How to Stand Out in the Noisy Freelance Space

I used to think that standing out as a medical writer required years and years of experience. One phone call proved that I was wrong.  

Photo by Pixabay

Photo by Pixabay

Do you know how many U.S.-based freelance medical writers are listed on LinkedIn? Over 3,600. If you also include U.S.-based medical writers with corporate full-time positions, this number grows to over 17,000.

To say that there is competition in the medical writing space is an understatement.

When I was new to freelancing, I really thought that I didn’t stand a chance against the more experienced writers. And with literally thousands of other freelance medical writers to choose from, why would a client hire someone like me with few samples and only a handful of paid deliverables under my belt?

But one day, I had a conversation with a client that changed my outlook.

Let me preface this by saying that I used to get really nervous about taking phone calls with clients. Especially when reviewing a deliverable that I’d sent in. It’s not that I’m an introvert - I just always thought that I was going to need to brace myself for criticism.

On this particular day, I sat and stared at my email inbox. There was the reply from my client.

“Hi, Jennifer. I’ve had a chance to review. Do you have a few minutes to discuss?”

Immediately, I thought the worst. Was my writing horrible? Was I totally off target? Was the client unhappy with it?

I looked through the comments. Not so bad, a few word changes here and there. What was the big deal?

After a few minutes, I composed myself and made the call.

“Hey, Jennifer. I just wanted to go through a few of these changes with you. Sometimes, it’s just easier to do it by phone than through email.”

<Whew. Big sigh of relief.> A few minutes of back and forth. Nothing major.

At the end of the call, I gathered my courage and fessed up. “When I saw your email I was worried. It’s always a little nerve-racking for me when I send a piece out for review.”

Thankfully, my client told me how pleased he had been with my work, and he let me know that he thought I was one of the most talented writers that he had worked with through the years. <Internal happy dance!>

I managed to stutter out, “Thanks so much. I really appreciate the feedback.”

Then I said something kind of stupid, “I’m not sure what I’m doing that makes my work stand out.”

That’s when my client said something that really surprised me. “I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You use topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs. You create logic and flow between ideas. You make it easy for someone to understand the narrative of the story…”

There it was. A serendipitous conversation that confirmed what I had thought for a long time - that impenetrable, complicated texts are not good for anyone, especially not for your clients who need you to be crystal clear.

Substance matters in writing, but clarity, logic, and flow matter even more.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen it again and again - clarity and flow are what your clients really want. Yes, getting the facts straight and being accurate is of the utmost importance. But learning to communicate all of that information in a way that is easy to follow and easy to digest is paramount.

Without a doubt, the clarity of my writing has brought me more steady clients and income than any marketing campaign that I could have put together.

As I talked about in earlier posts, there are certain advantages for freelancers when you write with more clarity, including less time spent on marketing and predictable (and often reliable) income from steady clients.

But don’t just take my word for how important and how rare clear writing is in science and medicine. Others share my sentiment, pleading for more clarity in science and medical writing. It’s no secret that many of us with the alphabet soup after our name write in “academese” ultimately producing work that is “...bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.” There are even “Dizzy Awards” for “excellence in bewildering, unintentionally comical, or downright terrible medical writing.” These awards have been around for more than 30 years.

While humorous, the more serious consequences of poor writing can result in inconsistent interpretation, poor knowledge translation, and research waste - and that’s not good for anyone.

Unfortunately, this style of “dizzy” writing has infiltrated us everywhere - even in the major medical journals. So what do most of us do? We emulate that style of writing because if it's in Nature/The Lancet/NEJM then it surely must be an example of how to write.

As a medical writer, your job is to be efficient and impactful while still being as clear and simple as possible. And yet we see dizzy writing seep into well-respected journals, grant writing, educational programs, and well...everywhere.  

It’s hard for those of us coming from a science or medical background. We simply write like everyone else writes. But this type of academese has to be unlearned and the curse of knowledge has to be shed. We have to train ourselves to think and write differently, so that the message is not lost in polysyllabic nonsense and 50-word sentences that are impossible to follow.

Providing this type of clarity in your writing is the key to not only keeping existing clients happy, but getting clients in the first place. Clear writing will guarantee that your samples will impress potential clients, giving you a leg up on the competition. Suddenly, you're not just one of 3,600 freelancers on LinkedIn. You're one of a few who know how to communicate in a way that is easy, and not hard, for your reader to understand.

As Collier stated, “Words matter in science that matters. Far too often, however, the words in medical literature are chosen and arranged with not enough care.”

Word choice matters and structure matters. Most of the time, this takes a little bit of extra work.

Despite what some may say, strong writing ability is not an inherent gift. You can learn how to make your writing irresistible to clients - and it doesn’t have to take years and years of experience to do it.

So make learning how to write more clearly an integral part of your freelance medical writing business. Hone your craft and keep learning. Seek out help from others who have been successful. Take courses and keep reading as much as you can. It will pay off.

If you’ve been following this series, hopefully you’ve had a chance to download the guide below, 5 Simple Writing Tweaks to Create Sticky Clients. These are simple strategies that I use daily when I’m working on projects for clients.

Stay tuned because next week I’ll begin a new series on boosting productivity, something that we all could use!


Jennifer Gregg