Downtime in Freelance-land

What downtime for freelances looks like

Goals for downtimes

It’s a cliché, but it’s true – freelancing is a rollercoaster. It’s taken a while for me to accept that reality and go with it. When I’m busy, my projects can start to feel like a relentless avalanche. When I’m not, I start to feel a little lost. When I’m busy, I remind myself that the avalanche does have an end, the projects do have deadlines. And when I reach a relatively quiet period after the dust has settled, I take a moment, take a breath, catch up on the things that were pushed aside, and plan for the next weeks and months and year as a freelance.

So this is my downtime retrospective blog post. Welcome.

I’ve almost reached 6 years of full-time freelancing – every year, I think, “Well, that was fun, I wonder how long I can pull this off.” And then that year is better than the last. I’m nothing if not determined, but I am always a little surprised that I am still going strong.

While having a steady stream of projects is fantastic, I do wish I had more time to try new things in my business—new ways of writing, new experiences, new ways to reach out to potential customers (aka, new revenue streams) and colleagues—but most of the time I am just working away, project by project, focusing on building relationships, my portfolio, and my reputation.

I was able to try a few new things this year. I taught graduate students in a biomedical master’s program about communication in the sciences. It was nice to get out of the office and interact with real people! Seriously, though, I found it to be incredibly gratifying to be able to share my experience and knowledge, helping future researchers communicate the story behind their science – skills that are now more important than ever. A colleague suggested I turn my lessons into webinars – this is where having more time would come in handy!

I also recently took on a summer intern through a healthcare communications graduate program. We’ve just started on some projects, and I hope that both of us can benefit from the experience!

I tried journalism-type writing, complete with interviewing sources. I’m still not sure of myself in this area, but I’m willing to learn.

I traveled for clients. Once of the best experiences I had this year was attending the US launch of the Gender in the Global Research Landscape report and meeting some amazing women and men who are working for gender equality in research – not just among those doing the research, but also in research itself – pushing for study designs that include both sexes, research that considers issues facing both sexes, and innovation that is only be possible with inclusion of diverse viewpoints.

This year I expect to do a little more traveling and I’d like to try and go to more professional conferences – the AMWA annual meeting and maybe even the Be a Better Freelancer® conference. We’ll see. I make grand plans during these downtimes, and then the avalanche gears back up.

So I had a good year in freelance – diversified my business, added clients, lost clients, traveled more, and gained new experiences in teaching and journalism. Here’s to year 7 on the freelance rollercoaster!

2014 Retrospective

So 2014. I started the year off in a panic. November and December were dismal and I was sure that this was the final downslope on the freelance rollercoaster. That there would never be another upswing. I don’t think I will ever get comfortable with the ebb and flow of freelancing. I love the freedom, and the ability to say no, but the feast or famine thing is just tough to take. Will I ever get to the point where the security wins out over the freedom and I decide to head back into an office? There are days when I say “Never!” but then there are days where the panic sets in and I just want something steady, predictable, and secure.

I considered expanding my business to include copyediting. I quickly realized that copyediting is its own  animal – it’s not the same as what I do. I mean, I do some copyediting, but my strength is in developmental and substantive editing, specifically in the biomedical sciences. More than that, I realized that to make any money in copyediting, I would need to automate much of what I do. I would need to use macros and software to make every second count and get up to a decent hourly rate. Even taking into consideration the learning curve, it was clear that adding copyediting to my repertoire was not going to solve my income problem.

So I decided in January that I would delve into my virtual Rolodex and seek out more work in healthcare communications – I’d hoped that as the recession started to ease up, more agencies might be willing to hire freelancers. I reached out to my previous employer, and although they were not looking for freelance help, I was able to get my name back in circulation. It eventually paid off, with about 6 months of steady work over the summer and fall.

Almost at the same time, a former colleague of mine referred me to another agency. I went in to speak to the head of medical writing and started doing freelance work for them a couple of months later – it’s led to a fantastic working relationship that I hope to sustain and even expand in the coming year.

By March, grant proposal jobs had kicked back in. In the current funding environment, though, I think it’s time to resign myself to the fact that grant work will not be a big percentage of my income. That said, grant editing and consulting is one of the most personally and professionally satisfying parts of my career, and I was able to add on a new client this year who kept me very busy during October and November. I am hopeful that I can keep it going in 2015.

Manuscript editing continued to be a big part of my business, and I enjoy it as much as, and maybe even a little more than, grant projects. The work is sporadic, though, so it was good to have the agency work to fill in the gaps.

