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The Complete Guide to Article Writing: How to Write Successful Articles for Online and Print Markets

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Are you an aspiring medical writer? Byron chats with Naveed Saleh, author and Medical Treatments Expert at About.com. In the interview, you'll find out how to develop a writing voice, and how to break into the medical writing field. To read more of Naveed and his writing, visit http://www.naveedsaleh.com/.

Bryon:                                                   Welcome back everyone. I’m here with Naveed, Naveed welcome.

Naveed:                                               Right. Thank you. Thanks for having me Bryon.

Bryon:                                                   Indeed. Let’s talk about the Aggies Texas A&M your journalism major where all of this great writing of yours perhaps began. What brought you to Texas A&M?

Naveed:                                               Well, originally I went to med school and then I decided to go to science journalism school. I was always really attracted to writing and after I finished off at A&M which was a great school I worked with a really great professor and my mentor, Dr. Barbara Gastel. She’s also a medical journalist. After I finished studying there I did a magazine internship and then I just kind of branched out into freelance writing and editing. Now I do a bunch of everything, a little bit of everything.

Bryon:                                                   We are excited to hear about all of that and much more. Tell me about the transition from your medical degree over to writing. That’s an interesting paradigm shift and one I would love to hear about.

Naveed:                                               I think…

Bryon:                                                   What didn’t you like about the medical field in general?

Naveed:                                               I don’t think there was anything I didn’t like about it. I just saw myself living an entire life and I wanted to make sure that I was doing something that I truly loved and that was writing. I was attracted to writing. I think that people don’t necessarily realize that medical writing itself is a specialty. There are doctors who do specialize in writing and I just happened to be one of them. My mentor is the same way. She specializes in medical writing and editing and she had a medical degree. She is a really famous science editor, Dr Barbara Gastel, who wrote the foreword of the book.

I think people are growing towards that. Writing is becoming more specialized, and it really helps to have the medical knowledge especially when I’m writing content for clients or writing the articles on variety of medical subjects. I see this specialty of medical writing and physicians writing as a career expanding in the future.

Bryon:                                                   What qualifications do you feel a writer needs to become a medical writer? Do they need a medical degree? Give us your thoughts on that.

Naveed:                                               I honestly don’t think anybody needs anything to become any type of writer, you just need knowledge. How you get that knowledge is a completely different question. If you are able to teach yourself how to do something and you write well and factually then you should be able to write that. This idea that we are journalists or this is journalism in some ways, that’s kind of made up. There really is no clear definition of journalism. A lot of the old school journalists, they never even graduated from high school some of them. We put these things on journalism that you have to have degrees or you have to have certain backgrounds. But if you have the knowledge, you have the voice and the understanding and style and you write publishable material then I feel that that is enough to write for the public.

That’s something that I try to share with my readers in The Complete Guide to Article Writing. I want everybody to be able to write. If you have some natural talent and you have some natural interest and you are willing to do the research and willing to learn style then you should be writing.

Bryon:                                                   Your work has been featured in some prestigious publications. How did you make your way into that pub world of being a contributing writer?

Naveed:                                               Okay, initially like… Well, within the world of medicine especially among medical students there was a big magazine that we all knew about which was the New Physician magazine, and it’s something that all medical students get in the mail. I had seen that magazine before and I had read over a little bit some pieces of it, some articles. Then when my life kind of branched out towards writing and that’s something that I wanted to pursue, I started thinking more about the New Physician magazine. I reached out to the editor and I told them I went to med school and now I’m in journalism grad school, science journalism grad school. He was appreciative of that so he kind of…

For a couple of years I worked with that publication and really learned how to write well for a written publication and in these long formed feature articles. I think that was a definite training experience. I became a contributing editor at the New Physician magazine and then I ended up doing an internship with them all while doing my own studies and then doing other freelance work on the side.

I think I just kind of saw the New Physician as being my initial starting point to do something I knew that definitely was medical journalism. I reached out to the editor he was nice. We worked together for a few years and that was really the beginning.  Then after that I kind of branched out more towards online writing and writing content.

Bryon:                                                   Finding a nice editor; that’s a mysterious and interesting thing certainly, I’d like to learn more about. But before I do that what percentage of the articles do you think are written by physicians versus non-physicians at the New Physician magazine?

