If I had a dime for every person who told me "I think I want to be a freelance medical writer/editor," I could…well, I'd have a few bucks. Still, the allure of a freelance life is strong in our field, with many budding and established medical communicators alike feeling the need to break free into the glamorous and independent world of freelancing. How do you know if that's a good decision? What kind of background is "ideal"? What kind of person is most successful? Is freelancing really glamorous?
In a search for the answers to these questions, the AMWA Journal sought advice from its Freelance Forum, a panel of freelance writers who collectively have more than 200 years of experience. Within the carefully thought-out answers in the September 2010 issue of the Journal, the 7 panel members agreed on the ultimate importance of one factor: experience in the medical writing field. As panelist Sherri Bowen notes, "The training and experience I received in company settings were invaluable to my success as a freelance."
How much experience is ideal? The panelists offered a range, from Cathryn Evans' "extensive experience…at least a few thousand hours" to Barbara Rinehart's "minimum of 5 years in a writing environment." Barbara adds," Note, I said writing environment, not just as a person who can write. I'm talking about working in a job where you have to meet the demands of writing full time."
Barbara's point is important. Many scientists consider medical writing because they enjoy writing and have been told by their scientist colleagues that they write well. Even if that's true, it's not sufficient—for either your clients or yourself. Put yourself in a client's shoes and consider Cathryn's analogy: "Would you hire a gardener to remodel a room in your house simply because she or he built a garden shed for you, and now wants to try out other skills as a professional builder at your expense?" As for your own benefit, once you're in the freelance medical writing arena, you will compete with many other freelance medical writers/editors with years of experience, and the only way to do that successfully is to have solid experience.
The comments from the Freelance Forum echo age-old advice published in previous issues of the Journal. In a 1988 issue of the Journal, a special section featured essays by 5 seasoned freelances offering advice on how to start a freelance career. One of the essayists, Donald Radcliffe, who developed the AMWA credit workshop Launching a Freelance Writing Career, advised, "A beginning freelancer should plan for a full-time career with a running start: steady part-time work in progress, clients carried over from a regular job, clients coming on stream from earlier proposals, promising queries out, firm assignments in sight, or a combination of these sources of work and income."
Similarly, in a Freelance Roundtable in a 1999 issue of the AMWA Journal, Daniel Byrne made this comment: "I prepared for 6 years. I would recommend that people take their time. I bought equipment, got clients, learned lessons the hard way, and figured out how to build my business."
As important as experience is, it is not the only key to success as a freelance. As noted in all the aforementioned articles, freelances must be willing to engage in a myriad of functions other than writing and editing. "…[Freelancing] is about 10 jobs all rolled into one every single day. Remember, you are the CEO and the janitor," says Barbara.
The personality traits integral to success have also been extensively explored. In a 2006 Freelance Forum, Donna Miceli noted that a sense of self-discipline is "probably the most essential mindset you need to be a freelance." Some additional characteristics that Donna and the other Freelance Forum panelists described are the ability to work in relative isolation, a sense of curiosity and joy of learning, the ability to roll with the punches, a thick skin, the ability to withstand the financial pressure of periods with no work and the emotional pressure of too much work, optimism, flexibility, and self-awareness of how clients perceive you.
Summing up the need for a variety of skills and characteristics, Brian Bass notes in the September 2010 issue, "Regardless of how you came to medical communication, and no matter how good at it you are, being a medical communicator does not automatically qualify you for becoming a freelance. In fact, thinking it does can be a real detriment to one's career. Freelancing is a completely separate skill set; one that not nearly as many people have as think they have."
What about the glamour of freelancing? Again, freelances are united in their belief that freelancing is far from glamorous. Sure, you can work in your sweats or pj's, but does that define glamour? Judith Gunn Bronson, another essayist in the 1988 special section, summed up the issue with "Myth Number 1: Freelancing is a glamorous hobby-like affair. Fact Number 1: Successful freelancing is a business, and glamor [sic] is in short supply." As an illustration of her point, Judith discussed the ample funds needed to launch and maintain a freelance career—a point that all of us freelances know all too well.
My words—and the advice from others—is not to discourage anyone from exploring the idea of a freelance medical writing career. But it is meant to make you carefully consider several aspects before taking the leap. Network with freelance medical writers in your AMWA chapter or local area to get their take on what being a freelance is really like. If you're going to the AMWA conference in Milwaukee next week, several open sessions can provide you with valuable information, especially Tales from the Trenches (OS 2), Scope of Medical Communication (OS6), and Build Your Bottom Line (OS 14). (See the AMWA registration brochure for more details.) Also, AMWA now offers 2 credit workshops that are helpful for fledgling freelances; in addition to Launching a Freelance Career, there is Business Aspects of a Freelance Career. Ask your chapter leaders to offer one of these workshops at your next chapter event.
One way to see if you're have it what it takes to be a freelance is to take the self-assessment quiz, "Are You Made for the Freelance Life?" created a few years ago by Cathryn. Answering the 25 questions in this quiz will tell you if you should "find a rich spouse," should "consider a regular job," "have a fighting chance," or should "go for it."
Take the quiz and post your score on the blog survey!
PS: I thank all the Freelance Forum panel members—Brian Bass, Sherri Bowen, Cathryn Evans, Emma Hitt, Donna Miceli, Phyllis Minick, Barbara Rinehart, and Elizabeth Smith—for their unending source of comments and advice.