A Crown Jewel of Technical Writing Jobs: Freelance Medical Writer

You already know that as a freelancer you’re asked to do the work that on-staff people can’t or won’t do—the impossible assignments, in record time, completed with the grace of an angel.

If freelance writing revs your engine, why complicate your life as a jack-of-all-copy? Instead, focus on a specific niche that’s growing. In 2011, there’s unlimited demand for skilled people to create and edit copy about medicine and healthcare, and about other technical topics.

Sample of a technical manual

Hungry writers can find some rich picking in technical writing for healthcare and medicine.

In today’s post, Mojo40 interviews Renee Marks Cohen, a freelance medical writer, whose portfolio contains abstracts, journals, books, case histories, clinical summaries, slide decks and proceedings. How does she thrive in this niche? Writers: use her tips and apply them to freelance work for documentation in a niche that you see growing.

Mojo40: What’s driving the surge in the need for medical and technical writing?

Renee: You know how much need there is for documentation for consumers and for pharmaceutical companies. Healthcare products and treatments need explanation. That parallels the surge in healthcare spending, regulation, and scrutiny.

Mojo40: How did you break into freelance medical writing and editing?

Renee: My first work on medical copy was for Geigy Pharmaceuticals, as a proofreader in a promotion department. Then I worked as an Editorial Assistant for an IBM technical publications group. Later, I became adept at sniffing out opportunities in the “hidden” job market, the jobs that aren’t yet publicly posted. For example, years ago I read about a new academic dean at New York Medical College (NYMC). I wrote to him and asked if he needed a medical writer/editor. It so happened that NYMC did have a medical journal, but it was handled at four different sites and the process was unwieldy. The journal was a quarterly that missed publishing deadlines. I turned the opportunity to my advantage and became the journal’s only paid employee. While the top need was for trafficking of documents, I also did acquisition, writing, editing, proofreading, budgeting, database administration, and more. The journal won two national awards during my tenure as managing editor.

Mojo40: Just like that, reaching out to the dean resulted in a job?

Renee: No, I had to keep re-contacting. To get the ball rolling, you have to follow up.

Mojo40: What would you suggest to someone wanting to become a medical writer/editor?

Renee: After you think you are a skilled medical writer/editor (by natural talent or study), assemble a portfolio and contact a lot of people. Eventually, projects will roll back to you. I feel it’s better to send hard copy inquiries than email, because email gets lost unless people are organized. But if you are doing it digitally, make sure the subject line is targeted, saying “Looking for freelance medical editing” or “Need help with your technical documents?” I always send a professional card 8 ½ x 3 inches where I can handwrite (like the one below!), along with a resume and cover letter.

Make the point elegantly with a professionally made note card.

Renee's professional, personal note card

Mojo40: Can you share some survival strategies for working well, in a sane manner?

Renee: Sure, here you go.

  1. Have a “never give up—can do” attitude. If you haven’t done a particular kind of writing someone suggests to you, you probably can do it. So, say so: “I know I can do it!” And, if you get bogged down in a difficult assignment, tell yourself, “Stick with it and do it!”
  2. When you’re not sure about the details of an assignment, ask questions and then ask more questions. If the task is one for which you’re given free rein, do it to the best of your understanding, research, knowledge, and abilities—don’t hold back. Pick up all the pieces.
  3. Don’t get involved in office politics, gossip, or bickering. Resist!
  4. Always follow up: “Just calling to say hello and to ask how my project was received.” … “Writing this note to tell you about some new kinds of work I’m doing.” …”I’m leaving this phone message to thank you for the opportunity to work with you.”
  5. For telephone conversations, don’t forget to be polite to all levels of personnel.
  6. For in-office work, smile and walk faster than usual. Others will perceive you as more intelligent and more efficient.
  7. Extend yourself by doing more than what’s asked. Watch for articles on topics you wrote about, and send the clippings to your clients. Give clients the name and contact information for the researchers you located and interviewed for an assignment. Send clients brief summaries of relevant speeches you’re heard or read.
  8. If you’re skilled as a copy editor, be thankful. There aren’t too many skilled copy editors around.
  9. Tell the truth. For example, as a Managing Editor, I was told we couldn’t accept an article for publication because it wasn’t up to standard. I had that tough conversation with the author despite the blunt message.
  10. One last time, read over the assignment you’ve prepared.
  11. Work in a focused, efficient and immediate way. Freelancing requires it. Work intensively until the project is finished—that’s why I get assignments. Between jobs I have some breathing time.

Mojo40: How can a freelancer get into the mix?

Renee: The American Medical Writers Association has been a huge resource to understand the breadth of the industry, to learn and to connect with others. The Council of Science Editors is another worthy resource. I also recommend you join LinkedIn Groups for medical writers. And, stay with the basics: (1) tell people what you do and ask what they do (and help them), (2) carry business cards wherever you go, (3) research new businesses and organizations like a detective, (4) keep in touch with old clients and contacts.

Mojo40: Any horror stories?

Renee: People who contact me for help, don’t know what they want, and have momentarily changing needs.


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Did you enjoy this post?
  • Danielle G.

    Writing and editing skills are not something to be sneezed at! If you got ‘em, broadcast ‘em.

  • Lisa P.

    All good advice, Renee, and not just about breaking into the medical writers’ market. Thanks for the links to other resources, too!

  • vivek sinha

    Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
    life sciences..

  • kyui

    Medical writing issues since the inceptions making the most promising approaches in every possible manner. in order to guide the functional action plan in exploring the productive approaches in exposing the productive action plan for all the possible manner. in that case this is the ideal situation to all level.

    • Bob

      You can say that again.

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