10 things to consider before becoming a freelance medical writer

I’ve reached a point in my career as a where I’m being asked to dispense advice to other medical writers (wow, time flies). After participating in a recent career panel discussion on VersatilePhD, I decided to distill down some of the main points of the panel. Here are the top 10 things to think about before becoming a freelance medical writer: 

[this article is cross-posted at MedCommsWorkbook.com]


    1. Are you interested in looking for projects and clients? Everybody goes through slow periods and most freelancers have some start-u period during which they need to actively seek out work. As a freelance medical writer, you’d be very lucky to NEVER have to reach out for work, even if it is to check in with existing (but dormant) clients about any upcoming projects. Expect that you’ll need to cold call and network with potential clients at some point.
    2. Are you good with details? Every medical writer should be paying attention to the details of writing, editing, and formatting. However, my gut tells me that freelance medical writers need to be a bit more careful in this realm than a medical writer employed by a communications agency or a drug company. If your work requires some time to edit and format after you’ve sent it in, clients may think twice about hiring you again.
    3. Will you put your bottom line ahead of a client’s budget? Inevitably, there will be some clients who have a limited budget within which to work. You have a break even point that you need to reach every month to pay your business and personal bills. Which gets priority – your budget or saying yes to a client?
    4. Are you good at juggling? As a freelance medical writer, you will most likely have multiple projects running at once. You’ll need to balance the workload and schedule of deliverables to ensure that clients receive the work in a timely manner. Sometimes last minute edits or emergencies will come up. Can you keep your cool and figure out how to handle these situations (it may mean saying no or giving somebody a delivery date later than they were asking)?
    5. Do you work well with little oversight? There’s no boss checking in on your progress or making you show up to work for certain hours every day. To succeed as a freelance medical writer, you need to motivate yourself to be “at work.” You also need to be a good problem solver on your own.
    6. Can you learn about new therapeutic areas quickly? Most freelance medical writers don’t specialize in one particular therapeutic area. They will likely work across several major areas, with many more disease- and drug-specific fields thrown in. [For instance, my current projects span cardiothoracic surgery, glutamate action and uptake, electronic health records, community acquired pneumonia, type 2 diabetes, drug-coated balloons, and lung transplantation.] For each new project, you’ll need to get yourself acquainted with the specific science involved and be knowledgeable enough to repackage it into the deliverables.
    7. Are you willing to be an administrator, an accountant, a social media strategist, and a sales manager? At one point or another, you’ll likely need to carry out tasks associated with all of these roles. You may be able to hire somebody to do the tasks for you, but you will still need to have an overall vision for how your income is best spent and what your internet presence should be, as well as managing the assistant.
    8. Can you stomach a start-up period? Even the most seasoned medical writer will have to deal with a transition period in which the business details are ironed out and the project calendar is filled up. Plan on at least 6 months to 1 year to feel like you’ve gotten to a comfortable place, longer if you have less experience in medical writing or are only committing to freelancing part-time.
    9. Do you want to further your education? I think top freelance medical writers remain actively engaged in continuing education for medical writing and the related tasks that they perform. Examples of CE include attending local or national conferences, watching webinars, taking courses or certification exams, and reading the relevant literature. Do you have the time and interest to do any of this regularly?
    10. Can you let it go? You will receive countless documents back that are marked up, some with little resemblance to what you sent in. You will be on phone calls where key opinion leaders (KOLs) don’t understand the nuances of the project. You will feel like you messed up in one form or another. On top of that, you probably don’t have office mates to lean on for help or commiserate with. You will need to learn how to process the frustrations of work, learn from them, and leave them behind so that they don’t get in your way of succeeding.

Any other tips that you’d give to folks considering freelancing? Drop me a note.