers

I get emails from nurses who would love to get into writing. Some like the idea of being a writer, others can no longer do the physical work of a nurse and feel that writing may help them continue to earn a living while still using their nursing knowledge.

Here are some of the most common questions I get and the answers I usually give:

How did you get into writing?

I always enjoyed writing and language itself. It is a gift that comes to me and always has. I studied nursing because I felt I had to be practical and choose a career where there would always be work. But, writing and the need to write never left my soul.

As a result, when the Internet became more available to the everyday person, I began reading more and reaching out, trying to write when I could. The rest just happened.

What was the first thing you had published?

My first piece of writing that was published in a print magazine was an article for nurses about using the Internet. It was published in the mid-90s in the journal The Canadian Nurse. My first on-line piece was an article on Alzheimer's disease, some time before the Canadian Nurse article.

Should I take a writing course?

Taking courses is rarely a bad idea. We can always learn how to do things better. The first writing course I ever took was a mandatory one on how to write a paper, a first semester university course that I took when I went back to school around 1994 or so.

The course was incredibly helpful. Although I thought I knew a lot about how to write, there were a few consistent errors I was making and my prof cured me of those. I took a few more writing and editing courses later on and I learned something from each course I took.

How do I start?

This is the big question. How you start writing depends on how serious you are and what your goals are.

  • Can you write? Many people believe that writing is easy. While the actual action of putting the words to paper (or on the screen) is easy, finding the right words and putting them in the right order, using the right tone and feel, isn't. Not everyone can write well. You need to be honest with yourself as to whether you do have that ability. Technically, do you know the difference between paraphrasing and copying? Do you understand the seriousness of plagiarism? It's sad how many people don't know this. Can you credit sources properly?

  • How are your research skills? Writing rarely comes without research. You need to be able to look for information and to be able to judge if the information is credible and usable.

  • Do you like to blog? A blog is a good way to commit to writing something on a regular basis, learning what people like to read about and how to promote yourself.

  • Do you have a niche? Is there something specific that you are passionate and knowledgeable about? Can you zero in on something that isn't as well-known or that needs more expertise?

  • Are you able to commit? Can you follow through on a project, providing the clients with what they have hired your for?

  • Can you handle having your writing edited? Some people go into writing thinking that if they write something, it will be published as-is. While I am lucky enough to have this happen to me many times, there are times when my writing is edited so much, I barely recognize it. Sometimes, this happens because the client didn't like how I approached the topic, other times, there are several editors working on one piece ("editing by committee") and this results in a multitude of changes. And some other times, it's because the client feels that they can write it better than you did. Having your work edited can be a bit painful sometimes - particularly if you don't agree with the changes. So you have to know if you can live with that, but also be self-confident enough to speak up if you feel that the editor is introducing aspects to your piece that you know shouldn't be there. Editors are great to have on your side, but they're human too. Sometimes, things happen.

  • Can you deal with the financial up and downs of freelancing? New writers may be stunned to know that sometimes we wait for months to be paid for a piece we wrote on a rush deadline. A rush deadline for writing doesn't usually translate into a rush deadline for payment. I have to say, I've been very fortunate. The vast majority of my clients have paid me on time or within reasonable delays. There have a been a few that pushed the limits, one I had to chase down, and one who refused to pay me full payment. But, as I say, for me, this is unusual. For other writers, it happens more often.

So, where do I start?

  • Write up a resume of your skills and any experience you have in writing. If you have contacts in the field, you may want to let them know that you are looking for work.

  • Start your blog if you want to follow that route. This gives you a presence on the Internet. It's this blog that made me the number one Google hit if you type in "Nurse writer."

  • Read writing books and writing magazines. There are many great writing sites online as well. Read, read, and then read some more. You can't write if you don't read. You have to understand the differences in different types of writing, such as the big difference between writing for online and writing for print. Read what other nurses are writing about.

  • Decide what you want your focus to be. Although I write for all types of audiences, from professional to general public, my passion is writing for the every day person. I love taking complicated medical health information and writing it up in an understandable and, if possible, fun way.

  • Ask questions but, and this is important, be judicious about what you ask and who you ask. Freelance writers are among one of the most giving and sharing groups of people I have ever worked with. But, they are also very busy trying to make a living of their own. While most don't mind helping new writers, it is frustrating to take the time to answer questions and make suggestions, never to get a "thank you" in return. Also, watch the type of questions you ask. Many can be answered if you look them up and it is a bit frustrating to be asked basic questions that can be found with a bit of effort.

  • Join writing groups, either in person or online. Other writers are a great resource and sometimes, they ask questions you didn't even know you had.

  • Don't give up. If this is what you want to do, stick to it.

Good luck!


Jennifer Fink said...

Great post! I, too, am another nurse/writer who pushed aside the need to write in favor of a "practical" career. But you know what? This writing thing is working out pretty well!

Meredith Resnick said...

I'm with @Jennifer. I'm an LCSW and I've so enjoyed combining my clinical expertise with writing. For several years I freelanced and worked as a clinician.