Being a freelance writer in MedComms: (some of) your questions answered
I recently took part in a panel discussion organised by Peter Llewellyn from MedComms Networking on becoming a freelance medical writer.
We only had 45 minutes and there were so many questions that it was impossible to get through all of them.
So, I have taken the questions that were asked in the chat box and have tried to answer them below. I have taken the liberty of merging some of the questions that were asking the same thing and reworded a few for simplicity, but hopefully they still reflect the key points that were asked.
Please note that this is my own personal experience based on my first 11 months of freelancing in the UK. Other freelancers may answer these questions differently. I also refer to the IR35 regulations in a few places. This is a complex subject and you should read up on this and take expert advice before going freelance in the UK.
How many years were you employed in MedComms before freelancing? Can you start as a freelancer or do you recommend having previous experience in a MedComms agency?
I had 8 and a half years’ experience as an agency writer before freelancing. I started as a complete newcomer to the industry and progressed through to Senior and then Principal Medical Writer within one agency. I then moved to a second agency and worked for 2 years as a Scientific Director.
During this time I was mentored by some great writers and I gained experience in a wide range of project types and therapy areas. Personally I can’t image freelancing without gaining that experience first. In addition to learning different writing styles for different projects and audiences, you need to learn to manage projects, understand client expectations, and also write within the constraints of a budget. Then there is also the network that you develop whilst writing in house – without this obtaining clients will be very difficult.
I would also add that most freelance/contract positions advertised by recruiters require previous agency experience. I don't think it would be impossible to go freelance without being an agency writer first, but I expect it would be much more difficult.
I would love to hear how the freelance writers pitch for/get new business
When I transitioned from agency writer to freelancer, I took the following steps in order to gain work.
Contacted my existing network to let them know that I was a freelancer and was open to work
Updated my LinkedIn profile to advertise myself as a freelancer
Developed a website to promote my experience and services
Joined the MedComms Workbook and added my profile to Biome Professionals
Sent a few “cold-call” emails to agencies I was interested in working with
To date, my existing network has provided me with the majority of my work. This includes people I have contacted directly, but also people who have contacted me once they were aware I was open to freelance work.
I have also had some interest via my website and also via the MedComms Workbook/Biome Professionals, but so far no success with cold-calling emails (although I haven’t contacted many people).
There are also recruiters who specialise in contract/freelance work and they may be useful, but I don't have any personal experience of this.
What about companies offering writing jobs from home, e.g., Academic Knowledge, WritingJobz, Upwork etc. It is worth considering these if you don’t want to (initially) deal with the business side?
I have never worked through an intermediary such as Upwork so cannot really comment on this. My understanding is that these types of freelance sites can offer significantly lower rates of pay than can be achieved through obtaining clients directly through your existing network or through advertising your services.
Can you freelance part-time while employed with an agency to build up contacts/reputation before taking the plunge?
I went directly from being a full-time employee to being a full-time freelancer and everyone I know did the same. I think that if you wanted to do both at the same time, you would need to check your employment contract carefully as it could be considered a conflict of interest.
I do think that many freelancers go through a transitional period where they freelance initially for former employers and then gradually gain new clients rather than taking a giant leap into freelancing for completely new clients. This was certainly the approach that I took. Although in the UK there can be potential IR35 issues if you move straight from an employee to a freelance role for one company (I would recommend taking expert advice in this situation).
When starting out with the help of existing contacts. What did that look like - project by project support or short-term contracts?
My experience to date is that MedComms agencies will usually provide a general consultancy or master service agreement outlining how both parties will work together and how payments will be made etc. Although you would normally discuss availability upfront, there are no guarantees of a specific amount of work. Once the agreement is signed, projects will be sent as and when the client needs support.
Given the recent IR35 changes, there may be a move towards agencies defining specific projects in a statement of work that is supplementary to the consultancy agreement. I haven't personally experienced this yet, but I imagine that a lot of agencies may move to this over time.
Some agencies may also use retainer contracts to reserve a freelancer's time, Although this provides some security to a freelancer, my understanding is that this may potentially have IR35 implications.
I have also taken on specific fixed-price projects, although this has been directly with pharma clients rather than through agencies.
How do you charge for your time (per project or by the hour/day) and what would you recommend others do based on their experiences of what works best?
All agencies that I have worked with have paid freelancers by the hour. As mentioned above, I also have pharma clients where I quote a fixed price for the entire project.
There are definitely pros and cons to each approach. With an hourly rate, you will be paid for all of your time, whereas when you are paid per project, there is a risk of underestimating how long the project will take. However, the advantage of fixed-price projects is that they are more likely to be outside IR35 and there is the potential for making more profit if you are particularly efficient.
