When fellow health professionals hear that I started my career as a journalist, they often say they'd like to start doing some paid writing work, and then ask me for advice on how to start.
Sadly, it’s becoming harder and harder to get paid to write these days, in this age of endless free content. That’s part of the reason why I went back to school in 2009 to become a registered dietitian—so that I wouldn’t have to be completely dependent on the ever-shrinking pool of full-time magazine jobs and woefully underpaid freelance gigs.
That said, people definitely still can and do break into the field of professional journalism, and it can be a nice side gig if you're continuing to work in the health and wellness field—just don't expect to quit your day job anytime soon.
First, you'll have to do a bit of unpaid writing, to build credibility and “clips” that you can show when you eventually start pitching editors at outlets that pay.
Notice I said a bit of unpaid writing. Once you have a handful of clips from various unpaid sources, there's no need to do any more writing for free, ever. You might graduate to places that pay $20 or $30 per article—still nowhere near what you'd need to make a living, or even a decent supplemental income—but at that point at least you can call yourself a professional writer, and you can work your way up from there.
Some people will argue that unpaid writing or "guest blogging" gives you valuable "exposure," and that it should therefore be treated as marketing because it translates into more sales for your business (whether you're in health & wellness or some other industry).
The reality is that writing for free provides a *very* low return on investment in most cases, unless at least tens of thousands of people read your article. That's because only a small percentage of your readers will click through to your website, and then an even smaller percentage of those folks will actually buy anything from you. On most small to medium-sized websites and blogs, only a few thousand or even a few hundred people will ever read what you wrote.
So be selective about the outlets you'll write for without pay (making an exception for your own blog, of course), and don't do any more free writing than is necessary to build your portfolio.
If you're a health and wellness professional looking to break into paid writing, and you don't have any clips other than your own blog or newsletter, here are a few reputable non-paying outlets where you can build clips:
Follow each outlet's submission guidelines—which usually entail sending several ideas for articles or a recurring blog—and follow up in a couple weeks if you haven't heard back. Never pitch the same ideas to more than one outlet at a time, but it's OK to move on if you haven't heard back from a given outlet within a week of sending a follow-up email.
Then, when you have 3-5 of unpaid clips and are ready to pitch paid outlets, check out MediaBistro for some great tips on how to pitch. If you're serious about writing professionally, MediaBistro's AvantGuild membership is worth every penny.
I also do consulting and coaching for people looking to write professionally, so if you want to walk through the process in more detail or develop some ideas and pitches to send out, please feel free to contact me to schedule a session!