Q:I have a friend/professional connection who works for a publication company that sometimes runs articles about health and medical topics. We were talking recently and I told him I’d love to write for them, because I have some experience doing writing like this. He put me in touch with his coworker who hires the writers, and they seem interested! I definitely want to give this a try, because I want the extra income and think it might lead to more writing jobs in the future. But I’m not sure what I should charge for something like this? Should I tell them an hourly rate or cost per article? I don’t want to say something too high and risk losing their interest, but also don’t want to do a bunch of work for pennies. Thanks.
A:Jobs in medical writing are a terrific gig for healthcare professionals, both as a career and as supplemental freelance work. So kudos for the networking you did to put yourself in the position that you’re in!
Rates for writing jobs cover an extensive range, which can make it difficult to propose a rate to a new client. In general, for almost any contracting work as a medical professional, I recommend charging a set rate per project. This holds true for medical writing. However, it can be tough to determine a project rate when you’re just starting out as a medical writer, so you can consider an hourly rate at first until you feel comfortable with this line of work.
Let’s talk about both approaches.
Charging a per-project rate for medical writing
When working as a medical writer on a flat-fee basis for a project, you need to consider both the length of the material being written and the “density” of information.
A compensation of $1 per word is generally considered reasonable for high-quality medical writing. But I’ve seen rates advertised as low as 10 cents per word, and I know of medical writers who routinely charge in the range of $2 to $4 per word. And even more for some types of publications.
This range has broadened in recent years due to outsourcing of freelance work outside of the US and to competitive freelance systems such as Upwork. There are writers on these sites willing to write for next to nothing. But many of them are producing poor quality work. Many do not have the greatest grasp of the English language, either. For the beginner medical writer, this simply means that you need to justify your higher rates by delivering excellent quality work.
A short article that is packed with well-researched information is what I consider “high density” writing. This means you’ll probably put in a lot of time and effort even though the word count is low. For this type of project, you should expect more money per word than you would for, say, an informal, easy-reading health article for a patient audience.
Given the breadth of rates in the industry and the broad scope of medical publications, you’ll need to spend some time looking into the particular company you’re planning to work for, as well as doing a bit of soul-searching. Ask yourself these questions:
What does the organization pay their other freelancers?
Given your relationship with an employee at the company, you might consider even asking him if he could put you in touch with one or two of their freelance writers. No need to tell him that you want to discuss compensation with them.
How standardized are this company’s processes for acquiring articles?
It sounds as though the company you’ll be working with commonly hires freelance writers. The more they do, the more likely they are to have standard rates that they offer. It would be reasonable to inquire as to what rates they pay for the type of articles you’ll be writing. If they come back to you with a number, you can simply accept it or find out if there’s room for negotiation. Then you at least have a ballpark figure of where to start negotiating.
How important is your medical background in writing these articles?
Many health-related articles aimed at patients or a lay audience don’t contain much technical information, so are often written by non-clinicians. You don’t mention what your credentials are, though I assume you’re a physician or other healthcare professional with a degree that carries some weight. Don’t allow your compensation to undermine this. Your client will be getting written material from a subject matter expert with formal training. If your experience as a clinician will add value to these articles, your rates should reflect that.
What compensation would make this job worth it to you?
Judging by your question, it sounds like you enjoy medical writing and you’re hoping to do more of it in the future. It also sounds like this work would have a great deal of flexibility in terms of when you work on the articles and perhaps even the topics you’re writing about. These factors might make this job worth it to you even if the rate of pay isn’t spectacular.
Getting paid by the hour for medical writing
As I mentioned, I don’t recommend charging an hourly rate for most medical writing jobs. But here is why I’m including this option:
- For those who are new to the industry and have difficulty in pricing a project, it will simplify things and allow you to attain some clients while still figuring out the field.
- When you are working with a new client and don’t have a solid feel for what they’re like to work with (e.g. how knit-picky they are), it can be helpful to make an arrangement to do the first assignment or two on an hourly basis and then switch over to a per-project rate.
- Even when you are charging by the project, it is still helpful to use a time estimate in order to determine what you’ll charge for the entire assignment.
Use the same questions discussed above as a starting point in determining hourly rate. Then, consider how long the project is likely to take you. One common and avoidable oversight is the time spent researching prior to actually writing your piece. This can be extensive!
As a resident or post-doc, you may have pounded out the abstract for your last journal article submission in 30 minutes as an afterthought. But plan for about 5 hours per abstract when working as a medical writer.
A well-referenced article with a medical focus is likely to take a good 10 to 15 hours. Writing a medical manuscript starting from a study protocol and data tables, you can probably expect to spend at least 40 to 50 hours.
Adjust your rates for future projects
I realize I’ve mentioned vague ranges for both pay and hour estimation. Sorry! It’s the nature of the business. But the good news is that freelance medical writing for physicians tends to come in fairly small, short-term projects. If you botch the rate for a single project, it’s not a huge deal. In the worst-case scenario, you’ve lost a bit of your valuable time, but also made some money, gained some experience, and increased your subject knowledge. Then you can negotiate a more attractive rate for your next project.
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