On the business side, I switched accountants and promptly realized how disinterested my previous accountant had been in my business. My new accountant has put me on the right track, curing me of really bad bookkeeping habits, gently guiding me towards what I should have been doing all along (ahem, QuickBooks). I also made the decision to incorporate, which has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made, financially speaking.

So what did I learn this year?

1) Networking is crucial. Most if not all of my business is based on referrals. I’m glad I reached out to previous clients and kept in touch with former colleagues. Even if they have no work, they are reminded I am out there and I am available to take work. I send out a New Year postcard every year for that very reason – just get to get my name back in their head as they start their year.

2) Quality really is king. Always do your best work. Always. You’ll get repeat business as well as referrals. By February, just as I was starting to dust off the resume, my repeat clients started calling with jobs. I should have more faith, really.

I’m sure I covered this in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating. If you think you can’t do your best quality work, don’t take the job. Really. Be honest with potential clients if you have doubts about your ability to complete the job. It doesn’t help you or your client if you have to struggle through a job. I hate having to admit I can’t do something, but I really hate having to tell a client I can’t finish their job. Or sending them poor quality work.

3) Do what you’re good at. Although it’s always good to learn new skills, it’s also important to focus on your strengths and offer your clients your very best. I am really good at substantive and developmental biomedical editing and biomedical writing. I’m good at editing biomedical grant proposals and peer-reviewed manuscripts. I’m good at brainstorming and planning and constructing a good scientific story. But there are many things I am not as good at and other things I know nothing about. I recognize this and I wouldn’t offer my services in these areas to any client, no matter how freaked out I am about the potentially lost income.

4) Introspection is important. I try to assess how I am doing a few times a year. And not just financially. How many active clients do I have? How many are new? What kinds of projects have I been doing? Where have I struggled and what can I do about it?

5) Go with a diverse client base. As much as I love grants and manuscripts, they are not sufficient to pay the bills. I ended up with 25 clients in 2014, some repeat, some new. They were independent researchers, research institutions, healthcare communications agencies, publishers, and pharma. I also did some volunteer work for AWIS Magazine – great experience and more contacts!

So how did I end up doing in 2014? I am up a little more than 10% in billing and a little more than 5% in income from last year – so that is really something.

As I write this, I am in the midst of my annual December slump – the part of the freelance ride I guess I’m just going to have to get used to. But this year, I will not panic and instead have faith that all my hard work and diversification and introspection and newfound business sense will pay off and the rollercoaster will once again head in the upward direction. Here’s to an even better 2015!

Diversifying vs. Finding a Niche

So a long time ago, I wrote a post on the importance of finding a niche. It’s important, otherwise you run the risk of overextending yourself, maybe taking jobs that don’t quite fit your particular skill set and getting paid relatively little as a consequence of climbing the learning curve.


I have also been struggling recently with how to increase my income. I could raise my hourly rates, which doesn’t always work out. I could attempt project-based pricing. I could quit being a solopreneur and throw in my lot with an editorial group. Or I could find more clients and/or work more hours, which will inevitably lead to burnout.

I was also given the advice that I should find different clients. Hmmm.

Some history: I took a very gradual route to full-time freelancing. I had a full-time job, so the freelance gigs I took were like a bonus. Also, my day job was in content development for continuing medical education and healthcare communications companies, whereas my freelance jobs were in scientific manuscript and grant editing. Very different. Day job: big projects in medical writing with project-based pricing. Freelance: smaller projects in science writing and editing with hourly pricing.  When I switched to freelancing full time, the majority of my work became science writing and editing, billed hourly.

Every once in a while, I still do get a big project in healthcare comm, but for the most part, manuscripts and grants are my bread and butter and university researchers are my main clients. Even though I had settled in a niche, I also decided to keep my experience up on my website, classified by client and the types of services I am able to offer to each. Maybe deep down I recognized the value in presenting myself as someone with a broad skill set, but I am still hesitant to leave my “niche” and risk overextending my one employee. Which I have done in the past and I’d like to avoid for sanity’s sake.

Another factor is the current state of federally funded research. It’s dire. Scientists are being laid off. These are my clients. They don’t have a whole lot of money to invest in developing a grant proposal that is less and less likely to be funded. Hopefully that’s where I come in, to help them get it funded. But it can be hard for them to weigh the need to hire a grant editor when they are already struggling to keep their labs going. It’s not yet clear whether the current situation with NIH funding is going to drive business or dry it up. To be safe, diversifying is probably a smart thing to do.

Now, how to diversify without overextending? There’s a skill I really need to work on.

Burning out and booting up

It’s been a while – I’ve been busy. That’s an understatement, actually. I’ve been swamped. Overloaded. Overbooked. Overwhelmed. You get the picture. I don’t know what happened, but my schedule somehow went bonkers. Either I need a better project tracking system (any suggestions?) or I need to remind myself more often how many hours there are in a day and how many of those hours must be scheduled for sleep.

