How Alex Became a Successful Freelance Medical Writer
Focus on Client Needs
Academic turned freelance medical writer Alexandra Howson, MA, PhD, CHCP, didn’t know anything about marketing when she started freelancing. By learning and then focusing her marketing on her clients’ pain points and needs, Alex has built a stable, successful freelance business.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Academic and nurse Alexandra Howson, MA, PhD, CHCP, never planned to be a freelancer. But after moving from Scotland to the United States for her husband’s work in 2004, Alex soon found herself needing to look for different work.
Alex spent the first year in the United States as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. Then she couldn’t find another academic job that was close enough to allow her to work and care for her young children.
“I took inventory of my skills (teaching, research, and writing) and tried to find jobs that fill those skills. I kept running into the same problem of long commutes which didn’t work for me,” says Alex.
So Alex shifted her mindset from job hunting to looking for work. “I found that there’s a lot of work out there for freelance writers,” she says.
Medical writing was a natural specialty for Alex. She already had clinical and subject matter expertise from her experience as a nurse in a trauma operating room and a faculty member. Alex taught the sociology of the body, gender, and health and medicine at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh.
In 2006, Alex launched Thistle Editorial, LLC, and became a freelance medical writer. Over the years Alex’s business has evolved. She now operates under her own name and has expanded her brand to include a suite of services under Write Medicine that include a podcast, an online community, and courses.
Alex Finds a Strong Specialty
At first, Alex did general medical writing. After taking a workshop from the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) on Continuing Medical Education (CME), Alex had an aha moment. “I knew I’d found a sweet spot for my skills combination and lifelong love of learning,” she says. Since 2008, Alex has focused almost exclusively on accredited CME.
Alex’s experience as a qualitative researcher has helped her stand out in a sea of freelancers. This experience also helps her develop deeper relationships with clients. Along with writing education content, Alex can support clients throughout the CME production cycle. She collects, analyzes, and reports qualitative data on the educational need, context, experience, and outcomes.
“Having qualitative skills has enabled me to pursue a broad range of CME projects, including quality improvement CME,” she says.
Also, Alex’s qualitative research training has made her a better freelancer. At the beginning of each new project, she listens attentively and asks clients many open-ended questions. This ensures that she has the quality information that she needs for writing the educational content.
Write Medicine creates compelling learning content for healthcare professionals and demonstrates the value of continuing education as a driver of change in patient outcomes. Alex also teaches medical writers how to enrich their CME writing niche.
How Alex Got Her First Clients
When Alex started her freelance business, she was like most freelancers. “I did not know what marketing was or how to market,” she says.
So Alex used freelance job sites like eLance and guru.com. “I found enough writing gigs on these sites to give me some experience in negotiating contracts, invoicing, client relationships and working to deadline,” she says.
Since then, many more freelance job sites have sprung up—and so has competition for every freelance job.
Even if you don’t mind the low pay, you could be competing against thousands of other freelancers for every job. Also, you have to pay to be on most freelance job sites. Upwork, the giant of freelance job sites, has fees ranging from 5% to 20%. To reach the 5% level, you need to do more than $10,000 worth of business with each client.
Learning how to market a freelance business is a much better way to succeed. Here’s my free guide to help you do that.
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3 Effective Marketing Strategies
Alex has found three marketing strategies that help her get her ideal clients, all focused on her clients’ pain points and needs.
Since early in her freelance career, Alex has been focusing on in-person relationship-building and networking. She identified the clients she wanted to work with, including through the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions, and built relationships with them over time.
“Attending the annual conference became a priority for me as it’s a great place to meet and build relationships with prospects and clients,” says Alex.
Giving presentations at alliance events and volunteering for the organization has made it easier for Alex to build her freelance business. Volunteering for professional associations is an easy way to build your network and your reputation. Often, this leads to referrals for freelance work.
Through AMWA, Alex has built a group of mostly CME writer friends who “understand the work, lend a venting ear, and share their expertise.” These are just some of the benefits of having a strong network of other freelancers.
“This kind of networking validates what I’m doing as a freelance business owner,” says Alex. “Without it, I’d feel very isolated.”
Alex’s Email Newsletter
In the mid-2010s, Alex published a monthly email newsletter. Most months, each issue would result in new freelance work. “I often received a follow-up email from a client I’d worked with before who had a need for some project assistance,” she says.
Top-of-mind awareness means that clients and prospects will think of you first when they need a freelancer and colleagues will think of you first when they have freelance jobs to refer to another freelancer.
