From burnt-out physio to booked-out health writer: How I did it (and how you can too)

by Sophia Auld
27 April 2023

My mind and body had been sending hints for a while, but things peaked in late 2015. I was exhausted, easily irritated, and had to drum up the compassion that once came so naturally – not a great combination for a physiotherapist! Now I know those symptoms have a name: ‘burnout’.

At the same time, my lifelong yearning to work with words was becoming more like a set of teeth gnawing at my insides. A short course and reduced work hours later, I was on my way. Here’s how I made a mid-life career switch from physio to health writer without accruing massive uni debt or completely disrupting my family, with some lessons I learned that might help you do it too.

Passion and perseverance

While writing features and marketing copy doesn’t fall under the ‘bleeding onto the page’ category, life as a freelancer involves some hard knocks, especially when you’re starting out. Things like ghosting, slow payments, and harsh feedback can take their toll. To build a business, you’ve got to push through that.

If I hadn’t been driven by the absolute certainty I wanted to write, I would have chucked in the towel. My family can tell you how many times I said things like, “This is too hard. I’ll just stick with physio.” At one point, I had 13 pitches rejected in a row. But I kept going, and the next pitch got a yes.

You have to be prepared to give freelance writing a red-hot crack. Don’t give up. And when your enthusiasm flags, it helps to have people who’ll encourage and support you.

Build your portfolio

Starting out, I knew no-one would hire me without writing samples, so I wrote a few things for free. One unpaid piece for a seniors’ magazine turned into a commission for six articles for a cycling mag and a feature for one of my favourite reads – WellBeing.

Which brings me to another point: WellBeing only works with new writers on spec, so I had to write a 2,000-word piece with the risk it could be rejected. But I made sure it was tight, interesting and targeted to their readership. It was accepted, and I went on to write multiple articles for them.

And a word that might seem contradictory: If you have an incredible, timely idea that’s perfectly suited to a publication, the editor might accept it without even seeing samples.

A few months after getting some features published, I discovered content agencies. I put my name down and got work through several. I remember my first content gig: It was for a well-known beauty brand. The topic (skincare) was well outside my field of interest or expertise, but it paid $300, which I thought was huge at the time. Once I wrote 10 wedding ring descriptions for the grand sum of $21!

You could look for content agencies that cover multiple niches, or marketing agencies that specialise in a particular field. You can sign up for some of them online, or you might need to send an introductory email outlining your skills and experience.

Next, I found job posting directories like Rachel’s List. My very first ‘corporate’ client came from there four years ago, and I still work with them today. I’ve since gotten numerous jobs from listings like these.

My pivot away from print

To quote an overused term, my next step involved a pivot away from feature writing. The decision was a financial one: I loved writing features, but as the sole breadwinner, I just wasn’t making enough income from them. So I cut down on pitching publications and focused on finding more content and copywriting clients.

I continued working through agencies and using job listing boards, attended networking events, and sent letters of introduction to potential clients. All these strategies helped build my client base.

This switch also quadrupled my writing income (from about $25,000 in 2017 to $100,000 in 2019), enabling me to quit physio altogether.

Position yourself for success

My next strategy involved a complete backflip on a vow I’d made early on: to write about anything BUT health. After a 25-year physio career, I thought I was over healthcare. So I wrote about fast food, travel, careers, finances, sustainability and even motoring (which excites me about as much as watching golf).

But while I was still writing features, I got lots of ideas for health-related articles, many of which were published in national and international titles. And some of my agency work was for health, medical and pharmaceutical clients.

Then one day while driving home, I had an epiphany: I could capitalise on my background to position myself as a sought-after health writer. I knew a lot about health; I knew how to find quality evidence and information; and I understood the pain points, interests and concerns of healthcare professionals and consumers. I’d also regained my zest for all things health related. This meant I could write quickly, accurately and persuasively about health and medical topics.

I’d learned many (though not all) small businesses don’t have much budget for copywriting, so I looked for corporate clients in the health and medical sectors. It helped to think outside the box about who might value my expertise, like companies that work with government health departments or sell to healthcare service providers.  

I know other writers who’ve done something similar, capitalising on careers in engineering, education, finance, fitness and more to establish themselves as writers. Whatever your background, it’s likely there’s a business that needs a writer and will appreciate your industry knowledge.

Alternatively, you could focus on writing about a favourite cause or hobby. As a diving enthusiast, I fulfilled one dream by getting a piece published in Scuba Diver magazine. Just be mindful you might need to weigh up passion and pay. In my experience, popular subjects like pets and lifestyle are less lucrative than more technical topics like SaaS or construction. I received the princely sum of $30 for the two-page diving spread – just enough to cover a couple of scuba tank fills.

