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Nurse to copywriter — a natural progression?

Helen Barnes

Helen Freelance Writer

PRO

Speak to two different copywriters and you’ll find that they had different routes into the profession.  Some have been commercial writers all their working lives, and others come from marketing or have worked for businesses where they were given the task of writing copy.  

In my case, I went from nurse to copywriter which, perhaps, isn’t an obvious progression.

There is no set path into copywriting.  It’s a career in which anyone can flourish if they have the ability to write, a flair for creativity, good organisational skills, and an understanding of people and what makes effective copy.

You might wonder what a nursing background can bring to a copywriting role. That’s not an unreasonable question – after all, I wouldn’t want to hire someone with a background as a lawyer to rewire my house without knowing that they had the relevant skills.

One area I focus on in the copywriting I do is the health industry.  For this type of work, having medical knowledge is an obvious advantage, but it takes much more than specialist understanding to be a skilled copywriter.  

Here are some of the skills I developed, and knowledge I gained, in my nursing career which I now use in my work as copywriter:

A good understanding of people

Nursing has given me experience of understanding people and the ability to communicate with them on any level.

I’ve witnessed every human emotion and been privileged to be part of people’s lives at times of illness, loss, hope, tragedy and joy. So  I know what gets to them, drives them and really matters to them.

As a nurse, I learnt to get to the heart of what a person cares about so I could explain a concept to them and make sure the message hit home.  

An example of this is using antibiotics.  We’ve all seen the reports about how there’s been a cut back on prescribing antibiotics.  But actually doing this can be a challenge.

Parents with a sick child worry and want to see their child well again.  They can be convinced that their child needs (often unnecessary) antibiotic treatment.

My work as a nurse frequently involved telling parents why their child hadn’t been prescribed antibiotics.  I often had to explain that, because of antibiotic resistance, the medication wouldn’t have the desired effect.

Letting parents know that avoiding antibiotics now will stop their child from being resistant to them in the future, helped them understand.

Effective translation skills

Nurses need to be able to make medical information and concepts easily understandable to any member of the public.  

I’ve often been in the room with a patient and a doctor when the doctor tries to explain something about the patient’s condition or treatment. I’ve seen the blank or confused looks on a patient’s face, and I know when I need to ‘translate’ the messages they’re being given into language that they understand and can use.

This is a skill that copywriters need too.  More often than not, the target readers or customers of a particular service or product won’t, and don’t need to, understand the technical or scientific information behind their potential purchase.  

Copywriters need to be able to figure out what the reader wants, and what they need to know, and make this information easily understandable and actionable.

An understanding of psychology

Copywriters also need an understanding of human psychology.  They need to:

  • have an awareness of the human psyche
  • understand the factors that drive human behaviour
  • know how best to target messages to prompt the desired action from readers

My understanding of human psychology comes from my medical studies.  Having knowledge of the brain and pain versus pleasure systems, reward processes and why a person might act the way they do is really useful in targeting copy.

A caring nature

Nursing’s often called ‘the caring profession’ and caring’s also important for copywriters.  Their messages need to be written with the aim of producing positive outcomes for the reader as well as their client.  

An ethical grounding

As a nurse, you need to know what the ethical principles underpinning your work are and make sure that what you do meets them. This is also true for copywriters.

People often question the ethics behind some traditional marketing methods.  Good copywriters will only use ethical methods. They’ll make sure their work is honest, unambiguous and won’t result in harm.

Experience of multitasking

Nurses and copywriters need to be able to:

  • carry out research
  • work under pressure
  • learn fast
  • swap between a range of tasks

You might be juggling 4 clients, dealing with messages from different sources and working projects on a variety of topics. But to build effective working relationships, you have to make sure that each client feels like the job you’re doing for them is top of your to-do list.

And when you’re working on a particular project, you need to focus on it as if there’s no other work waiting.  

Curiosity

Curiosity is a great characteristic to have as a copywriter.  Both personally and professionally, I’m good at asking relevant questions, listening and observing, quietly gathering relevant information and processing it accordingly.  

This is essential for copywriters because writing good copy for a specific audience involves understanding:

  • their client’s business
  • who their clients’ clients are
  • what the people who’ll be reading the copy want and need, and what their pain points are

So copywriters need to be able to quickly gather the right information.

Respect for confidentiality

Anyone who works with patients, or their records, must keep the information they come across about them confidential. This also applies to copywriters.

Ensuring clients feel safe to share secret, or commercially sensitive, information about their work means, as a copywriter, I have full insight and can write more effective copy for them.

A sense of humour

Finally, it’s important that both nurses and copywriters have a good sense of humour – being able to see the lighter side of life is a good way to maintain your sanity in either profession.

There’s crossover in skills and characteristics needed to be a nurse and a copywriter, so my past career has given me valuable transferable experience.

Changing careers after twenty years also meant that I came to copywriting with passion, motivation and drive for another adventure.

We all have skills and experiences from previous areas we’ve worked in and now that our working lives are so much longer, people don’t need to ‘settle’ for one profession for life.  

Always think outside the box about the path your life could take with the skills you already have – you won’t regret it.

First published on www.helenfreelancewriter.com

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