What is Essay – and Can I Make a Living at It?

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Very often when nurses first approach me about how to become a writer, they’re interested in writing to advance their personal “cause” or “issue.” For example, I’ve recently talked to a nurse who believed passionately in the value of case management and wanted to spread the word more widely, and I’ve spoken with another nurse who felt passionate about patient safety and wanted to educate the general public about ways to keep themselves safe within the healthcare system.

I admire this passion for sharing the nursing knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of patient care, and I hate it when I have to tell these nurses that professional freelance writing isn’t really about that. It’s not about advancing your pet cause or passion project.

That type of writing falls under the “essay” umbrella, not journalism or content writing. Let’s discuss what essay really is – and whether you can build a profitable career on it or not.

What is Essay?

Essay is a beautiful art form in which the writer tells a story that illustrates a universal truth of life. Essays detail our shared human experiences through lyrical prose that gets to the heart of difficult questions and brings us together by acknowledging shared emotions.

As my friend, the superb essayist Amy Paturel, puts it on her website, “Writing essays moves me from experience to understanding.” It provides the same function for readers.

Essays come in various types, from “reported” (which includes facts and statistics, the way a news story might) to “braided” (a complex form that weaves together two or three stories in a way that reveals one over-arching truth or several smaller ones). Essays can be very short (150 words) to very long (5,000 words). 

Essay is Not Journalism

When nurses come to me, as I described above, and tell me they want to become health reporters so that they can “spread the news” about their issue or cause, I face the delicate situation of explaining that’s not how freelance journalism works. At least, not exactly.

Freelance journalism involves pitching and selling articles of interest to an editor’s narrowly defined target audience.

For instance, you would not read an article about credit card fraud in a patient magazine on heart failure, even though the credit card story may be eminently interesting. “Interesting” alone does not mean every publication in the world is going to publish any particular story. Editors seek articles of keen interest to their target audience only. The editor of a magazine on heart failure would only run an article on credit card fraud if the article were specific to her audience: Say, a study that revealed that credit card fraud rates are higher in heart failure patients. 

The same holds true for many nurses’ passion projects. It may be true that your specific tips for coping with the symptoms of RA (gleaned from your 30 years working in rheumatology) may be useful and interesting to many people, but they will not be of interest to every publication’s target audience.

And I haven’t even mentioned “newsworthiness.” Any article you might pitch to an editor must be newsworthy. Often times, a nurse’s tips or knowledge – while informative – hold no news value at all.

This is where essay comes in.

Writing essays about your cause or passion can make an excellent way to share your knowledge with others. You can “spread the word” about your cause through essays published on your personal blog or sold to a media outlet.

Yes, you can sell essays. I was just getting to that.

Selling Essays Will Not Make You Rich

Many of the freelance writers I know – nurses or not – sell essays at least occasionally. I, myself, won an Online News Association award in 2010 for my blog series “Dad Has Dementia,” which was essentially a collection of miniature essays.

However, not all media outlets purchase essays. And the ones that do…don’t pay a lot. 

I’m sure some writers do, in fact, make a living publishing essays, but I don’t see it as a viable path for a nurse just starting out who needs to earn a good, steady, generous income from writing. I would suggest you keep essay writing in your hip pocket as a way to augment the income you earn from more lucrative options, like health reporting or content writing.

Essay writing provides a creative outlet that any nurse-writer can benefit from. Crafting and polishing essays can broaden your vocabulary, improve your composition skills, and help you develop your own writing style.

But they probably will not make you rich.

You Should Do It Anyway

I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from trying to get the word out about your particular nursing passion. Indeed, I hope you will continue to pursue that path with gusto! The world needs more nurses sharing their opinions and knowledge through essays, and I applaud everyone who is doing that.

I would humbly suggest, though, that you should not rely on essay writing as a way to earn a living as a freelance writer. If you want to make a great living as a writer, I urge you to consider becoming a health reporter or to go after content marketing work. Either of these paths will allow you to keep writing and publishing essays on the side – the best of both worlds.

Questions about essay? Post ‘em in the comments – now that I’ve fixed the blog so you can actually weigh in!

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Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes

Elizabeth Hanes BSN RN is known professionally as "the nurse who knows content." By day, she uses her nursing knowledge and creative writing acumen to produce content that drives results for clients. By night, she teaches other nurses how to achieve their dreams of a professional writing career. In between, she takes frequent breaks to drink Cosmos and walk her dog, Mitzi. Elizabeth lives in Albuquerque, NM. She has never met Walter White or needed Saul Goodman.

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