Category Archives: Professional

2014 Retrospective

So 2014. I started the year off in a panic. November and December were dismal and I was sure that this was the final downslope on the freelance rollercoaster. That there would never be another upswing. I don’t think I will ever get comfortable with the ebb and flow of freelancing. I love the freedom, and the ability to say no, but the feast or famine thing is just tough to take. Will I ever get to the point where the security wins out over the freedom and I decide to head back into an office? There are days when I say “Never!” but then there are days where the panic sets in and I just want something steady, predictable, and secure.

I considered expanding my business to include copyediting. I quickly realized that copyediting is its own  animal – it’s not the same as what I do. I mean, I do some copyediting, but my strength is in developmental and substantive editing, specifically in the biomedical sciences. More than that, I realized that to make any money in copyediting, I would need to automate much of what I do. I would need to use macros and software to make every second count and get up to a decent hourly rate. Even taking into consideration the learning curve, it was clear that adding copyediting to my repertoire was not going to solve my income problem.

So I decided in January that I would delve into my virtual Rolodex and seek out more work in healthcare communications – I’d hoped that as the recession started to ease up, more agencies might be willing to hire freelancers. I reached out to my previous employer, and although they were not looking for freelance help, I was able to get my name back in circulation. It eventually paid off, with about 6 months of steady work over the summer and fall.

Almost at the same time, a former colleague of mine referred me to another agency. I went in to speak to the head of medical writing and started doing freelance work for them a couple of months later – it’s led to a fantastic working relationship that I hope to sustain and even expand in the coming year.

By March, grant proposal jobs had kicked back in. In the current funding environment, though, I think it’s time to resign myself to the fact that grant work will not be a big percentage of my income. That said, grant editing and consulting is one of the most personally and professionally satisfying parts of my career, and I was able to add on a new client this year who kept me very busy during October and November. I am hopeful that I can keep it going in 2015.

Manuscript editing continued to be a big part of my business, and I enjoy it as much as, and maybe even a little more than, grant projects. The work is sporadic, though, so it was good to have the agency work to fill in the gaps.

On the business side, I switched accountants and promptly realized how disinterested my previous accountant had been in my business. My new accountant has put me on the right track, curing me of really bad bookkeeping habits, gently guiding me towards what I should have been doing all along (ahem, QuickBooks). I also made the decision to incorporate, which has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made, financially speaking.

So what did I learn this year?

1) Networking is crucial. Most if not all of my business is based on referrals. I’m glad I reached out to previous clients and kept in touch with former colleagues. Even if they have no work, they are reminded I am out there and I am available to take work. I send out a New Year postcard every year for that very reason – just get to get my name back in their head as they start their year.

2) Quality really is king. Always do your best work. Always. You’ll get repeat business as well as referrals. By February, just as I was starting to dust off the resume, my repeat clients started calling with jobs. I should have more faith, really.

I’m sure I covered this in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating. If you think you can’t do your best quality work, don’t take the job. Really. Be honest with potential clients if you have doubts about your ability to complete the job. It doesn’t help you or your client if you have to struggle through a job. I hate having to admit I can’t do something, but I really hate having to tell a client I can’t finish their job. Or sending them poor quality work.

3) Do what you’re good at. Although it’s always good to learn new skills, it’s also important to focus on your strengths and offer your clients your very best. I am really good at substantive and developmental biomedical editing and biomedical writing. I’m good at editing biomedical grant proposals and peer-reviewed manuscripts. I’m good at brainstorming and planning and constructing a good scientific story. But there are many things I am not as good at and other things I know nothing about. I recognize this and I wouldn’t offer my services in these areas to any client, no matter how freaked out I am about the potentially lost income.

4) Introspection is important. I try to assess how I am doing a few times a year. And not just financially. How many active clients do I have? How many are new? What kinds of projects have I been doing? Where have I struggled and what can I do about it?

5) Go with a diverse client base. As much as I love grants and manuscripts, they are not sufficient to pay the bills. I ended up with 25 clients in 2014, some repeat, some new. They were independent researchers, research institutions, healthcare communications agencies, publishers, and pharma. I also did some volunteer work for AWIS Magazine – great experience and more contacts!

So how did I end up doing in 2014? I am up a little more than 10% in billing and a little more than 5% in income from last year – so that is really something.

As I write this, I am in the midst of my annual December slump – the part of the freelance ride I guess I’m just going to have to get used to. But this year, I will not panic and instead have faith that all my hard work and diversification and introspection and newfound business sense will pay off and the rollercoaster will once again head in the upward direction. Here’s to an even better 2015!

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Diversifying vs. Finding a Niche

So a long time ago, I wrote a post on the importance of finding a niche. It’s important, otherwise you run the risk of overextending yourself, maybe taking jobs that don’t quite fit your particular skill set and getting paid relatively little as a consequence of climbing the learning curve.

However…

I have also been struggling recently with how to increase my income. I could raise my hourly rates, which doesn’t always work out. I could attempt project-based pricing. I could quit being a solopreneur and throw in my lot with an editorial group. Or I could find more clients and/or work more hours, which will inevitably lead to burnout.

