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Why it pays to write for the media

Writing for the media can be satisfying and even lucrative, says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones, especially as GPs know at least something about an extremely wide range of topics

Writing for the media can be satisfying and even lucrative, says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones, especially as GPs know at least something about an extremely wide range of topics

If you've ever read an article in Pulse and thought 'I could do that' ­ you could well be right. GPs are good communicators and have a wide range of business, organisational and clinical knowledge, making them attractive to editors in both the medical and lay press.

Many GPs write mainly for the money, but having something to say and wanting an intellectual challenge are also good reasons. Personal development is another plus; your research is bound to uncover things you didn't know and these can be added to your appraisal portfolio or used in your work. Writing is a good outside interest as it can be fitted around other commitments and can easily be done from home, at times to suit you and your family.

Writing for the media can be well paid, depending on who you write for. If you are looking for a serious second income, you may want to compare hourly rates with what you could earn as a GP. When working out the cost-effectiveness of writing, it is important to add in time spent liaising with editors, doing research, keeping your records up to date and making sure you get paid.

Most people start by sending in finished pieces on spec (and getting most of them rejected). However, as you get better known and more experienced, the aim is to get commissions, so that you are paid for everything you write. Reworking topics for different markets/publications is a cost-effective way of using your research; writing-related expenses are also tax deductible.

What could you write?

The standard advice from editors is to write about what you know, and as GPs, we know at least something about quite a lot of things! We also know how to research information when our knowledge is scanty, how to spot the important issues, and how to present them in a digestible form to medical or non-medical readers.

Topics for GP publications such as Pulse could include financial topics, IT, education, management issues and clinical medicine. But you may be able to write authoritatively about topics such as travel, gardening or humour for special interest magazines ­ and some GPs even write fiction.

The internet means you can carry out research without having to browse through journals, visit the library or track down other sources. So who can you write for? The list is extensive and obviously includes medical publications, local or national newspapers, general interest, health and women's magazines, websites ­ medical, general interest or educational such as www.bmjlearning.com ­ commercial organisations such as pharmaceutical companies and book publishers.

The Writer's Handbook lists markets, each with a defined target readership. You will need to match your style, angle and content to that readership, so it's important to do your homework and send the right piece to the right place. National newspapers and glossy magazines pay better than most medical publications and are often open to negotiation. Local papers and magazines with small circulations may pay little or nothing at all but are a good opportunity to practise your writing skills.

If you are planning to write from home, you will need time and space. Using a PDA or a laptop makes it possible to work on the move (the same applies to paper, of course). If you can concentrate, this is a good way to use dead time.

When will you write?

Missing deadlines infuriates editors who have to meet publication dates, so it's important not to take on more work than you can cope with. And never agree to unrealistic deadlines. If you want to write regularly for the media, ask yourself how much time you can spare.

Can you schedule time each week, or will it be ad hoc (riskier). Do you have the energy and self-discipline? Can you source everything you need from the internet, or will you need to factor in travel/research time?

There's nothing worse than sitting down the night before a deadline to discover that you are missing some vital information or have to deal with some domestic crisis. Use a work planner, and pencil in 'research-by' and 'draft-by' dates as well as actual deadlines.

How to get started

If you've never written before, just give it a go ­ you may have natural talent and style.I started by attending a one-day course on medical writing. This stopped me going down a lot of dead-ends. I learned about style, angles, generating ideas, producing article plans, avoiding pitfalls and, most importantly, how to market my writing.

I also read books on writing, took out a subscription to Writing magazine and joined what is now the Society of Medical Writers whose themed writing weekends provide a great opportunity to meet other GP writers, listen to experts and get feedback on your own work.

Melanie Wynne-Jones is a GP in Marple, Cheshire

Dr Peter Moore, a GP in Torquay, Devon, writes a column for his local paper, the Torbay Herald Express. He says:If the piece is to be readable there must be a clear message. The reader should be able to summarise the piece in one or two words. Even if I think of a phrase worthy of Dickens, it has to go if it is not relevant.Confidentiality is vital and I do not write about patients. Equally I do not give specific advice and do not list services offered by my surgery.

It is easy to pick a drug and list the side-effects from the datasheet under the headline 'What your doctor won't tell you'. It is also irresponsible. I do not want diabetics to stop their statin because I told them it could cause liver problems. The real challenge is to give simple messages such as 'you don't need antibiotics for your sore throat' and make them readable and interesting.

You have to be engaged with your subject. On one occasion the PCT was moving from level three to level four. It was excited and asked me to publicise the change. I stared at a blank screen for an hour before I decided that, if I found the subject boring, I could not make it interesting to the readers. I have a fear of a patient turning up to see a colleague with a cutting from my column and asking: 'Why don't you prescribe this?'

I hope my colleagues find my column helps their work rather than causes them problems. Whenever possible I try to use my piece to disseminate local health messages. I used the column to give our out-of-hours service a positive spin when other papers were bemoaning lazy GPs.

Occasionally a local voluntary group will ask me to cover a topic. I usually help.

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