Tag Archives: freelance editing

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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What I do

I have been meaning to do this post for a while, but finally got down to it after reading an excellent post describing substantive editing, and another post on the importance of building off your unique set of skills and background. For some reason, I’ve often struggled to describe exactly what I do, beyond saying I am a biomedical editor. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just fails to capture the nuance. I could get really philosophical about what it means to be an editor, but Rich Adin over at An American Editor has done a far better job at this than I ever could, so I will direct you to his excellent posts here and here. His characterization of the twin pillars of editing–mechanics and thinking–really struck me.

So back to my purpose. How do I describe what I do? Of course, what I do differs based on my client, so I will focus on what I feel I do best – scientific grant and manuscript editing. There are really several different levels of editing going on here.

1) Basic editing: Checking spelling and grammar, fixing awkward sentence structures, simplifying the language, and checking verb tenses and parallelism. This is a part of the “mechanics” pillar of editing.

2) Substantive editing: checking the flow and logic. How is the story being told? Is it clear what has been done and what needs to be done? It is clear what hypothesis is being tested and why? Are the right headers being used to help the reader through the document? Obviously this is part of the “thinking” pillar.

My goal here is to make the paper or grant proposal something that the reader wants to read, that the reader actually enjoys reading, rather than just skimming the abstract and figure legends. As a graduate student, I read many, many, many papers, but there were only a few that sucked me in because they were just written so well. There was a clear explanation up front about why the research was being done, each experiment in the results section flowed logically into the next, and the discussion put all the data in perspective, in the context of what is already known. I almost felt like I could see the authors at the bench, working through the data, designing the next experiment. Those are the papers I want my clients to publish. The same thing goes for grants – if anything is confusing or convoluted, the grant reviewer is going to pass it over. I edit grant proposals so that they are as clear and logical as possible, so that the reviewer immediately understands and appreciates the problem that needs to be solved, sees that the proposed aims will answer a clear set of relevant questions, and agrees that the methods used and people involved are up to the challenge.

3) Content editing: Another one for the “thinking” pillar. This is where my unique background fits in, where I can look at the experiments and the results and think about what conclusions are being drawn and whether they are being communicated accurately. Is the experimental design sound? What are the caveats? Are the statistics appropriate? Are the proposed experiments going to test the stated hypothesis? Have the data proven or disproven the stated hypothesis?  How do the data compare to what’s been done before? What are the implications for future basic or translational research? For research grants, I also draw on my background in promotional writing – will the science as presented convince the reviewer that this is a worthy problem (or gap in knowledge) to tackle and that the proposed experiments will provide the data needed to solve the problem?

4) Formatting: This also falls under mechanics – it’s making sure that the manuscript follows the journal’s editorial rules, and that the grant proposal follows the structure stipulated in the funding announcement. There are a ton of rules and regulations for preparing federal grants, and even more embedded in specific funding announcements.

So that is what I do…and now I can just direct friends and family here when they ask (hi mom!).

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.

The Pricing Saga

I’ve been a full-time freelance writer/editor for a few years now, and a part-timer for a decade before that. Feels like I should have the pricing issues worked out, right? Nope. At the moment it feels as if I have hit a wall – pricing is tied to the growth of my business, and as a single editor, I have a finite amount of time. I have to make every hour count. So if I am going to have an income that increases with the cost of living, I have three options: bring in other editors who can take on the overflow; raise my hourly rate; or start using project-based fees.  I now recognize the need to address this issue or watch my income stall (or worse, watch my business wither away). Here is the argument that rages in my head:

1) The question of branding

There’s a great pair of posts over on An American Editor that discusses the pros and cons of staying a “solopreneur” or becoming part of a group of editors. I know this depends on the kind of editing you do, so I’m still working through this. Up to this point, I have been selling myself and my skills as my brand. Should I expand my brand to include other editors and their skills? But the bigger obstacle is administrative. I can’t even fathom how I would handle my projects plus management of other editors’ projects and payments. I would definitely need to hire some kind of virtual assistant, and then there goes any extra income I would have gained by becoming a multi-editor company.

2) The pitfalls of project-based pricing

I have this mental block against project-based pricing, particularly for editing jobs. I find it incredibly difficult to anticipate the scope of editing projects, and usually end up underselling myself. For those clients who have insisted on a project-based fee, I have run into two issues. The first is that my estimate is taken as the project fee, with no room to increase fees should the scope of work change. In response, I have started to produce incredibly detailed scopes of work for these projects so that I can give myself some leeway to renegotiate (and something to fall back on when the client starts asking for more than what the fee covers), but it has been a bit of a learning process. I also have to remind myself to stipulate that a portion of the project fee will be paid midway through the project, or with the first deliverable, or whatever. Otherwise my cash flow gets seriously messed up.

