When and How to Subcontract Work as a Freelance Medical Writer

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This article is based on content presented by Brian Bass, MWC, and Emma Hitt Nichols, PhD, ELS, at the AMWA Medical Writing & Communication Conference.

Brian Bass and Emma Nichols have over 24 years of combined experience in hiring and working with freelance medical writers. Their education session focused on outlining the major considerations for freelance medical writers who are thinking about bringing on subcontractors—providing advice and guidance on making this decision and supporting their transition.

Who Should Subcontract Work to a Freelance Writer?

Dr. Nichols began with a rundown of who should bring on subcontractors. Her opinion is that expanding one’s business in this way is well‑suited to those who: 

  • Consistently have too much work
  • Have a strong medical writing ability
  • Have adequate cash flow reserves
  • Want to create a passive income stream
  • Are organized and able to handle complex processes

Dr. Nichols went on to say that those who are not well‑suited to hiring subcontractors are people who: 

  • Want to keep things simple
  • Are risk‑averse
  • Prefer doing medical writing themselves
  • Dislike negotiations
  • Are not good at delegating tasks

The key takeaway from this portion of the session was that hiring subcontractors is likely to be easier and more fulfilling for some people than others. Being responsible for acquiring and managing a team of freelance writers, more extensive project management, more complicated finances, and client communication on behalf of your entire team requires a different set of skills and offers different risks and benefits than simply being a freelance medical writer. It is important to be aware of this when making such a big career transition.

Benefits of Subcontracting Work to Freelance Writers

Dr. Nichols outlined the primary benefits of hiring and working with freelance subcontractors: 

  • Unlimited growth potential: continuous expansion 
  • The potential to work fewer and more regular hours 
  • Being able to serve clients in a more impactful way 
  • Generating income for and from others 
  • Creating a source of passive income 

Drawbacks to Subcontracting 

On the other hand, there can be several downsides to bringing on a team of medical writers, such as: 

  • Having less control over projects and materials
  • More responsibility: “keeping a lot of balls in the air” 
  • Increased financial and legal risk
  • Resistance from clients toward subcontractors

The main point that came through during this part of the session was that it is important to foresee what can go wrong in your business when you use subcontractors and to have processes in place for dealing with those challenges. For example, Dr. Nichols strongly advised that business owners use a confidentiality and non‑compete agreement and that they discuss plagiarism with their subcontractors. 

“Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work.” - Kevin Kelly

Tips for Subcontracting Success

Subsequently, Mr. Bass presented the advantages and disadvantages of hiring subcontractors, which aligned with Dr. Nichols’ earlier points. He further advised business owners to be fully transparent with clients about the involvement of subcontractors and to consider buying commercial liability insurance.

Mr. Bass’s most salient point was that understanding and communicating the value proposition of your business to potential clients is critical for success. The reputation of your business will speak for itself when you deliver high‑quality work. Also, in hiring you, clients must understand that having a team of writers enables you to offer more availability and functionality to provide them with solutions to their problems. 

During Q&A at the end of the session, the most noteworthy discussion topic was the importance of making accurate project estimates. Although there is no one‑size‑fits‑all approach, learning how to price projects appropriately and negotiate payment terms with both clients and subcontractors is a key skill that business owners must develop in order to succeed. The standard profit margin was said to be around 20‑30% per project.

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June 15, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Sophie Ash, BSc (Hons), DipION

Sophie Ash, BSc (Hons), DipION is a Freelance Medical Writer, Copywriter, and former Registered Dietitian. Sophie has 10 years’ experience in patient and continued medical education, marketing, e-learning, and journalism. She also coaches other freelance writers on how to grow their business, with Prospology.