The Care and Feeding of a Freelance Medical Writer

horseMany have asked me: How can I make sure that my freelance medical writer is happy? For, as any freelance medical writer knows, we can be an ornery lot, arguing over the merits of yellow vs green when highlighting PDF references; Endnote vs RefMan; the true meaning of a P value. Yet, like any high-strung, thoroughbred, given the right care and feeding, your medical writer can be your greatest asset.

To that end, here is my advice on the care and feeding of your freelance medical writer.

1. Be specific in your commands. I just met with a new client about writing needs assessments. Rather than verbally explain things to me (and the other freelancers he uses) he handed me a folder. Inside was a sample needs assessment with his comments as to what worked and what didn’t work. He also included a sample letter of agreement and a checklist for identifying potential faculty. It was only my years of training that prevented me from leaping across the table and hugging him.

2. Commit to your training regimen. You know how much it costs to recruit, hire and train a staff employee. I’m always struck by how few clients consider the same costs when recruiting, hiring and training a freelancer. Yes, there are a lot of us out there. But, having hired some freelancers myself, I can tell you the quality varies significantly. So if you find one who is even 75 percent great on that first project, put in the time to bring her/him up to 100 percent rather than setting her loose and calling the next (unknown) freelancer on your list. That means telling your freelancer what worked with the project and what didn’t, then giving her/him another project. If the freelancer can’t bring it up to 95-100 percent on the second project, then you have my permission to send her/him out to pasture and bring in a fresh recruit.

3. Train your freelancer. You train your staff employees, right? How about a training session for your freelance cadre on such things as your sales module templates; how you prefer referencing be done; how you want performance assessments written? I’m attending a webinar tomorrow that a potential client has arranged on needs assessments for his freelancers. I’m willing to put in an hour of (unpaid) time because I know how valuable it will be–both for this client and for others.

4. Pet and discipline your freelancer. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, send it on. Freelance medical writers have thick skins–we wouldn’t last in this business if we didn’t. If you weren’t happy, don’t just write the freelancer off and cross their name of your list, tell him/her, even if you don’t plan to use them again. Conversely, if you were happy, send a brief email. I’ve even received forwarded emails from the client’s client–something that means more to me than any check (although payment is always nice). Which brings us to our next recommendation.

5. Feed your freelancer well. As you know, if you’ve read some of my other blogs, you get what you pay for. So if all you care about is the cheapest price, go for it. Then track how long it takes you to “fix” what you paid for. Quality freelancers with years of experience cost more. They cost more because they have those years of experience (think about it, would they have lasted 10 years if they weren’t good?) because they make the investment to keep themselves updated in technology, regulations and rules, because they never stop learning. You might pay a bit more, but I guarantee you, you will save far more on the back end in terms of rewriting and frustration.

6. Feed your freelancer on a regular basis. This is a corollary to the recommendation above; but when you contract with a freelancer for a job, you are also contracting to pay him/her in a timely manner, not when your client pay you! That means within 30-45 days; not 90 days or more.

7. Don’t push your freelancer too hard. If you run a 1-year-old filly in four races in four months, you wind up with an injured filly who never wins. The same thing happens when you expect a freelancer to research and write a quality, 2-hour sales module training, complete with annotated references, in 4 days–with no warning. Good freelancers are usually booked several weeks out; and good freelancers know that it takes more than a week to turn around an intensive project like that (one that will sail through legal/regulatory/medical review).

8. Loosen the reins. Freelancers work on their own for many reasons, but everyone I know agrees on one major one: We don’t take well to micromanaging. We have no problem providing weekly reports on our progress on long-term projects, etc., but please don’t call every afternoon and ask how much writing we got done. Please don’t expect us to maintain the same writing schedule as your in-house employees. I know freelancers who work from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. And I know freelancers who work from 6 a.m. to noon; then again from 5 to 9 p.m. If we commit to a deadline, we’ll get it to you, we promise!

These are just a few suggestions from within my own rattled brain. I can promise you that it’s worth it to care and feed your freelancer well; it means your projects get pushed to the top of the list, that your freelancer will work nights and weekends and rush projects; that your freelancer becomes part of your team, eventually channeling you and your clients and requiring less and less oversight.

I’d like to hear from other freelancers on their suggestions and, in particular, I’d like to hear from clients about their own issues. I promise another posting later, this time on the Care and Feeding of the Client!

