Understanding Personal Essays: A Healthy Niche

Abigail Green

By Abigail Green

If there’s one subject people never seem to tire of, it’s their health. Their latest ailment, how much (or little) they’re sleeping, the newest diet or exercise fad-it’s all fodder for discussion. Or, in the case of essayists, exposition.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a health writer, you’d be wise to consider this popular niche within the personal essay genre. First-person health pieces can run the gamut from essays about how you lost weight to the pros and cons of getting a tattoo removed, how to choose a new doctor, whether the latest nutritional supplement really works, and much, much more.

Health essays don’t just run in health and fitness publications, either. You’ll find them in newspapers, parenting and travel magazines, and general interest magazines, as well as specialty publications targeted to pregnant women, seniors, or people with diabetes. The possibilities are virtually limitless.

So how do you approach this popular niche? First, understand that health essays need to interest people other than your doctor. Editors and readers aren’t going to be riveted by your first-hand account of losing your love handles unless you can make it relevant to them. While certain topics never seem to get old-weight loss, sleep, and sex, for example-it’s precisely because these subjects are so frequently covered that writers need to find a fresh angle.

Did you get in shape thanks to a hot, new pole-dancing class at your gym? Were you able to cure your chronic insomnia using natural remedies? Did you find a miracle food that boosted your lagging libido? A fresh, first-person account of a common health issue may be just the thing to grab an editor’s attention.

One caveat: if your experience is too unique, that could work against you. For instance, if you have been diagnosed with a rare disease, publications may not want an essay on a condition most of their readers have never heard of, let alone suffer from. The exception? A current event makes your condition newsworthy. A great example is Kawasaki syndrome-a relatively rare childhood disease that was all over the news recently when John Travolta’s son reportedly died from complications stemming from the syndrome. An essay about your child’s experience with the disease is almost sure to sell.

Another thing that sets the health essay apart from other personal essays is that it often includes reporting. That is, in addition to the writer’s own experience, the piece may include facts, statistics, and quotes from medical experts. This information is not hard to find. Start by visiting the Centers for Disease Control website or by interviewing your family doctor.

Scan the publications you read regularly for first-person health articles. Mine your family’s and your own medical history for subject matter. It’s worth your time to explore this personal essay niche, which can be a healthy addition to your freelance portfolio.

Abigail Green has published more than 150 articles and essays in regional and national publications including American Baby, Baltimore Magazine, Bride’s, Cooking Light, and Health. Her work also appears in the new book, “A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.” (Adams Media, 2009). Abby holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in publishing from the University of Baltimore. She writes the “Crib Notes” column for The Writer Mama e-zine and the “Understanding Personal Essays” column for Writers on the Rise. A mother of two boys, she blogs about parenting, publishing and more at http://diaryofanewmom.blogspot.com.

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