A writing career, unlike a medical career, is not linear.
Like everyone, I get lots of junk e-mail. Much of mine consists of announcements of continuing medical education courses that have no relevance to my work as a primary care internist. “Updates in Pediatric Anesthesia?” No thanks. “Frontiers in Electroencephalography?” I don’t think so.
A few years ago, though, a CME flier for a new, three-day course on nonfiction writing (www.HarvardWriters.com) for clinicians arrived in my in box. This one I did not delete. An English major in college and still an avid reader and writer, I’d resigned myself to keeping my work life and my writing life separate. Here was an invitation to combine them, even to use one to enhance the other. Though I went on to take the course again, and also to serve on its faculty, I learned things in those first three days that have stuck with me in what is now a fully developed second career as a professional writer:
A writing career, unlike a medical career, is not linear: If you’re a nurse, doctor, or therapist, chances are you went to professional school and never looked back. You worked hard, put one foot in front of the other, and moved ahead. You rarely faced rejection. Writers, even famous writers, get rejected all the time. The last success doesn’t always lead to the next. That’s not to say that writing careers don’t progress. I could, for example, draw you a line from my work on a synagogue newsletter to the Boston Globe and NPR--it just wouldn’t be a straight line.
Learn what a “platform” is, because you need one: “Platform” refers to all the things you’ve done that make you the best person to be writing a particular publication. Say you’re an OB-GYN who wants to write a book about contraception. It’s good that you’re an OB-GYN, but you have a better chance of selling your book if you’ve blogged, lectured, written editorials, and appeared on TV to discuss your subject. With each step, you become the “go to” person. Your name gets around. You get asked to write, lecture, and appear more. Platform leads to more platform.
Relationships matter: Writers, agents, and editors are people. Like all people, they prefer to work with other people whom they know, respect and can rely upon. This course is a great place to begin networking. Other writing courses and conferences (e.g. those listed in Poets and Writers or Grub Street) and even social media are also venues to meet the people who can nurture your career. Writing is solitary--publishing is not.
Write about what interests you most: You may be a health professional, but you have other interests, and you should incorporate these into your writing. For example, I love books and now review books (mostly health-related, some not). I’ve also liberally sprinkled my medical writing with memoir, jokes, and various current events that obsess me. Anything that you know something about, that you’re passionate about, can become part of your writing--and part of your platform.
Did I mention that you need a platform?
About: Suzanne Koven is a primary care internist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her monthly column, "In Practice," appears in the Boston Globe and her blog by the same name is featured on boston.com. Dr. Koven's essays, reviews, and interviews have also been published by JAMA, NEJM, Psychology Today, The Rumpus.net, the Boston Globe Books section, and several other sites and journals. Her first book, Say Hello To A Better Body: Weight Loss and Fitness for Women Over 50, was released in May, 2012. Read more at www.suzannekovenmd.com.