After many, many days in a row with no break, and realizing that it’s not letting up any time soon, I am starting to burn out. Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely NOT complaining about being busy. It’s being too busy for long periods of time that ends up killing me. And in this most recent stretch, my laptop decided it was burnt out too. So there I was at Best Buy on a Sunday evening, one hour before closing, frantically trying to figure out if my laptop could be resurrected or if I could buy a new one and get it set up ASAP. I’m sure the salespeople saw me walk in, wild-eyed and crazed, and decided I was an easy commission – I think I was being helped by 3 different people at one point.

Anyway, I ended up buying a new laptop and rushing home to set it up and get back to my  two projects with deadlines on Monday. I got everything plugged in, and hoped that I could at least get Word up and running. I will spare you a full description of the hysteria and tears. (tip: keep all your product keys somewhere safe, and if you move, attach them to your person until you get to your new house and put them somewhere safe).

I will say that I’d like to join the chorus of other PC users and declare my hatred for Windows 8. It’s probably an excellent operating system for tablets. For laptops? Not so much. I feel like I am pretty comfortable with computers (I kinda have to be), and it took me at least a half an hour to find the control panel! Somehow I was able to find my product key for Office and could load that up, transfer over the projects I was working on, and finish them up.

The rest of the set-up process was laden with some award-winning profanity and several calls to tech support. It ended with a very frustrated writer who thought she was savvy with technology, but was now feeling like an old fogey. The only good thing about the whole process? Carbonite. It’s the best investment I ever made. Everything was transferred over to the new computer in 2 days. Even my Internet Explorer favorites. So it could have been much worse, I know.

Despite the technical difficulties, I ended up making my two deadlines, so that was good. And so far I haven’t let any clients down by being so busy. But when I get this busy, for this long, it’s only a matter of time before I drop a ball. And that’s all it really takes to screw up a freelance business. One ball.

Reasoning, arguing, and biomedical writing

Now that I’ve completed the Writing in the Sciences course on Coursera (and received my official certificate, yay me!), I decided to take a course called Think Again: How to Argue – along with 72,000 other people around the world. I originally signed up to learn how to argue politics more civilly with my family-who-supports-the-other-party. But as the class moves through week 2, I’m realizing how much the concepts taught in this class also apply to my professional life as a biomedical writer/editor.

For example, take “the problem of infinite regress” and “authoritarian assurances.” These concepts are the basis for some of our universally accepted writing practices, such as why it’s better to cite the primary reference rather than a review. But they also explain the larger value of skepticism, why all research results should be questioned and tested, and at what point the transition is made from experimental results to accepted fact. “When can I be assured that what has been reported is true?” “What is the standard for trusting the source enough to be assured that something is true? Is it enough that the person who is saying it is considered an authority or is citing an authority? Or is it the institution where the work was done? Or the journal that published it? Or the number of other studies that produce the same results?” The upshot — I am more aware of instances when assurances (research results) suddenly turn into givens (facts). And when this happens, why it is critical to look deeper into the literature before citing it in my writing.

If you’re not bored yet, I have one more thought: one concept that caught my professional writer’s attention this week was “guarding the premise” – making your premise weaker so that it is more likely to be true and less likely to raise objections. I think this might be the reason why scientists (including me) are taught to use the word “may” in their writing (and why the Writing for the Sciences instructor tried to beat that out of me with strong verbs and active voice).

Needless to say, this class has gotten my mind going on the anatomy of an argument and how humans reason. I guess I should have taken more philosophy classes when I had the chance as an undergraduate?

Addicted to learning

Am I crazy? Don’t I have enough on my plate already? Thanks to my AMWA colleagues (I’m looking at you KOKedit!), I was introduced to the world of free online courses at Coursera. Essentially, Coursera has enabled my addiction to school. Since graduating, I’ve often mentioned that it would be nice to go back to school – and now I can for free. I’m a little more than halfway through a science writing course from Stanford and in week 3 of a genomics course from U Penn, and as much extra work as it is, I am having a blast.

The writing course in particular has been a priceless experience. Great tips, great exercises, just an overall great refresher on how to write better.

The genomics class is making me work hard – it’s poking that part of my brain that has been dormant for a decade – the part that remembers homework and writing papers. But I love it. I might even be a better student now than I was back then – but maybe that’s because the stress level is a little lower. I get a certificate if I complete the course with a decent grade, but the most valuable part of all this is the access to the class content. It’s learning for learning’s sake, and that’s just enjoyable.

