Writing for Associations: The Best of Both Worlds — Journalism and Content Writing

Sandra Gurvis
Photo by Robert Svebeck on Unsplash

Sometimes it’s good to stretch your wings and learn more about a specific kind of writing, especially if you’ve done it before and even more so if you enjoy it. I recognized such an opportunity when I attended last January’s AM&P (Association Media & Publishing)’s encore presentation of its 2019 annual meeting in Chicago, a sort of “best of” compilation of the various sessions. Although the sessions offered excellent insights on social media, audience engagement, book publishing, and more, as is often with such gatherings, great value also came from meeting and talking with peers. I had a chance to pick a couple of very experienced brains, belonging to fellow ASJA members and attendees: Freelance writer/editor Melanie Padgett Powers, who is based in Washington, DC, and specializes in health care and membership associations, and Bridget Kuehn, who has been a science and medical writer for 20 years and who now has her own freelance business, SciBridge Media.

How did you get started in association writing?

Powers: I was an association employee first. After being a small-town newspaper reporter in Indiana in the 1990s, I moved to DC to look for a job with better pay and better hours. I landed a job as the assistant editor of the monthly newspaper for the American Public Health Association. I didn’t truly understand what an association—or public health—was! But they liked my journalism background. From there, I spent 13 years at various health care associations, working my way up to managing editor of magazines. So I was lucky that when I went freelance in 2013, I had a built-in association network and was able to get assignments fairly quickly.

Kuehn: I was interested in science writing and worked for a newspaper that only gave me a limited number of assignments in that subject. So when I saw a position writing for the news section of the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, I jumped at the chance. That led to a staff job at JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), and later to freelancing for a range of association publications.

Why write for associations?

Powers: I love that I get to write like a journalist, using the same narrative writing skills and other journalism techniques that I would for any magazine or newspaper. In my experience, I have more control over my association writing, the lede, the story direction, and interviews than I do in some types of content marketing writing. I also like that I don’t have to pitch—nearly all my work is assignments from association editors who know me.

Kuehn: When I worked in-house, many of my colleagues were top experts in their field so I could easily get answers and the best information. While freelancers aren’t physically proximate, they are provided the same access to resources from their assigning editors.

So it sounds like the best of both worlds, a marriage of sorts between journalism and content writing. How is writing for associations different?

Powers: Most associations provide most or all of the sources and background research. You save time by not having to do outside research or track down sources. Many associations, though not all, will require you to run your finished draft by the sources before you submit to your editor, which is a no-no in journalism. While strange to me at first, I quickly grew to like this aspect. The sources don’t dictate the focus of my article. I sometimes ignore minor edits, and I can push back gently on some edits. However, source review allows me to clarify parts and ensure all my facts are accurate, which is particularly helpful in wonky science articles.

You have to understand that ultimately you don’t own the story. It’s often work for hire, and your editors may change sections to tell more of the association angle or focus. You can’t be too precious about your original piece—recognize that you often get paid well and you get to use your journalism skills and then the association can use the story however they wish. It can also be challenging to some traditional journalists to accept that source review is often required.

Kuehn:  As far as information goes, the bar is raised in terms of the specifics of each field. If you make even a minor mistake, this audience will immediately know it, as opposed to a more mainstream audience. While the pool of association readers may be smaller, they are very invested in the topic.

What specific skills are needed?

Powers: I have two primary specialties: health care and associations, which means I write about health care and public health for several associations and other organizations, such as hospitals and drug companies. But I also write on a wide variety of topics for various associations because I understand associations and their goals, membership, and style of writing. It helps to have a journalism or newspaper or magazine background. Most associations want strong journalistic writers. 

Kuehn: Most of the writing I do for association publications is science or medical journalism…. So I specialize in medicine and science. For me having a biology degree has been essential. I write about very technical subjects for an audience of experts, so I have to be accurate and precise.

What advice would give to writers wanting to break into association writing?

Powers: Have a niche and research associations in that niche. If your niche is education, for example, you can search online for the words “association” or “society” with various educational areas, such as elementary, middle school, principals, school nurses, school counselors, school finance officers, and so much more. You’ll soon discover there is an association for nearly every field! Once you find those associations, get to know them a bit through their websites and then write letters of introduction to editors.

Kuehn: Make sure that the subject matter is of interest to you, then reach out to the editor or content manager to see if they use freelancers.  Find out what their needs are; it could be anything from a newsletter to a blog to white papers and more.  While it helps to have subject matter expertise, more seasoned writers with less background in the association’s subject matter field might find a good fit if they specialize in the type of writing the association is looking for. 

Writing for associations is a solid outlet in today’s shaky world of print journalism and even, at times, content writing. So if you want to dine on a buffet of topics that interest you, there is a smorgasbord of associations to choose from.