Naveed:                                               At the New Physician, I would say probably about half and half. Again I haven’t really been too associated with that magazine in a few years. I kind of branched out more towards online writing after I did my… I kind of felt like I had written a lot of long formed features, very investigative, and I was more interested at that… My interests changed rapidly; they turn over. I felt that I wanted to branch out into online writing and then eventually I’ve taken more of an interest in content. I would say at that magazine about half and half. In the general, in the world most medical journalists aren’t physicians or aren’t dentists or aren’t health care professionals. They are just people who understand medicine and understand how to communicate with the public.

Bryon:                                                   How does the medical audience vary from other audiences that you may create content for and write for? What is the distinguishing characteristic that you bring to the table as a contributing writer to that space?

Naveed:                                               Okay, when you go to the doctor’s office, Byron, and someone sits down with you, the physician sits down with you and explains to you whatever medical condition you come in for or what treatment you have you want that person to discuss things with you in terms that are accessible to you that are understandable to you, right? What I basically do is when I speak with my audience, I imagine that I’m in the doctor’s office. I’m trying to explain something to them in terms that they can understand. I think that that’s the most important thing.

When you speak with a generalized audience you really can’t take anything for granted. You’re going to want to explain all the medical terms or jargon or use as little jargon as possible in order to explain the medical terms. Sometimes when you’re a physician audience, you can take for granted some of the jargon and some of the ideas. But again even with medical audiences I’m careful to explain things in more generalized ways at times because you can never… Even the smartest people don’t know everything and if it’s in the box of medical topic that’s outside their field of practice even a physician could use a good explanation of what’s going on. The way that I distinguish myself as a medical writer is that I make everything really accessible, understandable, try to use as little jargon as possible and explain the jargon that I’m using.

Bryon:                                                   Are you writing pretty much all the time these days? Is that your calling and as a freelance writer I might add? Is that correct?

Naveed:                                               Yeah, yeah, I write for… Basically I do lots of stuff. I almost see myself as like a writing handy man in a way. But I blog with Psychology Today. I write the medical treatments department, I offer that at about.com I write content for different content marketing agencies. I teach at Writers Digest. I edit medical journal articles. I teach one on one lessons; if somebody wants to come and work with me they can do so at the San Diego Writers institute where I do one on one sessions. Then I’m employed by physicians, researchers, nurses and so forth to help with their writing and editing. I do a little bit of everything.

Bryon:                                                   Tell us about your Amazon best seller book, The Complete Guide to Article Writing: How To Successfully Write Articles for Online and Print Markets. Tell us about that.

Naveed:                                               I got really lucky I got a great publisher with Writers Digest books and they really helped me flash out the ideas that I wanted to put in the book. I think you can approach journalism or article writing or really any type of writing in two ways, one is creatively and then other is kind of a scientific mind. When I wrote this book I wanted to really make a lot of things evidence based, bring in some facts like from Pew and from different places. From [0:08:59 Pointner] and a lot of other places that will help people understand writing in an evidence based way.

But basically I want to make… To borrow another scientific term, I want to make writing reproducible and I want others who have talent to use my book to become better writers. In a wa,y it’s like a survival guide. It will give you a leg up especially if you haven’t really been exposed to things before. But even for advanced writers there are tips in there that will help get into better publications or become more publishable or really refine your writing.

Bryon:                                                   Do you think that writing is more art or more science or a balance of the two, split 50-50?

Naveed:                                               It’s a really good question. Honestly I think it’s more science than people give it credit for. I think a lot of it is more reproducible. There are scientific principles you can bring into writing and I think once you do that, you make it more uniform and organized for people.

Here is an example like when you do a research study you are a taking a sample of a population. You want to make sure that the sample you are taking is representative of the population as a whole. Kind of like when you are writing an article it’s the same way you sample your sources. You want to make sure that your sources are representative of the topic and what you are trying to explain or alternatively the idea of internal validity. In scientific articles and in science, you have the idea that things must agree with themselves that similarly within the context of a general article or study. Similarly in medical journalism I feel it’s the same way. What you are writing has to agree with itself. It has to flow with itself. You can take a lot of these or even…

Here’s another example, like when we have an angle for a piece that’s almost like a hypothesis in science. You are making an educated…

Bryon:                                                   Guess.