Now I just have to make sure I don’t sign up for too many at a time…

Balancing freedom and security in a freelance career

I’m one year into my freelance career in biomedical writing and editing, and I just passed my two-year blogiversary. So, I suppose it’s time for me to take a look back and evaluate my progress.

In general, freelancing boils down to balancing the need for financial security with the freedom to plan my own day. Freelancing is alternately terrifying and satisfying. Every month I manage to make my income goal, but at the beginning of each month it’s not always clear that it will happen. Summer is particularly anxiety-inducing; most of my clients are academic researchers and their summers are fairly quiet. I fill in the blanks with writing jobs from Japan – not the highest paying gig, but when my schedule is looking light, I’ll take it to fill the gaps.

The satisfying part is that I am a successful  business owner. Even if it is a tiny business of a single employee. Somehow, I am making this work, and that’s kinda cool.

I’ve also learned that even though I am a night owl, it is neither wise nor physically possible to sustain that schedule. It was a holdover of how I had been doing freelance while working full- or part-time during the day. Night was for freelance jobs. It took me a year to get used to it, but I now write and edit during the day, working a full day with short breaks to walk the dog, work out, and eat lunch. Sounds boring, like I switched one office job for another, but the reality is that my schedule is my own. I have time. No more taking my lunch hour to rush out for an errand and then rush back to the office. No fighting weekend crowds at the supermarket. I can take my kids to appointments, I can join them on field trips, and I don’t have to keep track of how many vacation days I’ve used. And I definitely do not miss the daily commute to and from downtown Chicago.

The rollercoaster continues. Sometimes pride in my business wins over self-doubt over finances, other times the fear of financial insecurity wins out over the benefits of freedom and time.

In the end, though, I ask myself one question: “Do you like what you are doing?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Biomedical writing and editing continues to be intellectually challenging, requiring me to creatively merge science with language to communicate complex concepts. It is also personally satisfying to use my particular skill set to help my clients and to have the opportunity to learn something new with every project.

So, that settles that, I think.

Grantwriting for biotech? Sign me up!

Earlier this month I attended an excellent workshop on SBIR/STTR grants that was hosted by the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Association (iBio) PROPEL program, and was led by Lisa Kurek from Biotechnology Business Consultants. I decided to attend because I’ve touched just about every research and training grant mechanism from the NIH, but haven’t done much in the SBIR/STTR realm. The workshop was intense, to say the least.

I came into the workshop with a combined perspective of bench science and pharma advertising/marketing, which helped me switch gears. We’re no longer asking for funding for research to improve health and medicine, we’re asking for funding to translate and commercialize research discoveries (ultimately to improve health and medicine). I learned a great deal in two days, from the very broadest concepts of the differences between SBIRs and STTRs, what happens in phase I/II proposals, and what goes in a commercialization plan, to the details of grantsmanship, organization of the proposal, and what’s required in the various sections. There is some overlap with research grants, but the mindset and purpose behind these two funding mechanisms are very, very different.

I don’t know if I will ever work on one of these grants, but just going to the workshop helped expand my perspective of federally funded research – it goes beyond research and training for university- and med school-based scientists. These grants essentially fill in the funding gap for researchers who have a potential product as a result of their independent research but have not yet reached the point where private investors will step in. Funding the embryonic stages of a biotech company. These awards support essential STE innovation in the US, something I can really get behind as a communicator (which is important if you want to be convincing in a grant proposal!).

I hope I will have an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of these scientist-entrepreneurs – helping them put together SBIR/STTR grant proposals that communicate their passion and plans.

Training grants: I had no idea…

I just finished working on an NIH training grant (T32) for the very first time, and I have to say, I had no idea.

First off, a definition: the NIH T32 grant mechanism is “the primary means of supporting predoctoral and postdoctoral research training to help ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles related to the Nation’s biomedical, behavioral and clinical research agenda.” Okay, so NIH is putting funds toward training tomorrow’s scientists. I can understand that.

So what was I floored by? Not just how involved the preparation of a training grant is, how many tables there are, and how much information is requested from the NIH (and it is truly immense), but that NIH-funded training programs at academic institutions rely on the success of their graduates and fellows. And that “success” is very precisely defined and quantified. From the T32 parent FOA, here are the scored review criteria for the program’s training record:

  • How successful are the trainees in completing the program?
  • How productive are trainees in terms of research accomplishments and publications?
  • How successful are trainees in obtaining further training appointments, fellowships, and career development awards?
  • How successful are the trainees in achieving productive scientific careers, as evidenced by successful competition for research grants, receipt of honors or awards, high-impact publications, receipt of patents, promotion to scientific leadership positions, and/or other such measures of success?

