A Day in the Life of a Health Writer

colleen shannon

Yvonne chats to our Health Writer for The People’s Friend.

Our health writer, Colleen Shannon, does a marvellous job of keeping our readers in touch with new treatments available, while also promoting how to stay fit and healthy. I caught up with her for a quick chat about her great work for the magazine.

How long have you worked for “The People’s Friend” magazine?

I’m not sure – it feels likes I have always been part of “The People’s Friend” family! In reality, I think it must be around five years.
Where do you find inspiration for the topics covered?
I’ve been a health writer for more than 20 years, so thinking about the latest news and hot topics is like breathing: it just happens. I belong to the Guild of Health Writers and I’m a senior associate of the Royal Society of Medicine, which are both superb for keeping me up to date. Now is my chance to give credit to all the press officers at the leading charities and the editorial team at the “Friend” for their great ideas, too.

Where’s your go-to place for writing your copy and do you ever experience writer’s block?

My favourite places to write are the science reading room at the British Library or the wonderful library at the Royal Society of Medicine. It’s quiet, and everything I need for reference is right at hand. I also draw energy from all the students, doctors, scientists and professors working in the same room – you can almost feel their brains humming away. I have always loved libraries and I feel right at home.
Writing on demand is a skill you can develop over time. If I’m stuck, it’s usually because the angle is wrong and I need to try a different approach to the story. The editorial staff at the “Friend” are also a great help when this happens and they always have good advice.

From first deciding on what topic to cover to actually placing copy, how long on average does this take?

The Health Editor keeps me in line with the schedule – she is very organised. We plan about three months in advance and the deadlines can vary depending on what time of year it is – Christmas copy has to be filed earlier than usual and we also take into consideration any holidays. A lot of teamwork goes into producing the “Friend”. My research and writing are just the first steps. Then the editors check every word, the designers find a photo and put all the items on the page beautifully, it gets a final sign-off, and finally the magazine is printed and sent out.

Health advice seems to be forever changing, how difficult is it to stay abreast of current news and breakthroughs?

While a noisy media makes it seem like there is a new breakthrough every day, sudden advances are not actually as common as you’d think. Science is gradual and stepwise. So I am always sceptical about hyped up cures, claims and miracle diets. I look for reliable experts and strong scientific studies. The NHS publishes guidelines on the most common conditions so I follow their updates. It’s hard to go wrong if you stick to these sources – you won’t miss much.

Among friends and family who know what you do for a living, do you ever have people asking you for health advice?

Yes, this happens all the time! I don’t give advice because I’m not a doctor. But I do try to offer encouragement, show them where to find reliable information and point them towards a helpline for support. Come to think of it, that’s what you see in the column every week and it’s what I love about the “Friend”: there is a close and valued connection with our readers, so the writing always feels like I am having a good chat with someone I like.

What’s your favourite thing about being a health writer?

Without a doubt, it’s the chance to meet loads of inspiring people, like all the professionals who work so hard in this field. I also hear from people of strong character who are making the most of life in sad and difficult situations. I marvel at all these accomplishments and it’s a privilege to tell the stories.

Photo credit: Nina Assam

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Yvonne McKenzie

Yvonne works on the Features team and admits to being nosy, so loves looking after the Between Friends letters and finding out all about our lovely readers. She also looks after our health copy and enjoys writing about inspiring people that help make the articles in the magazine so interesting.