Naveed:                                               …guess based on the… Yeah, exactly. Guess based on the information that you have or knowledge that you have. There are scientific principles that can be adopted or used to better understand writing in general or journalism in general and I try to use those because once you explain things to people in scientific terms then they seem to… Then there is an idea behind it then they can grab on to something and they can learn something. We can use science to teach journalism.

Alternatively I do focus on other things that are more creative like narrative and different kinds of structures that have a lot of components that are more creative in the book. I also talk about the importance of using media, like to use the modern media and to use television shows and to use books to influence your writing especially things that are dramatic and fictional. I do definitely recognize that there’s a part of writing that’s artistic and that part may not be as teachable because that’s somebody esthetic senses. Nevertheless, the part that is scientific I think I could teach people that and I do. I try to with the book and through my work.

Bryon:                                                   You take the online world on. Has the web changed the science of writing and here I’m speaking in terms of optimization, gripping headlines and even competition with readers that are all reading at high speeds these days?

Naveed:                                               That’s another interesting question. When people read on the web I think that… And I did a lot of research on this. I looked through the eye tracks studies of [0:12:25 inaudible] and much other stuff and it’s detailed in my book. But basically people like short on the web, short sentences, short paragraphs. They also like things that are left branching. The kinds of speech you see in broadcast journalism. You would put your parent [0:12:41 inaudible] or independent clause before your dependent clause so the weight would be on the end of the sentences. People like things presented to them in an easily comprehensible fashion. I think that’s pretty much the style that you adopt when you are an online writer.

I think this is an important distinct… We must distinguish this, the difference between style and voice. Style are basically and as you know Bryon, style are the accepted conventions of how to write something. Pretty much when you go to be published, there are a lot of ideas that a lot of publishers and editors share. But voice is the way that you put your own words together and I think that that’s an important distinct…. I make that point in my book and I think that that’s something that everybody should know.

Bryon:                                                   Do you think that you’re developing your own voice and bringing that to everything you create and do you recommend that for writers that they bring a unique voice to the table? Reverse is tone and style which might morph to your point earlier.

Naveed:                                               Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think yeah. I think that that’s pretty much. I think everybody has their own voice and after they spend years studying writing and years… Even if you read my book and you really understood it, you’d be really on a good place towards getting towards your voice. But I think initially you have to understand style first. But then once you understand style you develop your own voice, the unique way you put together words and then you can use that voice to write on a variety of topics. I think voice is something you earn over time, after a lot of training, after working with… You had brought up a point where  working with editors. I think that’s really important because a good editor will help you develop your voice. I couldn’t have done what I’m doing now without the help of several editors. Every editor who I encounter teaches me something new. Definitely voice is something you earn but it’s also something that other people help you develop.

Bryon:                                                   Have you actually sort after editors and tried to find editors that could really help you and what was the criteria that you used to do that?

Naveed:                                               Nowadays, I guess people more for work and I’m pretty busy writing online content so I don’t pitch much as I used to. But whenever I used to pitch, I was always really careful about who I was approaching. I wanted to make sure that I really studied the magazine or the publication well before I said, “Maybe I could write for here or do something for here.” I want to make sure that my editors potentially will bring me value. If I’m working with an editor who I think is somehow not bringing value to the pieces that we’re producing or that they are publishing, I typically cut that relationship off and won’t continue working with that person.

Bryon:                                                   What kind of pay could a medical writer expect from some of the publications that you write for? Are they paying more because of the specialty and the expertise and if so could you give us some ballpark rates?

Naveed:                                               You do get paid a little more but it’s mostly like at the higher end of their range. Just because you have more formal experience and more formal training doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to get paid more. You just might be more preferred for that specific job. All people pay all kinds of different things. If I’m doing some content work for somebody, I typically don’t like going below 20 cents a word. That’s where I’m at. It’s hard for me to adjust the value I bring to something.  I always try my hardest with everything I do and I feel that at least that’s worth 20 cents a word.

I see certain content marketing firms advertise with five cents or four cents a word and I understand people can probably make that productive and lucrative on their own terms. But personally the kind of writing and the detail and the research and the voice that I bring I feel it’s worth at least 20 cents a word. Like if I’m writing an article for… If I’m writing an article for a publication I definitely like to get paid again about 20-25 cents a word at the very least and I’ll take more. But that being said that’s where I’m at.

