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5 Things to Look for When Hiring a Freelance Medical Writer

As a long time hirer of freelance medical writers and having had a few crash-and-burn situations along the way, I feel I have finally got a handle on how to select freelance medical writers. Truth be told, only about 20% of people who call themselves freelance medical writers really do an excellent job at it. That’s not to be judgmental, but it’s like any profession—you have top performers and then you have those who are not top performers.
Freelance medical writing is not easy. It’s a wonderful, lucrative work-at-home career, but it requires stringent attention to detail while at the same time having the ability to see the big picture, writing skill, and of course, a strong background in science. Sheer brainpower doesn’t hurt either. You have to be able to figure out what the client wants (even when they might not have a clear idea about what they want!). Having a friendly, customer service bent and a sense of humor helps also. The only way to really determine whether a freelance medical writer has the skill you need is to actually use them on a project. Unfortunately, deadlines are tight, there’s a lot at stake, and it’s a risky proposition to use an unknown freelancer on projects. So, here are 5 things that you can look for in a freelance medical writer. I have found, more often than not, that these steps will put you on the path to selecting a cream-of-the-crop freelance medical writer. 1. Do they have a website? A few people will argue with me on this one, but a professional medical writer will have a website or at least a fully completed LinkedIn profile. They realize that they are in business for themselves and they have at least made the effort to put himself or herself out there as a professional.  2. Is their initial contact with you friendly, professional, and error free? If you reach out to a professional freelance medical writer during business hours, do they get right back to you, for example, within a couple of hours (assuming they are in the same time zone)? They should. If they don’t, it could indicate that they will be hard to deal with when working on a project together. Maybe they are overly busy, or maybe they are burned out. If they are on vacation or at a conference, they should have an autoresponder on, although in my years as a freelance writer, I never dared lose a new client to an autoresponder! If they are overly busy, it means they may be really good and therefore in demand, but they should still check their email every couple of hours. When they respond, their emails should be error free. We all make errors all the time, but if a writer can’t bring himself to proofread his initial email before sending it to a potential new client, then this is a big red flag. 3. Did they do well on a writing test? Skilled freelance medical writers are going to be booked up much of the time, so any test you provide should be able to be completed in 30 minutes or less. One effective test is to ask them to write a brief summary of a medical journal article, maybe one that isn’t a major news story so they are not tempted to lift text from any online sources. Just send them a pdf file of a medical study and ask for a 150-word summary directed towards your specific audience, for whichever one your intended project is to be. What you get back should be a non-plagiarized, accurate write up with no major errors and with fluent English. Spelling errors are a huge red flag. So are any numbers that aren’t typed in correctly as well as inconsistencies in mathematical units or in spacing around the P values. These are relatively minor errors, but not what you want in a test piece of medical writing. I don’t rely on writers’ samples because I never know who has edited them or under what circumstances they have been written. Also, many of a medical writer’s best samples might be confidential. 4. Look them up on LinkedIn and if you have any connections in common, try to get a reference Nearly all medical writers will be on LinkedIn these days, and because medical writers are a fairly tight-knit community, you will likely have connections in common. Editors who hire medical writers are often hesitant to give a negative reference. People also don’t want to have to spend 10 minutes on the phone giving a reference, so the best approach is a quick email to a common connection of someone with whom they might have worked. Just ask two questions 1) “Have you recently worked with this writer, and if not, would you mind telling me why not?”; and 2) “Would you recommend this writer?” If you get anything less than a raving “yes!” for the second question, then it’s best not to use them—most people won’t want the liability of giving an accurate negative reference. Two reference-getting attempts are of course better than one. 5. Do they have a PhD, PharmD, MD or other doctoral science degree? This one will annoy some of the medical writers who have less than a doctoral qualification, but in my years of experience, nearly all of the best writers I have worked with have come from this pool (with a few exceptions). There’s something about the difficulty of these programs that helps prepare writers for the challenge of medical writing. Years of experience can make up for the lack of the doctoral degree. One thing not to worry about though is whether a medical writer has had recent writing experience in a specific medical topic. Even if a medical writer has written about, let’s say, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, as recently as 6 months ago, they will still have to get up to date on the topic as advances in medicine are so rapid. Medical writers tend to have a comfort level with many different areas. They know exactly how to get up to speed on a medical topic about which they know something but not everything. They are used to reading and reviewing piles of complex scientific papers and are not scared off by it. It’s what they did for years in graduate school. If you find a good medical writer, trust them! Emma Nichols, PhD, is CEO of Nascent Medical, LLC. We have a team of excellent freelance medical writers on hand and can bring our talent to bear on any medical writing project. If you have any medical writing needs, please email  

8th January 2016