3) The icky-ness of raising rates

I am probably justified in raising my rates, which haven’t really changed for – I am embarrassed to admit – 8 years. The first time I tried to raise my rates, I met with so much push back that it put me off trying again for quite some time. In fact, it resulted in this particular client hiring me at the new rate but telling me to limit the time I worked on the project (so that the final fee was about the same). Ugh. Really? I am going to take your project, work on it for X amount of hours, and then, no matter what state the project might be in, stop working and send it back to you? Really? At the risk of losing a pretty regular client, I tried to work faster to get everything done in the stipulated time frame–showing the client they get what they pay for–but I am always anxious that working faster also means producing poorer quality work. Which is definitely NOT a precedent I’d like to set.

The most recent experience involved me butting heads with client’s HR and the “company policy” that could not be changed no matter how valuable my services might be, so sorry. Again, I backed off because the project was a pretty big one and I didn’t want to  miss out and wonder where I was going to make up the income.

Now, I realize that this is no way to run a business, particularly now that this business is my sole source of income. I hate rocking the boat, but I know that when I fail to negotiate, I may be perceived as an amateur who doesn’t even recognize her own value. The business side of freelancing is really doing my head in.

To raise my rates, I think the easiest way is to go back and look at all of my service agreements, find the ones with rates that need to be changed, and for those that are about to expire, renew at the higher rates. I just have to be confident that I will find new clients who will accept my rates, knowing that they are getting a quality service.

For the project-based fees, I need to write out exactly what the fee includes, and if the fee is low, then the scope of work will need to be smaller. I need to make sure that my time is spent wisely, and that my effective hourly rate doesn’t shrink down to ridiculous.

So there is the glimpse of the pricing chaos in my head. I really know what I need to do, I just need the confidence to be the savvy business woman who can do it.

On niches and boundaries

2012 will be my first year as a completely independent freelance biomedical writer and editor. My freelance business has been through the various stages of hobby to side work to part time job to full time job, and this will be the first year that it represents all of my income. No pressure, right? When I first decided to make the final leap to full-time freelance last summer, I was understandably anxious about income and whether I could make this work without leaving me and my family eating macaroni and cheese every night. So I took any biomedical writing/editing projects I could find, regardless of whether they were proofreading, editing, or writing; regardless of the client: academic, agency, or not-for-profit; and regardless of the topic. I soon came to appreciate two things: (1) I am not “built” for all projects and (2) my time is limited and therefore precious.

What do I mean by being “built” for certain projects? I am one of many professional biomedical writers and editors. But my education, background, and experience make me unique. The question is, what kinds of projects, clients, and topics best suit me so that I am spending my freelance time in the best possible way? By taking any projects because I felt I had to in order to stay solvent, I was getting frustrated with the jobs I could do easily but that paid too little and also frustrated with jobs that were outside my comfort zone that made me struggle and feel I was wasting time. 

There are only so many hours I can work in a week, and so I needed to find those jobs I was best trained for in order to make the most of my time. I first had to admit that there were boundaries – a difficult thing to do because it felt like closing doors and because I never want to admit that I can’t do something. But it really wasn’t about saying I wasn’t able, it was more about saying that I have to choose the best projects that fit my particular skill set. I’m sure that I needed to go through that first anxious period of accepting every job, no matter how small or out of my niche, to learn this lesson.

The other important thing I came to realize is that while taking jobs that were outside my comfort zone could be personally frustrating, it is also not good business practice. Just like me, clients are looking for the best fit for their projects so they get their money’s worth. Accepting a job for which I am not a good fit may not lead to the best outcomes – for me or the client. It is far better to learn as much information about the project up front, evaluate the project through the lens of my ability and training and schedule, and then turn it down if the project just doesn’t fit. Better that than struggling and getting frustrated and, perhaps worst of all, running the risk of letting down the client and damaging my reputation.

So now I understand my boundaries – what’s my niche? I’ve discussed this in other posts, but I’ve come to realize that biomedical grant writing/editing and manuscript editing for academic clients is where I shine. My background in research, my experience in healthcare communications, and even my stint in healthcare advertising, have come together to give me a 30,000-foot view, an objective eye, and an appreciation for the funding agency’s perspective.

I admit, I still take jobs that aren’t grants or manuscripts but that are still within my comfort zone. But grants and manuscripts now make up the bulk of my projects. As much as I hate the idea that I might be limiting myself, that I am capable of much more, I have to accept that I am one person, and physically unable to do everything. (I have to sleep at least a few hours a night!)

So those are my thoughts on niches and boundaries – now, back to work!