Bryon:                                                   We are seeing that. At WriterAccess we have what we call a six star rate which is our highest rated writer that has the knowledge, proficiency and skill. The rates range believe or not from about 10 cents to $1.40 per word for some of the writing that we do.

Naveed:                                               $1.40 is kind of exorbitant. I don’t know if I could ever get away with charging somebody that. I’ve taken like 50 cents a word depending on…Sometimes if I’m working with a private client I can up to 85, 90 cents a word. Maybe at some point I’d feel comfortable charging $1.50 or $2 a word but [0:17:33 crosstalk]--

Bryon:                                                   It’s interesting to hear you say that. Most of the work that I’m describing at that higher level are white papers that involve sometimes 40 or 80 hours worth of work and interviews and reading off multiple layers of documents just tons of research basically. Whereas you are talking more about turn out an article in a few hours type of a thing. Is that correct?

Naveed:                                               Yeah, it’s intended for the public and if I sit down I like to have an article done in a day, those kinds of things.

Bryon:                                                   Got it.

Naveed:                                               I don’t really do like… See this is the other thing I think a lot of medical writers they end going into pharma or they end up doing like the white paper work or the more academic work  and that’s not what I do. I’ve always wanted to write for the public. That’s why I went to journalism school was to interact with the public. I love getting millions of hits on the stuff that I write when that happens. I love things going viral. I love interacting with people. I love when people email me. I feel like I’m trying to help people by informing them, but I also feel like I’m trying to entertain them, and I want them to be happy with the work that I did. I enjoy that so for me it’s always being about writing for the public. Although I do write content and I do a lot of that ghost written and I have no problem with it. At my core, I write for the public.

Bryon:                                                   What advice can people harvest from your book on advancing their career? What do you think it takes to do that? How hard is it to take your writing up to the next level?

Naveed:                                               I think once you have like an arsenal of clips, I think it’s important to setup your platform and I know you’ve probably  heard a lot… You’ve probably discussed ad nauseum platform with other people, as we all have as professional writers and editors. But that being said I think it’s important once you have the basics there that you set up a platform. I think any successful writer is going to have to setup a platform pretty quickly. You’re going to want a nice website. You are going to want your blog to be updated on RSS feeds. You’re going to want people to follow you on Facebook. You’re going to want to do Twitter and Pinterest and all that other stuff. I spend a lot of time writing but I spend about a third of my time just managing my social media like going  onto Hootsuite and making sure that my tweets are scheduled and making sure that I’m bringing insightful information to people on social media.

I think part of it is just how you promote yourself. A lot of these stuff like… A lot of these stuff you can do on your own. You could do your own web design, you can do social media. You don’t have to necessarily contract people out for this. In the past I’ve learned a lot about web design, I’ve learned a lot about social media so I can basically do my own stuff, optimization and things like that. I can basically make sure that my stuff is optimized it shows up on search engines and all the stuff, that when there is somebody who wants to work with me that they can find me.

Bryon:                                                   Do you have any thoughts on getting into the medical writing industry if you are not in fact currently a medical writer? What would be the gateway to that opportunity in your opinion?

Naveed:                                               Okay, I know it’s happened because I’ve seen people do it. I’m not 100% sure exactly how they did it because it helps to have been in a hospital or at least been in the health care setting in some capacity. But I have met people who read enough on their own to be able to do it. Again that’s rare. But it’s definitely helpful. I’m completely accepting of other medical writers who come in with no formal medical education. Sometimes they do a great job. But that being said it’s definitely easier if you had a background as a nurse or psychologist or physician or whatever, some kind of healthcare professional. That’s more helpful and that’s mostly what I’ve seen as far as… Again, there are a lot of medical writers out there who aren’t necessarily nurses or physicians but have had some medical experience, maybe working in like a radiology lab then they can write about radiology or whatever. I don’t know exactly how people can do it but I’m just saying if they can and they are able to do it and they turn out good copy, then so be it.

Bryon:                                                   How important do you think it is particularly in the medical industry or any industry for that matter to be published? To be picked up by a pub and to have your work featured there?