6 Responses to “The Care and Feeding of a Freelance Medical Writer”

  1. Anonymous

    I agree with Scott, and I'd like to add a further refinement of point 1. If, despite your best efforts, you're not going to make it on time, then fess up early – it's far easier to juggle a schedule that has time left to do so than one in which you're informed of the problem at the 11th hour. Yes, there's a possibility you might lose the contract, but clients usually respect honesy.

  2. Anonymous

    I'd also like to urge clients to give freelancers some space to work. That often means allowing us to work from home. I'm happy to meet with clients for briefings, meetings, pitches, and keep them up to date with my progress etc. But I work so much quicker in my own environment, using my own computer, away from internal office disruptions and emails. Consider that when you've got a deadline looming.

  3. sbfren

    Hi, Deb –

    Great post. I can't quite make them work in the “pet” paradigm, but I'd also add a couple of “parenting” thoughts: first, present a united front. Make sure that there is internal agreement on the project goals and scope before assigning it to a freelancer, and designate a single main point of contact to communicate with the freelancer. If this is not possible, at least try to ensure that group meetings can take place with the freelancer and all internal participants at the same time. Second, don't treat your adopted children differently than your “real” ones. While I agree that I'd happily give up an hour of time to get some valuable education, please do not ask me to donate days of time to training or days of work for a pitch. You'd be paying your employees for this; you should expect to pay a freelancer for it, too.

  4. Mary

    Hi,

    This is the assistant editor for Hospital.com which is a medical publication offering hospital news, information and reviews. We also cover a wide variety of medical topics, some of these articles being relevant to Health Care reform as you will see from the homepage of our site. We are in the process of updating our health care news section with dozens of articles on the reform and other relevant issues. If possible I would like Hospital.com to be included within your blog roll, offering our information as a resource to your readers and essentially building a relationship between our sites. Please let me know if this addition can be made, Thanks!

    Please email me back with your URL in subject line to take a step ahead and to avoid spam.

    Thank you
    Mary Miller,
    may.hospital.com@gmail.com

  5. Scott Kober

    Excellent post Debra — especially love that one of your clients has training sessions for their freelancers. Something I never thought of.

    I work both sides of the fence as well, though more from the client end hiring and managing freelancers these days. From that perspective, a few things that I always look for from a freelancer I hire (and will continue to hire):

    1. If you commit to a deadline, meet it. I understand that you are working on 4 projects that all have a “urgent” status, but when you signed the contract to have your work turned in by a certain date, you committed to that deadline. Every day you are late means headaches on my end explaining to everyone why content is holding up the process.

    2. If something is unclear, ask. I understand that you don't want to seem as if you don't have a grasp of what is expected of you, but a 5-minute phone conversation can save hours of time on the back end. That said, don't ask questions about minutaie. Some things you will need to figure out on your own. I, too, am juggling 6 projects at once and I hired you to give me less headaches, not more.

    3. Don't make me chase you down to submit invoices. If you want to get paid, give me what I need when the work is done. And if your check hasn't arrived in a timely fashion, let me know. I will always make sure accounting hears about it and I'll get you an answer.

    Now, with my best freelancers, I am willing to be flexible on some of these points, so great work as always trumps most everything, but it's still good for freelancers to keep these things in mind.

    Scott Kober, CCMEP
    Manager, Medical Services
    Institute for Continuing Healthcare Education
    skober@iche.edu

  6. Barbara Rinehart, MS Medical Writer

    Hi all freelances and clients,
    This article is spot on. So if you want Spot to be doing “good doggies” for you all the time, just follow these simple tips. I would hug you too if you gave me three bullet points that convey what you want the project to achieve. Be specific with these points. Don't say generate more revenue; rather say teach sales reps the 6 benefits of product x over the 3 competitors. Don't say educate nurses, physicians, and sales reps; rather say prepare nurses to manage the 4 side effects of drug X. And if you need help determining the objectives of the written piece, let the freelancer in on the nitty gritty of the plan. They can surely help you ferret out targeted objectives. After all we are hound dogs on the hunt… for great client relationships.

    A pup with 20 years experience,
    Barb

    Barbara Rinehart, MS
    Freelance Medical Writer
    1506 Radcliffe Court
    Newtown Square, PA 19073
    Phone/Fax 610-889-4974
    e-mail: brinehart@comcast.net
    Web page http://brinehart.home.comcast.net

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