2011 Freelance Retrospective

Wow. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. The last three months have been absolutely crazy-busy. Which isn’t necessarily bad for a freelance. Looking back, it took me years to decide to finally take the plunge and become a full-time freelance, but only a few months to reach full capacity. As much as I love what I do, though, there is only one of me. And one of the hardest things for me to realize this year was that I do indeed have an upper limit of what I can handle. There comes a point when the brain just cannot function, let alone edit complex grant proposals, without adequate sleep. So as this year comes to an end and I start planning my 2012 project schedule, I hope I can remember the perils of being too busy, and that I will give myself a more realistic workload, even if that means even saying “no” once in a while. {{gasp!!}}

I’ve also come to realize that most of my clients are not one-project clients; again, not such a bad thing for a freelance. I am gratified and incredibly honored that the researchers I work with trust my ability and judgment, enough so that they come back to me with more projects. As I near a decade of providing editorial support for these researchers, I’m starting to realize that I have been a witness to their careers, as they are published, awarded funding, take on new post-docs and new graduate students, and shift their reasearch focus. It’s helped me to see the overall picture – the entire research program that stretches out over time and subtly shifts based on each new discovery – rather than a single research project or single manuscript. You know, I kinda like this view…I think I’ll try my hardest to keep it.

Finally, I’ve learned that having at least a few months’ pay in the bank as a cushion is not just a “nice-to-have” for a freelance. It’s essential. I simply hate waiting to be paid – the mental and emotional strain is incredibly disruptive, to the point where I start second-guessing my decision to go freelance. So next year, one of my highest priorities is to build up a proper savings account and remove that source of stress once and for all.

These are the things I have learned this year, things I will need to improve upon in 2012.

So what have I accomplished in 2011? The biggest thing is that I finally decided to go freelance full-time. I set up a proper office, with two computer screens, a kneeling chair, and time tracking software. I quickly realized that marketing myself would not be as easy (or hard) as setting myself up on ifreelance or with cold calling; in fact, cold calling would never work for the kind of services I provide. I turned instead to my blog, and then promptly discovered that I was too busy to post as regularly as I’d like! (Another thing I’d like to change in 2012). But I did gain a few new clients — who found me and decided to take a chance on me based on my blog posts, of all things. And I’ve found myself in the position of having to turn down projects. I went to the AMWA  Annual Conference in October and finished my basic skills certificate, and took a grantwriting course at Northwestern that was truly invaluable.

Goals for 2012? I listed a few above: more realistic scheduling, building strong relationships with my clients, and building a financial cushion. Others include attending the NIH grant course in Indianapolis in the spring, updating to EndNote X5 and gaining at least one more client-researcher. And taking one two-week vacation during which I will not work. At all. Even at night. I think that last one might be the most challenging goal to achieve, actually.

So that’s it. The freelance biz is up and running, a bit rocky at times, but it’s running. I think I might call 2011 a successful, busy, and tiring year for The Tobin Touch. But an extremely gratifying year, professionally speaking. I hope to get another post in before the end of the year, but if not, hope everyone has a great holiday and all good things in 2012!!

Going with the freelance flow

Seems like I’m getting around to posting about once a month. Not as often as I’d like, that’s for sure. But I have been busy. Amazingly busy. Which, as a newly minted freelance is a very, very validating state to be in. It’s difficult to look more than a couple of months into the future, but it seems as though this career move is going to work out after all.

The first few months of freelancing have been a period of adjustment, that’s for sure. I had to get comfortable in my new anti-schedule. I no longer have to rush here and there, switching mental gears from my part-time freelance projects to my part-time salaried job. Working a single environment, on projects that are mine to prioritize and schedule, avoiding distractions, and taking advantage of the luxury of huge blocks of time…all of these took some getting used to.

But I think I have finally figured this thing out. (I know that as soon as I say that, I’m going to get thrown a curveball, but oh well.) Though I am still struggling with the financial rollercoaster – trying hard not to check for the mailman 10 times a day – my daily schedule is coming together. I am learning to set realistic deadlines, make the best use of my time, and take periodic breaks to clear my head. My weekly schedule might be more or less crazy, with some days lighter than others, and some days ridiculously full, but that’s okay. I’ve learned to enjoy the light days and take pride in the full days, and try to set deadlines that will even things out as much as possible.

At the moment, I am looking forward to the AMWA conference in a couple of weeks. Of course, I know I will be working steadily from my hotel room in the evening, but I know it will be a great break of sorts. I am taking the last of the workshops I need for my essential skills certificate, and I’m looking forward to the sessions that cover freelancing issues, where I hope to pick up some good tips from my colleagues. Based on my experience at last year’s conference, I am hoping to come away inspired and validated and ready to continue on with my career.