Tag Archives: medical writing

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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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?

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.

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!

Thoughts on Growth

I wished I could have made it to 50 posts before the end of the year, but alas. In any case, I thought I’d do one more, before I plunge back into grant editing for the February NIH cycle.

I was thinking about growth today – my professional growth as an individual writer and the growth of my freelance business – and where I want to go with this in the next 5 years. Professionally, I will never stop looking out for opportunities to learn new things, and will likely continue taking workshops through AMWA and other groups. This coming year, I’m planning on attending the NIH Regional Seminar on grants in Indianapolis, and I’m considering taking a similar workshop from the NSF and a local course specifically for SBIR/STTR grants. I’m a career student, I suppose! I also joined NORDP, and will continue my memberships in AMWA, CSE, BELS, and EFA – these are all amazing resources for keeping up with what’s going on in the field, finding new business leads, and networking.

Business-wise, I’ve just had to decide I need to reign it in with the growth. At this point in my career, I’m not interested in expanding my business to include other writers, so I continue to be incredibly busy just doing the writing and billing, with very little time for doing things that would grow my business – marketing, blogging more regularly, etc. I definitely would love more time to check in with my LinkedIn groups, participate in Twitter conversations, and read others’ blogs.

But when I’m busy, I’m really busy, and I have to be careful that busy doesn’t turn into overwhelmed and exhausted, and definitely not into burned out. One thing I hope to be able to do in the next 5 years is to hire an assistant to help with the administrative stuff – that would be an enormous help. Whether or not to grow my business further is something that will just have to wait. I’m not quite there yet. In the meantime, I am keeping close track of the careers of a few of my successful colleagues and watching how they are expanding their businesses.

But reigned-in growth doesn’t mean no growth at all. I have done pretty well within the grantwriting/editing niche this year, and I’m looking to expand on that to include NSF (biological sciences directorate) and NIH small business and technology grant mechanisms. Which is why I’m considering taking the workshops that are being offered this year in the Chicago area.

So that’s where I’m at as we enter 2012. Next year, I’m going to focus on settling into the freelance life a little more (can we say sensible scheduling?!), continue pursuing grantwriting as my market niche, and basically stay the course.

I hope everyone has a fantastic new year! See you on the other side…

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!

On the importance of definitions

I just received a link from a colleague on an AMWA listserv to an article in PLoS on one medical writer’s experience with ghostwriting. It got me all worked up, so I thought I’d share. First, let me make it clear that I completely agree that there is a problem, called ghostwriting, in which medical writers are asked to write a manuscript—based on someone else’s research, with very little transparency or author contact, and no acknowledgement of their contribution as either an author or in the acknowledgements section—for publication in the peer-reviewed biomedical literature. These medical writers might be freelancers or work directly for a publications planning or healthcare communications company, which is in turn hired by a pharmaceutical company. There are financial interests all over the place in this arrangement, no doubt about it, and that’s why it’s such a hot-button issue. Was the author of the PLoS article a ghostwriter? Sounds like it. Was she right to take a stand and question the ethics of what she was being asked to do? Absolutely.

So why did the PLoS article make me upset? Nutshell: It introduces confusion about medical writers, types of medical writing, and the types of companies that utilize medical writers and for what purpose. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt–something obviously got lost in translation as the article was repurposed from a presentation at a conference at the University of Toronto.

That said, the article would have benefited from some concrete definitions and descriptions of what kinds of medical writing are done at each of type of company mentioned: medical education companies, publication planning companies, healthcare communications agencies, and pharmaceutical advertising agencies. All of these entities work in some capacity with the pharmaceutical industry and either indirectly or directly with physician authors (thought leaders). But not all of these companies, or the medical writers they hire, ghostwrite manuscripts for physician authors to be submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

On first read, I came away asking, why was the med ed company part of an ad agency, and if it was, why were they doing pub planning? These seemed like some pretty big ethical red flags, but that issue was not explained to readers.

But then I re-read it several times, particularly the part about why she stopped. It wasn’t because of ghostwriting. It was because of the marketing doublespeak she was being asked to insert in her pieces, some of which were manuscripts. Lack of access to physician authors to confirm content and wordsmithing to fit a marketing plan are definitely ethical issues, and she was right to take a stand, particularly if she was working in a med ed company, which is supposed to produce content independent of the pharma company. (Again, those distinctions were not discussed.) Instead, issues about wordsmithing at a med ed company were presented in an article about ghostwriting. I am going to go ahead and assume that readers of this article are now really confused about what medical writing is.

The author ends with the suggestion that med ed companies be eliminated to remove the middleman, and that centers for guest authors be used to help researchers prepare manuscripts. That last part is a great idea, but all I read was “med ed companies are the middlemen between pharma and physician.” Again, definitions that distinguish between med ed, pub planning, healthcare comm, and pharmaceutical ad agencies would have been helpful here.

While the article had many valid points, and I recognized some of the unethical wordsmithing issues from my experience in med ed and healthcare communications, I came away confused about the ghostwriting issue and what those pesky medical writers are really up to. Which is why I got upset. Done.