How do you decide your freelancer rate? Is the rate fixed or can it be amended as you grow in experience? How do raise your rates with long-term clients?
I based my hourly rate on what I had seen other freelancers charge when I was an agency writer. There is also the Paramount Healthcare Communications Survey which is currently ongoing and is due to be published in mid-June. According to last year’s survey, average daily rates for freelance medical writers ranged from £400 to £600 depending on experience.
In terms of increasing your rates, I think this is largely driven by market forces and also how much the client values you. Like any business, if you are in the fortunate position of turning down work, you can probably increase your rates. If work is in short supply, you might need to reduce your price. I have increased my rates with a client once in order to bring them into line with other clients. However, I had enough other work that it wouldn’t have been a major issue if they had said no, so I felt it was worth the risk.
Are freelancers registered as sole traders with HMRC? Has anyone set up a limited company?
I set up my freelance business as a limited company on the advice of my accountant and I think the majority of freelancers I know have done the same. However, I do know some sole traders so I think either option can be taken. Best to take expert advice on this.
Do any freelance medical writers use umbrella companies to get paid?
All my jobs so far have been outside IR35 and whilst I can continue to gain enough outside IR35 work, I wouldn’t consider an inside role. I expect that most MedComms freelancers would take a similar view.
Having said that, there have been a few inside IR35 contacts advertised so I would assume that there are some freelancers potentially looking at umbrella companies.
Is there a standard downloadable contract that we can customise?
All my contracts to date have been provided by the client. I can and have requested amendments but have never had to provide the initial contract. If you are a member of IPSE, they provide standard contracts that you can use, but I have no experience of this.
What do you do when a contract doesn't work for you? Change it or opt out of the job?
I have had contracts reviewed professionally and amendments made, so you don't need to accept the first draft you are provided with. In terms of walking away if you aren't happy with the final contract, I think that would be a very personal decision, based on how much you wanted or needed the work.
What are the main challenges you faced when you moved freelance? What work style or perspective changes are necessary for transitioning from in-house to freelance?
For me one of the main challenges has been getting the right balance between building a larger client base but not overbooking myself. It is important not to underestimate how long a piece of work may take and also to keep in mind that timelines can change.
Ensuring that you have enough time for admin tasks is also important. Many agencies will want you to complete their electronic timesheets as well as keeping your own records in order to issue an invoice each month. You also need to keep careful records of all expenses in order to accurately complete your tax return.
In terms of perspective change, when freelancing for an agency you need to be prepared to take on any type of work, including tasks such as data checking that you may not have done since you were much more junior. As a Scientific Director, I was used to leading a team and now I am very much more hands on in terms of working on deliverables. However, this was one of the reasons I wanted to go freelance, so I am happy with this. Conversely, I also work on some projects independently and for this you need to have the confidence to work on your own without the support of a team.
How much variation do you see in projects - are they very discrete and with a clear brief?
My experience has been that freelancing is similar to agency work in this respect. Some projects come with a great brief and for some it is less clear and you need to go back and get clarification before starting.
How many clients do you tend to have at any one time, and what are your thoughts on building strong relationships with a few clients versus not having all your eggs in one basket? How do you avoid having to turn work down - do you subcontract?
I prefer to have multiple clients as it makes my day-to-day work more interesting and I think it is never good to be reliant on just one client. Over the past 11 months, I have worked with seven different clients (not all at the same time!) and I think this is quite a good number.
I have been lucky in that since I started freelancing I have been offered more work than I can do, so I have turned down quite a few opportunities. At the moment the MedComms industry seems to be very busy and turning down work is likely to be inevitable for an experienced writer. The challenge is really about which potential (or existing) clients to turn down!
Subcontracting is an option that some freelancers take, but it isn’t something that I have done so far.
How do you plan the amount of work you can take on without jeopardizing your ability to deliver them all on time?
In my experience, whether you are a freelance or agency writer, there will be peaks and troughs in workload as it is impossible to control some deadlines, e.g. clients can change timelines, comments from journals can come earlier or later than predicted etc. Forward planning and leaving a buffer in your availability can help, but I don't think the MedComms industry has ever been a truly 9-5 job. There have been evenings and weekends when I have had to work in order to ensure timelines are met, but for me this is no different to my time as an agency writer. The advantage of being a freelancer is that it is then easier to work fewer hours when times are quieter.
How do you establish being a partner for clients? Or is it very contractual, i.e., do what the client says they need, without considering whether it’s right for them?
I don’t think this any different to being an agency writer. Ultimately the client will have the final say, but an experienced medical writer can add value by providing their perspective on a project. In my experience, most clients generally value this, particularly once you have established a good working relationship and demonstrated your expertise in a therapy area.