As Alex says, an email newsletter is great way to get top-of-mind awareness. By the end of the 2010s, Alex had so much freelance work that she let the newsletter slide.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic when there was no in-person networking, Alex began publishing her e-mail newsletter again. “It really is a great way to push out my marketing message, share information about the podcast, and learn more about/stay connected with prospects and clients,” she says.
Sign up for Alex’s email newsletter.
The Write Medicine Podcast
In 2021, Alex started the Write Medicine podcast to elevate the work that medical writers do in CME/CE. The bi-weekly podcast explores best practices in creating content that connects with and educates healthcare professionals.
“I love to listen to people’s stories and wanted to elevate the work that medical writers do in CME/CE. A podcast seemed an obvious way to do this,” says Alex.
Through the Write Medicine podcast, Alex is building connections with prospects and stronger relationships with clients. “It’s also a great way for me to learn about people’s pain points, their interests, and trends in the field of CME,” she says.
Watch Alex’s Write Medicine podcast featuring me:
Like many freelancers, Alex used to think that marketing meant that she had to write about herself. Focusing on the pain points and needs of her clients is much more effective—and easier.
Alex attracts high-paying clients by showing them that she understands what they need and can meet their needs. I call this client-focused marketing.
Client-focused marketing starts with developing key marketing messages. Alex’s marketing messages include:
“Educate your learners.
Evaluate your programs.
Elevate your reputation.”
“Create compelling learning content and demonstrate the value of continuing education as a driver of change in patient outcomes.”
This is how the messages look on the top of Alex’s home page.
How Alex Uses LinkedIn to Build Her Freelance Business
Since 2006, Alex has been on LinkedIn. Her LinkedIn profile includes client-focused marketing messages, including her headline.
See Alex’s LinkedIn profile.
Like many freelancers, Alex didn’t use LinkedIn strategically at first. After joining the Alliance, Alex began following up with the people she met there by connecting with them on LinkedIn.
“Having this virtual connection made it possible to have a quick conversation about potential projects. If the prospect became a client, then the conversation usually moved off social and into email or phone,” she says.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, LinkedIn became much more important to Alex. “It’s my social platform of choice, where I’m able to share information about CME writing that I hope is helpful and draws people to the podcast and my other offerings.”
Alex enjoys the virtual conversations on LinkedIn, and listening to learn about the concerns and pain points of people working in the field. She uses what she learns to find new ways to help clients and other freelance medical writers.
By tracking LinkedIn metrics, Alex can see who’s viewed out her profile and which content is resonating with people. She uses this information to develop more useful content.
A Professional, Inviting, and Informative Website
While Alex knows that her website won’t generate business itself, prospects want to learn more before deciding whether to hire her. Her professional, inviting, and informative website is a “shop front” that lets prospects quickly see what Alex offers and how she helps her clients meet their needs.
“Having a decent website helps me visualize how I want to market. I see it as the central node in my content hub,” says Alex.
See Alex’s Write Medicine website.
A Focus on the Right Clients and Repeat Business
Earlier in her freelance business, Alex worked with a range of clients and education provider types. Each year, she worked with about 10 to 12 clients. “Over time, I realized that it’s a lot of work to project manage a large number of clients and I’ve reduced the number of clients I work with by focusing on larger projects.”
Also, Alex only works with her ideal clients—clients that are a good fit with her values. Today, most of Alex’s work comes from long-term clients. Each year, she usually works with one or two new clients who find her via referrals.
Alex has “made peace” with marketing her freelance business and now enjoys it.
She advises other freelancers to focus on clients and work that align with your values and goals. “Trust yourself. You are a sure bet,” she says. “Invest time and energy in aligning your business focus with your personal values and goals. When you and your business are in alignment you’ll find clients and projects that sustain and reward you.”
Alex Teaches Other Medical Writers About CME
These days, Alex combines medical writing and her lifelong love of learning to share her CME expertise with other medical writers. “There’s a lot of interest about CME among early career medical writers, as well as established medical writers who are thinking of adding a new specialty to their offerings,” says Alex.
Through community, courses, and coaching, Alex supports people who write about medicine, health, and healthcare. She offers:
- A free CME clinic
- A needs assessment workshop
- 1:1 coaching
- Content review.
Also, Alex teaches Fundamentals of Writing and Research Ethics in the University of Chicago Medical Writing & Editing Certificate program. “It’s a terrific program with stellar faculty and I love being able to share real-world perspectives on medical writing,” she says.
The program also includes a course in Freelancing in Medical Writing and Editing. I co-teach this with my freelance friend Genevieve Walker, PhD.
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Learn More About Alex and How She Markets Her Freelance Business
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