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By Marithea Goberville, PhD
The project-based nature of medical writing lends itself very well to freelancing. With thousands of medical writers completing nearly $1 Billion in annual projects, the industry is flush with talent at all levels. So just how do you go about finding them? Once you find them, what criteria can you use to select the right one for your project? And finally, once you have found and selected a medical writer, what steps can you take to ensure an effective working relationship? This three-part mini-series addresses these questions for the benefit of anyone seeking the services of a medical writer.
Part 2: Top 7 Criteria for Selecting a Freelance Medical Writer
Evaluate, prioritize, and choose candidates using these 7 criteria
While there is no shortage of candidates, selecting a competent, experienced professional medical writer best suited to your project from among thousands available for hire can be a challenge. By simply considering and prioritizing a handful of key selection criteria, you can establish an objective process and simplify the evaluation of the medical writers you have managed to find using the techniques offered in Part 1 of this mini-series. The following are the 7 most commonly used selection criteria for freelance medical writers:
Education – The extent to which each candidate is formally educated in health science is always a factor, often the most prominent one, in the selection process. However, if consumers are the target audience for the project, then formal education may be less important than ‘experiential education’ acquired through work in that particular area. When it comes to projects for clinical audiences, including regulatory documents, medical journals, or CME, a strong science or medical background is typically a prerequisite. Often ‘PhD required’ is used to set the bar high for potential candidates. Sometimes advanced degrees are necessary, and other times they are simply used a screening tool. For example, a writer with an educational background in English or Journalism would face a tough learning curve in clinical or regulatory settings, but may thrive in consumer or patient education. Typically, the minimum educational requirement is a bachelor degree in the health sciences, but depending upon your needs, educational factors as specific as the candidate’s area of post-graduate research may also be considered.
Experience – Experience, measured either in years as a medical writer or quantity of documents produced, tends to be one of the top two selection criteria. Years of experience may be a great rule of thumb, but the number of documents of the type actually needed may be even more important. Contrast a 20-year medical writer who may have just one or two manuscripts written, with a 5-year medical writer who has focused half of his/her business on manuscripts, and consequently, has written dozens of them. A certain level of experience in a particular therapeutic area (e.g., oncology) is also a possible consideration, again usually measured by number of documents rather than years.
Services – Consider the nature of services or document types offered by the candidate in comparison with your project’s particular requirements. Perhaps you’ve found an oncology medical writer (right therapeutic experience), but he/she doesn’t offer support services for meetings (not uncommon for writers) and thus may not be well suited to developing a CME slide deck. Upon reviewing a writer’s bio you might realize you’ve found a top-notch manuscript writer when you need a clinical study report? In addition to industry experience and therapeutic area, make sure the writer offers the specific type of service and/or document type you require.
Geography – Location has plummeted in importance in the medical writing industry. More and more, even inside large companies, medical writing teams have become distributed virtual teams with members in remote locations, even home offices. They may converge only on conference calls or perhaps online video calls. Imposing a requirement that a freelance medical writer be ‘local’ in order to facilitate weekly meetings or ‘days in the office’ will severely hamper your search. Nevertheless, some companies may still require or prefer that a freelance medical writer be local, and if so, they should clearly communicate the requirement and rationale to potential candidates.
Samples– If samples are sought, ask for raw (not published) samples, which will reflect the writer’s work BEFORE it was edited by others (client team members, editors, etc.). Requests for writing samples are typically reserved for newer, early career (
Interviews – Eventually, you will want to speak directly with the candidate, assess their verbal skills and ease with which you can communicate, and determine the “fit” (a mix of personality, temperament, etc.), and this can only be accomplished in an interview. Personal interviews should be utilized as a last step, scheduled and conducted in a timely manner, and be short and to the point. Offer ample opportunity for the candidate to ask questions, as you can learn just as much from the candidate’s questions as his/her answers. A good candidate will likely demonstrate his/her expertise and skills simply by asking questions about the company and/or project that were not addressed in any preceding communications.
References – Placing calls or email inquiries to past clients should really be reserved for the final step – ‘affirming’ everything you’ve reviewed and concluded – for someone you are otherwise ready to hire. Of course you can expect that you will only be referred to ‘good’ references, but if the candidate scores well on all other selection criteria, and has a handful of good references, you are unlikely to hire a “lemon.”
No matter how you consider and/or rank the importance of the above criteria, ultimately the single most important selection factor is the candidate’s ability to research and absorb information, organize and synthesize it, and then communicate it most effectively for the media type and audience. Unfortunately the only way to evaluate this ability is to work directly with the freelancer on a project. Yet by evaluating every candidate carefully on each of the above criteria ranked according to you project’s needs, you stand to minimize the likelihood of any hiring regrets.
Marithea Goberville, Ph.D., is President & Principal Medical Writer of Science Author, Inc., providing medical writing services to clinical audiences since 2004. Visit www.scienceauthor.com to learn more about her expertise in regulatory documentation, journal publications, and presentations for medical meetings and CME.