A health writer coughs up

Alex Gazzola Alex Gazzola is an author and journalist specialising in food, nutrition and health, with a particular focus on food intolerance, food allergy, digestion and digestive orders. His two books : Living with Food Intolerance and Living with Food Allergy are both published by Sheldon Press. He also writes on pregnancy, parenting and men’s lifestyle issues. We finally tracked him down and got him to cough up some of his writing secrets:

TCW: How did you manage to become a specialist health writer?

AG: My entire writing career has been a bit accidental and unplanned. I graduated in mathematics with modern languages in 1990, temped for a bit, then went to work in IT in the City. I liked the idea of writing and so enrolled on a correspondence course, pretty much just for fun – but the first thing I ever submitted was bought, and that gave me daft ideas about Becoming A Writer. I carried on writing speculatively, mostly about careers and office life, and selling a fair amount of articles, and then my biggest client offered me some editing work. That led to more writing about varied subjects, and health just happened to be what appealed most. I took my interest forward from there.

TCW: Does it matter to your editors and readers that you don’t have a healthcare qualification?

AG: It rarely comes up, and I don’t think I’ve ever lost work because of it. Interestingly, I do have a client who insists on referring to me as ‘Alex Gazzola BSc’ in my byline – presumably to give me some sort of scientific kudos – and which always makes me smile, but they’ve never questioned my expertise to be writing on, in this case, in-depth nutritional issues. As for readers, on the whole, I don’t think they care at all who the writer even is most of the time, let alone what qualifications they might or might not have.

TCW: As a writer in a specialist field, how do you go about establishing credibility?

AG: By being reliable, professional, knowledgeable, interested, interesting and committed to what you are doing and trying to do. Believing in yourself is the first – and most important – step.

TCW: Would you advise new freelance writers to diversify or specialise?

AG: A difficult one. You can be equally successful with either approach. I started writing about a specific area, and then diversified, then specialised, but this time in a different area, and that suited me. I would advise everyone to diversify at some point – be it at the beginning of their career, or once well-established – if only to see whether the grass is greener. Besides it’s good to push yourself – good to force yourself to write about, and interest yourself in, subjects towards which you may not naturally be drawn. Too many new writers have rigid attitudes about writing only about what appeals to them, but flexibility is such an appealing asset in a freelance writer to a commissioning editor.

TCW: Did your magazine portfolio help you to get your first book contract?

AG: Yes, it did, quite literally. I gathered together all my best clippings and slotted them into a simple but smart plastic folder, to take along to an interview I had with a publisher. They appeared impressed, and pretty much offered me the chance to do the book there and then. Sadly, they went into liquidation before the book came out, but the principle still applies.

TCW: Are the two outlets (magazine writing and book writing) still complementary?

AG: Yes and no. Writing books can feed magazine writing, by which I mean as you research a book, it throws up so much new material that it gives you dozens of ideas for articles. On the negative side, I’ve always found juggling the two difficult. When you’re working on one, you’re eternally thinking about what you’ve got to be getting on with elsewhere. Book ideas can also come from magazine articles, too – and I’ve got a couple of book proposals I’m itching to start work on now, two of which were inspired by magazine pieces.

TCW: You also write for internet health sites. Is it true that they are poorly paid?

AG: I’ve done a little work for internet health sites, and the pay was reasonable. Others I know have had similar, fairly good experiences with rates, but yes, some can be low. My advice would be to always try to negotiate a better deal.

TCW: Do you think ezines will finally take over from print magazines?

AG: No I really don’t, at least not in our lifetime. I think there’s something quite comforting about a magazine. It’s tactile and shareable and it’s unthinkable to me that they may no longer be around at some point in the future.

TCW: Do you make your living solely from writing or do you have other sources?

AG: I do a little tutoring for students taking correspondence courses in writing, which is very fulfilling. Criticising and marking the work of others helps me focus very clearly on what works and what doesn’t work, which can only improve my own writing. Obviously, students learn a lot from me, but what they don’t know is that I learn a lot from many of them too. I also occasionally do sub-editing shifts at London magazine publishers. And if an interesting translation project comes along, I may consider that, as I read and speak Italian.

TCW: What advice would you give to someone starting out as a freelance writer?

AG: Don’t read too many ‘how to write’ books. They can only tell you so much. You’ve got to be interested in stuff, all sorts of stuff, and in other people – and you can’t really will that interest into your being, I don’t think. You’ve either got it, this natural ‘curiosity’ for the world, and can build on it, or you just haven’t got it, in which case I think you’re in trouble. Too many beginner writers are introspective – they want to write about themselves and what they think about things. Truly – nobody cares. Write about what other people are interested in – green issues, health trends, emerging sports, entertainment reviews, developments in rocket science, arts and crafts fairs. Avoid thinking vaguely or generally – put a microscope to a subject, look at it from an angle nobody’s ever considered, research it, interview people, get to the bottom of it. Then you have something to sell.

TCW: What are your top tips for getting a book contract?

AG: Find the need for your proposed book – and if you can’t find the need for your proposed book, you don’t really have a book. Very few books are published out of sympathy. There are exceptions, but on the whole they need to be needed. I have written a series of three articles about proposing and writing non-fiction books, and would be happy to forward it to anyone who drops me a line through my website.

TCW: Anything else you’d like to share with the Crafty Writer?

AG: Another piece of advice: don’t be too precious about being a writer. Don’t get snooty over, say, lower than average rates, and occasionally do editors favours, and always be polite to people who tell you they’d ‘love to be a writer too’. Karma and ‘what goes around comes around’ are familiar truisms in this business. Getting on your high-horse will only expose your butt to the teeth of the horse behind you – and trust me, one day he will bite. Hard.

Our thanks to Alex for taking the time out of his busy schedule. If you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to contribute in the space below.

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3 comments on “A health writer coughs up

  1. Verica on said:

    Very good advice on writing from Alex. I agree that e-zines will not take over from printed mags in our lifetime. Verica

  2. Suzanne on said:

    Hi,

    Great interview! I agree that too many beginning writers tend to focus on telling everyone about themselves, and what THEY like, rather than focusing on what readers want to read.

    Good tips! Thanks so much.

    Suzanne Lieurance
    The Working Writer’s Coach
    http://www.workingwriterscoach.com
    “When Your Pen Won’t Budge, Read The Morning Nudge”

  3. Pingback: Writing for health at The Crafty Writer

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