I was also given the advice that I should find different clients. Hmmm.

Some history: I took a very gradual route to full-time freelancing. I had a full-time job, so the freelance gigs I took were like a bonus. Also, my day job was in content development for continuing medical education and healthcare communications companies, whereas my freelance jobs were in scientific manuscript and grant editing. Very different. Day job: big projects in medical writing with project-based pricing. Freelance: smaller projects in science writing and editing with hourly pricing.  When I switched to freelancing full time, the majority of my work became science writing and editing, billed hourly.

Every once in a while, I still do get a big project in healthcare comm, but for the most part, manuscripts and grants are my bread and butter and university researchers are my main clients. Even though I had settled in a niche, I also decided to keep my experience up on my website, classified by client and the types of services I am able to offer to each. Maybe deep down I recognized the value in presenting myself as someone with a broad skill set, but I am still hesitant to leave my “niche” and risk overextending my one employee. Which I have done in the past and I’d like to avoid for sanity’s sake.

Another factor is the current state of federally funded research. It’s dire. Scientists are being laid off. These are my clients. They don’t have a whole lot of money to invest in developing a grant proposal that is less and less likely to be funded. Hopefully that’s where I come in, to help them get it funded. But it can be hard for them to weigh the need to hire a grant editor when they are already struggling to keep their labs going. It’s not yet clear whether the current situation with NIH funding is going to drive business or dry it up. To be safe, diversifying is probably a smart thing to do.

Now, how to diversify without overextending? There’s a skill I really need to work on.

Burning out and booting up

It’s been a while – I’ve been busy. That’s an understatement, actually. I’ve been swamped. Overloaded. Overbooked. Overwhelmed. You get the picture. I don’t know what happened, but my schedule somehow went bonkers. Either I need a better project tracking system (any suggestions?) or I need to remind myself more often how many hours there are in a day and how many of those hours must be scheduled for sleep.

After many, many days in a row with no break, and realizing that it’s not letting up any time soon, I am starting to burn out. Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely NOT complaining about being busy. It’s being too busy for long periods of time that ends up killing me. And in this most recent stretch, my laptop decided it was burnt out too. So there I was at Best Buy on a Sunday evening, one hour before closing, frantically trying to figure out if my laptop could be resurrected or if I could buy a new one and get it set up ASAP. I’m sure the salespeople saw me walk in, wild-eyed and crazed, and decided I was an easy commission – I think I was being helped by 3 different people at one point.

Anyway, I ended up buying a new laptop and rushing home to set it up and get back to my  two projects with deadlines on Monday. I got everything plugged in, and hoped that I could at least get Word up and running. I will spare you a full description of the hysteria and tears. (tip: keep all your product keys somewhere safe, and if you move, attach them to your person until you get to your new house and put them somewhere safe).

I will say that I’d like to join the chorus of other PC users and declare my hatred for Windows 8. It’s probably an excellent operating system for tablets. For laptops? Not so much. I feel like I am pretty comfortable with computers (I kinda have to be), and it took me at least a half an hour to find the control panel! Somehow I was able to find my product key for Office and could load that up, transfer over the projects I was working on, and finish them up.

The rest of the set-up process was laden with some award-winning profanity and several calls to tech support. It ended with a very frustrated writer who thought she was savvy with technology, but was now feeling like an old fogey. The only good thing about the whole process? Carbonite. It’s the best investment I ever made. Everything was transferred over to the new computer in 2 days. Even my Internet Explorer favorites. So it could have been much worse, I know.

Despite the technical difficulties, I ended up making my two deadlines, so that was good. And so far I haven’t let any clients down by being so busy. But when I get this busy, for this long, it’s only a matter of time before I drop a ball. And that’s all it really takes to screw up a freelance business. One ball.

Reasoning, arguing, and biomedical writing

Now that I’ve completed the Writing in the Sciences course on Coursera (and received my official certificate, yay me!), I decided to take a course called Think Again: How to Argue – along with 72,000 other people around the world. I originally signed up to learn how to argue politics more civilly with my family-who-supports-the-other-party. But as the class moves through week 2, I’m realizing how much the concepts taught in this class also apply to my professional life as a biomedical writer/editor.

For example, take “the problem of infinite regress” and “authoritarian assurances.” These concepts are the basis for some of our universally accepted writing practices, such as why it’s better to cite the primary reference rather than a review. But they also explain the larger value of skepticism, why all research results should be questioned and tested, and at what point the transition is made from experimental results to accepted fact. “When can I be assured that what has been reported is true?” “What is the standard for trusting the source enough to be assured that something is true? Is it enough that the person who is saying it is considered an authority or is citing an authority? Or is it the institution where the work was done? Or the journal that published it? Or the number of other studies that produce the same results?” The upshot — I am more aware of instances when assurances (research results) suddenly turn into givens (facts). And when this happens, why it is critical to look deeper into the literature before citing it in my writing.

