Becoming a freelance medical writer in the time of coronavirus
Updated: Feb 28, 2022
"I'm a bit surprised you're doing it right now"
This was the somewhat understated response from one of my colleagues when I announced back in March 2020 that I was leaving my job and setting up a freelance business in the middle of a global pandemic.
By 2020 I had been a medical writer for around 8 years and had worked in a couple of medical communication agencies. I had risen through the ranks to Scientific Director, and was earning a decent salary. Turning my back on the world of employment was a big decision at the best of times. At a time of national crisis, it seemed like a massive leap of faith.
But I took the plunge and resigned a few weeks into Lockdown 1.0. I worked my 3 month notice period whilst setting up a business (with a bit of homeschooling thrown in for good luck) and in July 2020 I stepped out of the world of employment and into the realm of the self-employed.
Before, during and after the process, I read extensively every bit of guidance and every tip I could find on the internet. Some of it was extremely helpful, a lot wasn't.
Anyway, why am I writing this post? In a nutshell because whilst conducting my research into the how's and why's of setting up a freelance medical writing business, I had struggled to find a more personal perspective on the process.
So, here is my experience.
Why I did it. How I did it. Plus some useful bits and pieces I learned along the way.
So, why go freelance?
Why would anyone choose to replace a secure job with a precarious freelance position?
For me, the answer was more flexibility, more control, and more variety.
Quite simply, I wanted to work from home full time and move away from the 9-5 routine and the commute. I also wanted to be able to set my own annual leave free from the usual complex negotiations around the school holidays. More variety in terms of therapy area and project types and having a degree of control over the projects (and clients) that I took on also really appealed.
I also secretly hankered after being my own boss. Leaving office politics behind and making my own business decisions was a huge attraction.
How do you get clients?
I would not have left my job and given up my steady income without having at least one client lined up. Work is never guaranteed as a freelancer, but it's good to have at least something tangible in place.
Before handing in my notice, I spoke to potential clients to find out how much work might be available. At this time, these were people that I had worked with in the past rather than completely new clients.
During my notice period, I sorted out contracts, so I was ready to get going straight away.
What should I charge?
This is a tricky one as people rarely reveal their hourly rates. I had a rough idea from freelance invoices I had seen when I was an employee. So I took that as a guide and went from there. I also knew that I needed to charge more than I earned as an employee to cover the costs of the business (see below) and for potential famine times. You also need to account for the fact that there is no holiday pay, no sick pay, no pension and no bonus.
Do you need an accountant?
It probably depends on the type of business you plan to set up and how much you might earn. If you want to be a sole trader, an accountant probably isn't essential. For a limited company. it would be a considerable challenge to manage your own tax returns. Best to get some professional advice here, as some aspects (particularly VAT) can be very complicated.
During my planning phase, I had a free appointment with a local accountancy firm. They talked me through the different types of self-employment and what would be involved in setting up a limited company. They also gave advice on VAT registration and IR35 (see below). They were very helpful and ultimately I engaged them to take care of the financial side of the business for me.
What about IR35?
Getting to grips with the IR35 regulations in the UK and how they might affect me was another big task. It's a bit of a talking point at the moment in the freelance/contractor world and there's a lot of information out there. It could easily be an entire blog post in itself.
My accountant recommended getting contracts professionally checked for IR35 status. I did this through IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed). Keeping an eye on working practices and maintaining records to confirm your independent status are also critical.
Upcoming changes to IR35 likely represent a far greater threat to my fledgling freelance business than the COVID-19 crisis. It's a pretty dull subject, but well worth reading into as it could have serious consequences for freelance writers.
What's in a name?
Your company needs a name. For a limited company this has to be decided upon by the time you register with Companies House.
Should you name it after yourself? There are lots of advantages to this. After all it's easy and it incorporates your personal reputation as a writer. But what if you decide to expand the business further down the line? What if decent website domains using your name have already been taken? IR35 guidance also tends to advise against it.
So, how about a brand name? Requires a bit more creative thinking and breaks the link with your personal reputation. But it has considerably more scope in the long term.
I probably spent more time on this than any other aspect of setting up my business. I must have read every article on the internet considering the pros and cons of naming a business after yourself. I tested out names on friends and family. And I spent far too long looking at possible website domain names.
Eventually a decision was made and on 29 May 2020, Lyrical Medical Writing Services was registered.
I swiftly purchased www.lyricalmedical.com from Google Domains and set up a professional email address using my domain name.
What about a website?
I wanted a website in order to market my business. However, I had zero experience with website design and knew next to nothing about website hosting platforms.
With no money coming in to the business at that time, I didn't want to invest in a website designer. So I learned about website hosting and taught myself to use Wix. Several (somewhat painful) weekends later, I had my own basic website.
For a writing business, upfront costs should be fairly minimal, right? Not necessarily.
I deposited £1500 in my newly opened business bank account and I spent a good chunk of it before my first invoice was paid. I have listed my expenses below, although not all of them are needed, especially if you already have a lot of equipment and don't form a limited company.
Creating a home office: A decent laptop is essential. I also bought a headset, shredder and a printer. You'll also need a good quality desk and chair, large monitor and wireless keyboard and mouse if you're going to be spending 40 hours plus at a desk every week.
Software: MS Office is essential and a PDF editor may also be useful. For publications work, you may need a reference manager package. I also use a bookkeeping software which requires a monthly subscription, but is an easy way to keep on top of my invoices and expenses.
Phone: Having had a work-funded mobile for more than 8 years, I had to set myself up with a mobile contract for work purposes. Another monthly fee to consider.
Website: Domain registration, hosting and business email addresses all cost money of course.
Fees, fees and more fees: There was an initial fee for formation of the limited company, which had to be paid several months before I issued my first invoice. IR35 contract checks were another upfront cost. Consider whether you want to maintain any professional subscriptions when you are paying yourself. EMWA, ISMPP, IPSE to name just a few. Will you need professional indemnity insurance?
So, where am I now?
Seven months on and Lyrical Medical Writing Services are up and running. I have learned a lot about running a business and gained some new skills along the way. I have several clients - some provide me with a lot of work and for some I do smaller one-off projects. I am probably even busier than I was as an employee, but overall my work-life balance is better.
So, was it a crazy time to give up my job? Short answer - no, not really.
The med comms business seems to be busier than ever. Publications and medical education projects are continuing as normal and virtual meetings have been a great success (more so than I expected). The pandemic has highlighted the importance of medical research to the world. However it has also exposed how poorly science can be communicated and the threat that misinformation poses.
Anyway, I hope that this has been in someway useful to anyone considering the leap from employee to freelancer (or anyone considering freelancing in the future).
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch.