Life as a freelance medical writer – exclusive interview

Article written by Paris Taylor, Head of X4 Communications.

From writing about all things science and healthcare to turning technical information into engaging copy, the role of a medical writer can be challenging, yet hugely varied and rewarding.

I spoke to Emma Metcalfe, who is a freelance scientific team leader and medical writer, to find out about her career journey working as a freelance medical writer for a healthcare communications agency.

Drawing upon her impressive career, Emma revealed the things she looks for in a medical communications agency when choosing who to work freelance for and also, offered up her own advice to any medical writers who are considering moving to freelance.

Check out the interview below.

What attracted you to a career in medical writing?

I have always been interested in how the body works and how we can treat disease. I wanted a career in the healthcare industry, but in a business environment rather than a clinical setting.

Medical writing has a clear career path, with options to become a Principal Medical Writer, lead a writing team, move client-side, or start freelancing. Writers may also choose to specialise in areas including medical education, regulatory writing, or market access.

What is your favourite part of the job?

The best part of the job is the variety. I have enjoyed working on a vast range of project types, therapy areas and pharmaceutical products. There is also variety in the people you work with – account managers, clients, professors, clinicians, creatives, designers – even actors and film crews!

The job satisfaction is a nice bonus – knowing you have helped a busy doctor with a presentation or empowered a patient to better manage their disease is a great feeling.

What do you think is one of the biggest challenges for a medical writer?

A daily challenge is to remain focused on the end result – you can easily get lost in, or distracted by the science or the details. I regularly take a step back and think about how my writing will be used, whether the copy truly meets the objectives and if potential users will find it both engaging and educational.

Other challenges include maintaining quality when deadlines are tight and getting to grips with new disease areas or medicines quickly.

What do you look for in a medical communications agency?

I look for a friendly team who can provide clear descriptive briefs, regular work, strive for top quality deliverables and set realistic timelines. For freelancers, agencies who are reliable when drafting contracts, making payments and planning writer resourcing will always be preferred. I also find that agencies with a clear vision, who are transparent about where they excel and what type of work they want to deliver, will always be great to work for.

What advice can you give to other writers thinking about working freelance?

Make sure you have the correct skills. Freelance writers need to be able to on-board fast, switch between projects frequently, and even swap roles between editing, writing and strategic thinking. Time management and an understanding of what can be done in a given timeframe is key, especially if you are contracted for a set number of hours. These skills come with experience and working on a variety of projects.

Be aware of potential drawbacks. Feedback on project work and training is limited for freelancers. You will often need to invest your own time and money on professional development, training and keeping up with industry changes.

Set boundaries. Be clear about the details of each contract from the start. Decide if you will be completely remote, client-facing, available for calls or meetings, happy to do proofreading or content-checking tasks, etc.

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