If you’re not bored yet, I have one more thought: one concept that caught my professional writer’s attention this week was “guarding the premise” – making your premise weaker so that it is more likely to be true and less likely to raise objections. I think this might be the reason why scientists (including me) are taught to use the word “may” in their writing (and why the Writing for the Sciences instructor tried to beat that out of me with strong verbs and active voice).

Needless to say, this class has gotten my mind going on the anatomy of an argument and how humans reason. I guess I should have taken more philosophy classes when I had the chance as an undergraduate?

Addicted to learning

Am I crazy? Don’t I have enough on my plate already? Thanks to my AMWA colleagues (I’m looking at you KOKedit!), I was introduced to the world of free online courses at Coursera. Essentially, Coursera has enabled my addiction to school. Since graduating, I’ve often mentioned that it would be nice to go back to school – and now I can for free. I’m a little more than halfway through a science writing course from Stanford and in week 3 of a genomics course from U Penn, and as much extra work as it is, I am having a blast.

The writing course in particular has been a priceless experience. Great tips, great exercises, just an overall great refresher on how to write better.

The genomics class is making me work hard – it’s poking that part of my brain that has been dormant for a decade – the part that remembers homework and writing papers. But I love it. I might even be a better student now than I was back then – but maybe that’s because the stress level is a little lower. I get a certificate if I complete the course with a decent grade, but the most valuable part of all this is the access to the class content. It’s learning for learning’s sake, and that’s just enjoyable.

Now I just have to make sure I don’t sign up for too many at a time…

Balancing freedom and security in a freelance career

I’m one year into my freelance career in biomedical writing and editing, and I just passed my two-year blogiversary. So, I suppose it’s time for me to take a look back and evaluate my progress.

In general, freelancing boils down to balancing the need for financial security with the freedom to plan my own day. Freelancing is alternately terrifying and satisfying. Every month I manage to make my income goal, but at the beginning of each month it’s not always clear that it will happen. Summer is particularly anxiety-inducing; most of my clients are academic researchers and their summers are fairly quiet. I fill in the blanks with writing jobs from Japan – not the highest paying gig, but when my schedule is looking light, I’ll take it to fill the gaps.

The satisfying part is that I am a successful  business owner. Even if it is a tiny business of a single employee. Somehow, I am making this work, and that’s kinda cool.

I’ve also learned that even though I am a night owl, it is neither wise nor physically possible to sustain that schedule. It was a holdover of how I had been doing freelance while working full- or part-time during the day. Night was for freelance jobs. It took me a year to get used to it, but I now write and edit during the day, working a full day with short breaks to walk the dog, work out, and eat lunch. Sounds boring, like I switched one office job for another, but the reality is that my schedule is my own. I have time. No more taking my lunch hour to rush out for an errand and then rush back to the office. No fighting weekend crowds at the supermarket. I can take my kids to appointments, I can join them on field trips, and I don’t have to keep track of how many vacation days I’ve used. And I definitely do not miss the daily commute to and from downtown Chicago.

The rollercoaster continues. Sometimes pride in my business wins over self-doubt over finances, other times the fear of financial insecurity wins out over the benefits of freedom and time.

In the end, though, I ask myself one question: “Do you like what you are doing?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Biomedical writing and editing continues to be intellectually challenging, requiring me to creatively merge science with language to communicate complex concepts. It is also personally satisfying to use my particular skill set to help my clients and to have the opportunity to learn something new with every project.

So, that settles that, I think.

Grantwriting for biotech? Sign me up!

Earlier this month I attended an excellent workshop on SBIR/STTR grants that was hosted by the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Association (iBio) PROPEL program, and was led by Lisa Kurek from Biotechnology Business Consultants. I decided to attend because I’ve touched just about every research and training grant mechanism from the NIH, but haven’t done much in the SBIR/STTR realm. The workshop was intense, to say the least.

I came into the workshop with a combined perspective of bench science and pharma advertising/marketing, which helped me switch gears. We’re no longer asking for funding for research to improve health and medicine, we’re asking for funding to translate and commercialize research discoveries (ultimately to improve health and medicine). I learned a great deal in two days, from the very broadest concepts of the differences between SBIRs and STTRs, what happens in phase I/II proposals, and what goes in a commercialization plan, to the details of grantsmanship, organization of the proposal, and what’s required in the various sections. There is some overlap with research grants, but the mindset and purpose behind these two funding mechanisms are very, very different.

I don’t know if I will ever work on one of these grants, but just going to the workshop helped expand my perspective of federally funded research – it goes beyond research and training for university- and med school-based scientists. These grants essentially fill in the funding gap for researchers who have a potential product as a result of their independent research but have not yet reached the point where private investors will step in. Funding the embryonic stages of a biotech company. These awards support essential STE innovation in the US, something I can really get behind as a communicator (which is important if you want to be convincing in a grant proposal!).

I hope I will have an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of these scientist-entrepreneurs – helping them put together SBIR/STTR grant proposals that communicate their passion and plans.