Naveed:                                               If you’re not published, the doors never open. You can write the most beautiful things and if they are just sitting on your computer in a journal somewhere and nobody’s ever going to see it, you’ll never be a fully actualized writer. I think publication is key. There is a lot of luck to it in the beginning too. I don’t know why certain editors give newbies a chance who knows why. I’ve always been more of a writer than an editor anyway although I added well. I’ve always thought about, you know, either that was lucky or that was unlucky. Part of it you can’t control is the luck. As soon as I find out how to control the luck, I’ll write a book about it and be a best seller. It’s impossible to… Fortune is fickle it’s hard to control.

Bryon:                                                   Couple of more questions for you and then we’ll call it. But tell a little bit about this platform you described. It was interesting to hear you use that word. Of course you use Hootsuite perhaps that’s the platform you are talking about but that managing your social media and building your professional writing platform. What is in that platform?

Naveed:                                               Okay. A platform I think, I see it as being more generalized concept. Anyway that you reach out to other people using social media that’s your platform. This is something I discuss in the book. It’s just building up a way to interact and promote your work with the public. That’s what I see as being a platform more generally. Hootsuite is something that I just use to manage my postings. I think it makes things a lot easier…

Bryon:                                                   What else do you use?

Naveed:                                               …using a program instead of having to go left.

Bryon:                                                   What else do you use?

Naveed:                                               This is really great. I think you wanted to talk a little bit about SEO. I use Google Trendss to figure what keywords are important because without the keywords people may not be able to find your…

Bryon:                                                   Your work.

Naveed:                                               …your work on the internet. I think that’s it’s important to use Google Trends and to kind of… Search engines like Google with all their Google Panda updates and all that, it’s become very smart about how you use keywords. You don’t want to overuse them. You want to use them in the beginning and use them judiciously. But I don’t feel this… I still meet sometimes clients with this idea that I have to laden my article with keywords and I don’t necessarily think that. I think if you choose good keywords and your content is well written, Google is getting smart enough to pick that stuff up and promote that instead of a lot of the junk that people have tried to put out there to promote whatever their endeavor is.  

Bryon:                                                   With all of your online articles are you doing keywords research and are you optimizing that content and being sure to use the right words not only inyour headlines but in the body copy?

Naveed:                                               Yeah, absolutely. The other place to do it is in the headings, that’s a good place to use keywords.

Bryon:                                                   Right.

Naveed:                                               But again I don’t obsess myself because I think if you become obsessed about keywords, your writing suffers. I want my writing to flow and make sense to the public. I’ll use a keyword one in the headline or maybe in the sub title, something like that and then during the lead I’ll use the keywords again. But I won’t feel compelled to burden my writing with all these keywords.

Bryon:                                                   Really interesting, two final questions. Who would you like to get a hold of you and how can they get a hold of you?

Naveed:                                               Okay. Anybody who wants to get a hold of me can get a hold of me at www.naveedsaleh.com which is my name and anything that they want to get… Right now I’m thinking about another book, so a book reputable publisher would be great, somebody who wants to talk about possibly doing a book on editing your own work; that’s something I’m thinking about. Anybody who wants to work with me, learn from me come down to San Diego Writers Institute; I’ll welcome them. Anybody who wants me to write or edit for them, I welcome them. I think anybody who does want to come work with me, should really read my book first. I think that that’s something that’s important. Just don’t contact me first, please read the book first.

The book contains… I want to go over just a few things. How the book will bring value to the readers. In the beginning there is [0:25:58 primer] on style, then I look at the history of journalism. A close look at colonial journalism all the way up to modern journalism.  I look at the laws and responsibilities of a journalist which are the ideas of coherence, verification and transparency. I look at how to research, how to interview, how to set up facts and narrative. An in depth look at how features, articles and blog postings are structured and written, how to pitch, how to setup platform and offer editor relationships. All that stuff’s in the book but I can still help you understand it better if you come work with me.

Bryon:                                                   Terrific. Well. I want to thank you for being with us today. Thanks much.

Naveed:                                               Thank you so much sir.

Bryon:                                                   Thanks for listening in everyone until next week. I hope your life’s a little smarter, better, faster and wiser thanks to Naveed. See you next week.