Nail your pricing

One of the hottest topics in freelancing, learning to price my work has been key to building a successful business. You might have little say over pay when you’re pitching publications, but you can negotiate with corporate clients (and some agencies).

Some writers use time-based pricing, but this limits your earning potential. Furthermore, time-based pricing may not reflect your worth. Many writers bring more value to clients than just their time, especially when they have additional expertise – such as knowledge around the subject matter, SEO, information architecture, design or web development.

I price my work by the project these days, considering things like how long it will take, how complex it is, how many reviewers are involved, and the value it will deliver. A high-converting sales page, for example, is worth much more than a blog post.

I always talk budget from the outset. There’s no point wasting time on a lengthy call or writing a proposal if a client has $200 to spend on something for which you’d charge $2,000. It helps to remember you’ll always be too expensive for some clients, but others are more than willing to pay for value.

For tips on pricing and finding better-paying clients, I highly recommend following Ed Gandia, Jennifer Goforth Gregory and Lindy Alexander. [Ed’s note: All three of these movers’n’shakers will be speaking in person at The Content Byte Summit on Sept 14-16.]

Find your people

My final tip is to build your tribe, even if you’re an ultra-introverted writerly type. Some of my best projects have come through my networks, including two that have accounted for much of my income this financial year.

Now I’m busier, I can also refer work I can’t (or don’t want to) take to other writers. It’s great being able to sow back something of what I’ve reaped from others’ generosity. To meet writers, join communities like Rachel’s List. Contribute where you can on social media. And there’s nothing like in-person events for meeting people and making authentic connections. You’ll even meet other introverts!

On being ‘booked out’

Despite the title, I’m not booked out 100% of the time. But, at the risk of jinxing myself, I’m at a stage where I don’t have to chase work. I still remember the days when I’d almost pee myself with excitement at getting a commission. In some ways I miss those days, but I wouldn’t give up the certainty of a decent income. And if things do dry up, I have strategies I can use to fill my calendar again.

Other ideas for growing a profitable writing business

  • Keep building your skills – I’ve taken courses in content writing, SEO copywriting, sales page writing and more. Each has helped me gain confidence. Just don’t get stuck in the ‘I’ll get started as soon as I do one more course’ cycle.
  • Cherish helpful feedback – while I’ve worked with my share of red pen rogues, working with a great editor is a gift. Good feedback can show you things you’ve missed, teach you to write better, and transform a good piece into a great one.
  • Establish a niche – I know this divides opinion, but niching in health was transformative for me. Recently, I heard a saying that sums up my thoughts well: Niching isn’t about the work you accept (I still write other things, including property descriptions for local real estate agents), but what work you go after.
  • Be easy to work with – this might sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve heard some horror stories about freelance writers. Delivering what you say you will, when you say you will, is a great start. Being kind, helpful and pleasant will help you stand out. Becoming a strategic partner who brings additional value to a business will keep your clients coming back.

Have you made a mid-life career change to become a writer? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Sophia Auld

8 responses on "From burnt-out physio to booked-out health writer: How I did it (and how you can too)"

  1. Nigel says:

    $100,000 a year! I should have studied physiotherapy rather than Mass Communications all those years ago. Thanks for an inspirational article, Sophia! (And for spilling the tea on the big-name international guests flying in for Rach’s convention.)

  2. Rashdia says:

    Great article Sophia! Your persistence made all the difference to your success and I’m so glad the pivot paid off. Lots of food for thought in your article.

  3. Sophia Auld says:

    It’s funny Nigel, I sometimes wish I’d studied comms or creative writing. I even started an MA in Writing and Literature in 2016 – managed to complete three subjects. But my physio background has definitely been helpful in establishing a niche. Hope to see you at Rach’s convention!

  4. Sophia Auld says:

    Thanks for your feedback Rashida! Glad you found something to think about in there, especially as I know you’ve done an amazing job carving out your own path as a writer.

  5. Rachel Smith says:

    So great having you on the blog this week, Sophia – I think you’ve hit a nerve 🙂

  6. Sophia Auld says:

    My pleasure Rach! Hitting nerves is something of a specialty 🙂

  7. Sally Wride says:

    Such an inspirational read and well written! I’m searching for tired physio I know who had 10 years in publishing BEFORE retraining as a physio and has a Masters in Pain. So I have been trying to find possible combos of writing and physio, to support a transition!
    Well done for not giving up!

  8. Sophia Auld says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words Sally! Wishing your friend every success and please let them know I’d be happy to chat if they’re interested.☺️

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