Tag Archives: medical editor

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.

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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!

On becoming an expert

I had a great afternoon and evening with my fellow Chicago-area AMWA colleagues last week. We don’t meet often, and probably recognize each other more by our listserv postings than by sight. Naturally, we all must introduce ourselves, share our backgrounds, and add our two cents on a particular topic within the biz. I’m not sure when this happened, and I don’t particularly see myself as one, but somewhere along the way, I became an expert. I was actually asked for my opinion more than once about my work, my business, and current controversies and topics within our field. But I’m still learning! How can I be an expert?

Maybe it’s my accumulated writing experience, in academic writing, continuing med ed, healthcare comm, and now as a freelance business owner?But experience doesn’t necessarily make me an expert. Experience makes me a veteran–what makes an expert is the ability to learn from past/present experience, apply new knowledge, and continue to seek out new experiences.

And expertise is relative, isn’t it? There are certainly more expert-y experts than I (I was sitting next to one at dinner), and I might be considered an expert in certain areas and a complete novice in others. I lie somewhere on the continuum for any number of skills within medical writing and editing. And anyway, can someone become the absolute expert of anything? Isn’t there always room for improvement? I think so.

Which brings me back to the idea of my very first post – time debting (Happy blogiversary to me!). Really, it’s investing in myself and my development as a professional medical writer/editor, beyond the experience of writing and editing that I get paid to do. There are always areas where I need improvement, and it is essential that I stay plugged into the conversations and topics of the day within my field. In a nutshell: my professional development is as important as my background and experience. No matter how many years of experience I have within medical writing/editing, there will always be a need to continue learning, hone my skills, and accumulate and apply new knowledge.

So, even though it’s non-billable, I try to spend at least an hour a day keeping up with the latest news and topics in medical writing and interacting with my peers online. There are many free resources online, but I will pay for certain types of continuing education as long as I can justify the expense with some tangible benefit to me as a writer/editor or business owner. Here are a few of the resources I tap into:

LinkedIn groups – Sometimes there are really good discussions (though you might have to wade through some spammy posts), and they are a great place to hear about new topics and ask your colleagues for advice or opinions. You can sign up for the once-a-week digest, rather than getting your inbox inundated with updates all day long.

Twitter – Even if you just lurk, you can still learn a lot. (Though I highly recommend tweeting as well.) I (and the accounts I follow) use Twitter to share interesting articles and resources, and I tend to post about my love of science maps and art.

AMWA listservs – These are truly invaluable resources for AMWA members. Enough said.

Blogs – I read a few blogs posts a day, and follow blogs from researchers, doctors, other bioscience and medical writers and editors, journals, and professional associations. The posts usually lead me to other interesting blogs, articles, or links that I can share with my peers.

Journals – specifically, the AMWA Journal and Science Editor from the Council of Science Editors.

Meetings – AMWA of course. I can’t say enough about how much you can absorb by attending the annual meeting. There are also other meetings out there, both national and regional, where you can meet and learn from your professional peers.

Training – this fall, I am taking a grantwriting course at Northwestern, and next spring, I’m planning to attend the NIH Regional seminar.

Giving in to the rollercoaster

I knew that this was going to be the hardest part of being a freelancer – the ups and downs of the work schedule. And I anticipated that it would be a source of incredible stress. I like order, organization, predictability. (Which is why I had such a difficult time after my first child was born – what a smack upside the head THAT was!) When the work load is light, I get anxious and start new projects (like, um, a blog, for instance), and when the work load picks up, like it did in the past couple months, I feel like I can’t catch my breath. When I come to a lull in the schedule, I look around me as if I am coming up for air. Then I dive right back in.

The learning curve for setting reasonable deadlines for projects and prioritizing them in a sane manner has been less steep than I’d hoped. But my personal scheduling prowess is only part of the problem. My work really centers around grant deadlines, and also tends to be heavier during the school year, since my clients are primarily academic researchers. I recently finished editing three back-to-back R21 proposals, with the October 16th deadline looming. July and August – pretty slow. Everyone is sharing their work at meetings, taking time off, and preparing for the next school year.

I’ll admit though, part of the problem is me – I really, really love what I do. I love editing, helping researchers organize their thoughts on paper, helping them create a persuasive story around their research. I find myself getting into a grant and looking up a couple of hours later, amazed at the time. I also tend to say yes to everyone. Why in the world would I say no? What it comes down to is giving myself enough time to work on all the projects I want to, and work on them with the level of intensity I want to.

So far, I’ve been able to take on all the projects I’ve been given, with very, very minimal shifts in deadlines. But I’ve learned the importance of setting reasonable deadlines and prioritizing up front, and accommodating with grace any project changes that might result in a steep rise on the rollercoaster (click, click, click). I may have very little say on the actual ups and downs, but I do have access to the brake when I need to slow it down.

Acknowledging the Mansucript Editor?

The Council of Science Editors recently made available on their Web site selected presentations from their 2010 Annual Meeting. I was particularly interested in the presentation from Devora Krischer, ELS, on “Banishing the Ghost: Examining the Role of Science Writers.” The controversy over ghostwriting impacts what I do every day – in most cases, I provide substantial editing and critique of scientific manuscript content, including research design, figure quality, and construction/messaging.

First, some definitions from AMWA:

“Ghost authoring” refers to making substantial contributions without being identified as an author. “Guest authoring” refers to being named as an author without having made substantial contributions. “Ghostwriting” refers to assisting in presenting the author’s work without being acknowledged. The term “ghostwriting” is often used to encompass all three of these practices.

I guess what I do falls under “ghostwriting” because I assist authors in producing a manuscript that is ready for submission to a journal.

According to AMWA’s “Position Statement on the Contributions of Medical Writers to Scientific Publications:”

Biomedical communicators who contribute substantially to the writing or editing of a manuscript should be acknowledged with their permission and with disclosure of any pertinent professional or financial relationships.

Individual journals may or may not have their own policies in place regarding the disclosure of the contributions of a manuscript editor. Typically, I leave the decision of whether or not to acknowledge my contribution in the hands of the manuscript authors. Yet many authors may be unaware of the ongoing controversy about acknowledging manuscript editors, or if their selected journal even has a specific policy.

I found Ms. Krischer’s presentation very helpful in that it emphasized the overarching goal of transparency when making decisions about disclosing the work of outside contributors. She also gave specific guidance on what types of support should be acknowledged, a sample disclosure form, and sample acknowledgement sections.

I doubt this will change my personal policy of leaving the decision up to the author. But acknowledgements are always welcome and highly appreciated, of course!