As a grantwriter, none of this should have surprised me. But my first reaction was, “Wow, I bet my institution’s program directors cringe when they have to add my information to their tables.” My second reaction was, “At least I am nearing the 10-year mark, so they won’t have to put my information in their tables for much longer.” I published 3 papers and several reviews and textbook chapters and completed the PhD program, so that’s at least something, but I promptly left academia to be a biomedical writer. Oops. At least now I know one of the reasons why professors shake their heads sadly when they watch their graduate students leave academia…but that’s being cynical, so anyway…

After getting over my initial emotional and somewhat defensive reaction, I started wondering how much (or how little) graduate students on training grants really know about where their stipends and tuition come from. I knew I was on a training grant at two different points during my time in graduate school, but other than that, nada. Like all students, I knew I had to publish, present my work at meetings, and participate in journal clubs and seminar series in order to graduate. But I had no idea that these performance expectations were specifically associated with training grant funding or that my personal success would have an impact on future training grant funding for the institution. I didn’t know that my recruitment and enrollment in the program were just as crucial for me and my career as they were for the institution and its future in graduate training.

I wonder how much of this information is ever shared with trainees. Are trainees curious about this, or did they, like me, have their nose down at the bench, blinders on, just working towards the next paper, meeting abstract, and eventually, their degree? Of course, graduate trainees are encouraged to “succeed,” but I wonder if they realize just how much the institution depends on them to succeed and to do so in very specific ways (see list above). I think that even though it might not change how hard a graduate trainee works, it is surely helpful to let them take a look inside the machine and understand the importance of their own training success on the program as a whole.

In the end, working on a T32 helped me appreciate how graduate programs are judged by the NIH, the criteria that are used to measure success, and why graduate trainees are encouraged to stay in research. Which is good for a me to know as a grantwriter, even if I had no idea during graduate school.

On niches and boundaries

2012 will be my first year as a completely independent freelance biomedical writer and editor. My freelance business has been through the various stages of hobby to side work to part time job to full time job, and this will be the first year that it represents all of my income. No pressure, right? When I first decided to make the final leap to full-time freelance last summer, I was understandably anxious about income and whether I could make this work without leaving me and my family eating macaroni and cheese every night. So I took any biomedical writing/editing projects I could find, regardless of whether they were proofreading, editing, or writing; regardless of the client: academic, agency, or not-for-profit; and regardless of the topic. I soon came to appreciate two things: (1) I am not “built” for all projects and (2) my time is limited and therefore precious.

What do I mean by being “built” for certain projects? I am one of many professional biomedical writers and editors. But my education, background, and experience make me unique. The question is, what kinds of projects, clients, and topics best suit me so that I am spending my freelance time in the best possible way? By taking any projects because I felt I had to in order to stay solvent, I was getting frustrated with the jobs I could do easily but that paid too little and also frustrated with jobs that were outside my comfort zone that made me struggle and feel I was wasting time. 

There are only so many hours I can work in a week, and so I needed to find those jobs I was best trained for in order to make the most of my time. I first had to admit that there were boundaries – a difficult thing to do because it felt like closing doors and because I never want to admit that I can’t do something. But it really wasn’t about saying I wasn’t able, it was more about saying that I have to choose the best projects that fit my particular skill set. I’m sure that I needed to go through that first anxious period of accepting every job, no matter how small or out of my niche, to learn this lesson.

The other important thing I came to realize is that while taking jobs that were outside my comfort zone could be personally frustrating, it is also not good business practice. Just like me, clients are looking for the best fit for their projects so they get their money’s worth. Accepting a job for which I am not a good fit may not lead to the best outcomes – for me or the client. It is far better to learn as much information about the project up front, evaluate the project through the lens of my ability and training and schedule, and then turn it down if the project just doesn’t fit. Better that than struggling and getting frustrated and, perhaps worst of all, running the risk of letting down the client and damaging my reputation.

So now I understand my boundaries – what’s my niche? I’ve discussed this in other posts, but I’ve come to realize that biomedical grant writing/editing and manuscript editing for academic clients is where I shine. My background in research, my experience in healthcare communications, and even my stint in healthcare advertising, have come together to give me a 30,000-foot view, an objective eye, and an appreciation for the funding agency’s perspective.

I admit, I still take jobs that aren’t grants or manuscripts but that are still within my comfort zone. But grants and manuscripts now make up the bulk of my projects. As much as I hate the idea that I might be limiting myself, that I am capable of much more, I have to accept that I am one person, and physically unable to do everything. (I have to sleep at least a few hours a night!)

So those are my thoughts on niches and boundaries – now, back to work!