Tag Archives: freelance writing

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.


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!!

Branding and Passive Marketing for Freelance Medical Writers

I attended a session at the AMWA annual meeting today on marketing for independent healthcare communicators (a fancy way of saying freelance medical writers). Deborah Gordon (GordonSquared) and Brian Bass (The Accidental Medical Writer) gave two fantastic talks about the importance of branding your freelance medical writing/editing business and the power of passive marketing. Deborah stressed the importance of branding your freelance business in a wTT_Logoay that reflects who you are and what you stand for. Brian talked about building your reputation, then delivering on your marketing promises and gently reminding your clients about the value you bring.

I’ve often written about how trust is an essential part of my freelance medical writing business. I work with individual basic and clinical researchers who must trust me enough to hand over their data or their “next big idea” so that I can help them communicate it clearly – to journal peer-reviewers, to the NIH, etc. So to get new clients, I have to be able to assure them of my trustworthiness and my capabilities at the start. This is even more difficult because I work remotely, and usually am unable to meet face-to-face before a project starts.

So it became essential for me to develop a brand for my company, one that reflects not only trustworthiness, but also professionalism, experience, thoughtfulness, dedication, and attention to detail. I decided to rely on online marketing rather than direct mail or other print tactics, and I turned to a professional designer to develop my logo and website, and I did a lot of research of other medical writers’ websites to figure out what I wanted to say and the best way to say it. But my company website could only do so much to communicate a concept like trustworthiness (unless the color blue has a calming effect or something), so I also started a blog as a way to showcase how I think, what I think, and hopefully give potential clients a better idea of who I am and why they might trust me with their research.

So as Deborah was giving her talk on branding, I found myself nodding a lot (no, not nodding off, just nodding in agreement!). By creating a brand and then getting it out there through my website, my blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even my AMWA freelance listing, I have been able to bring in new business, and do it fairly passively. In the past year, I’ve landed 3 clients who have found me through my blog because they liked what I had to say about one topic or another and many more people who contacted me because they liked my website. Even better, more than a few people here at AMWA blurted out “Oh, the Tobin touch” after I told them my last name. Which means that creating and cultivating my brand seems to be paying off.

Brian also introduced me to the idea of relationship marketing, which again had me nodding. Relationship marketing involves building your reputation and getting your name out there, marketing yourself whenever you can—though not with a hard sell, but with passive marketing. For example, each time Brian gives a talk for AMWA, he builds his reputation because his name is being seen and associated with a respectable group. Same goes for posts on LinkedIn or articles in the AMWA Journal. He may not be gaining clients directly, but when more people recognize his name, they may be more likely to remember him when they or someone they know is looking for a medical writer. You never know where opportunities will come from, and somewhere down the line, your name might get passed on to the right person. Keeping your name and brand visible and your reputation intact are critical to generating new freelance business.

But just building a brand and a reputation for your business and getting exposure is not the end of relationship marketing. You absolutely must deliver on what you have promised with your marketing. For me, I know I have delivered on my marketing promise if my clients feel that they were able to trust me with their data, that I understand their point of view and what they are trying to say, and that I helped them convey their thoughts clearly.

Another great piece of advice that Brian gave was that we should remind clients after the project is over about the value that we as medical writers brought to them. Brian wants his clients to look at his invoice and say, “Look how easy Brian made my life, he’s worth every penny.” Reminding your clients of your value doesn’t need to be overt; he suggested that in the cover letters you send with your invoices, you should add a short note reinforcing how you contributed and that you are looking forward to the next project. He also stressed the importance of helping your clients—in whatever way you can—and following up with emails, checking in often to see if you can help, and sending holiday cards to each of your contacts. By cultivating relationships with individuals, not companies, you are more likely to expand your business as individuals move from company to company. But above all, deliver on the promise of your relationship and prove your value.

A lot of great advice from some of the best in the medical writing freelance world…now go forth and brand thyself!

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.

This freelance thing? It’s a lot of work.

Well, I’m into month 2 of my full-time freelance career as a medical writer. And I’m still trying to get used to it. I’m very busy, so that’s good. But I’m sure I am not managing my time efficiently – there are a lot of hats to wear when you’re doing it all yourself. And I can’t quite get out of the night owl mode and take advantage of these huge blocks of uninterrupted time I was so desperate for.

I’m really looking forward to this year’s AMWA annual conference, where I’m going to soak up as much information as possible from other freelance writers. I’m attending at least a few sessions on efficiency and tools that can help me manage my time–Although I love Fanurio, by the way. What a great program for tracking time and income!–and not spend so much time on administrative stuff!

So I’m happy to report that even though I am experiencing some growing pains, this move to full-time freelance was a good one. The freedom and time are priceless. The stress I could do with a little less of, but I’m working on that.

Next week, I’m even giving myself a “vacation,” which just means I won’t be at my computer editing NIH grants. Instead, I’ll be attending the 2011 Oncofertility Consortium conference (and then trying to catch up on my writing at night, of course). I’ll be tweeting too (#oncofert11), because I just can’t help myself. I’m expecting this conference to be full of great stuff to share. The Oncofertility Consortium is also one of my longest-running clients, and it’s great to be able to sit in on presentations of the latest research and issues and keep myself up-to-date.

That’s it. When things slow down a bit (after October 5…I live by the NIH grants calendar), I’ll make sure I write something a little more substantial.