This article is based on content presented by Eleanor Mayfield, ELS, at the AMWA Medical Writing & Communication Conference.
How to calculate freelance medical writing rates is a hotly debated topic among freelancers. Some are adamant about always charging a project fee; others swear by an hourly rate. Eleanor Mayfield led a discussion of the pros and cons of these common methods as well as strategies for implementing them that will benefit both freelancers and their clients. She stressed that no pricing method is perfect; the key is to determine which strategy is the best fit for each project.
Charging by the Hour
When charging an hourly rate, you’re paid for the hours you work.
- There is no renegotiation. If project scope changes or expands, you simply add hours to your invoice.
- An hour of writing or editing is not a standard unit. Everyone works at a different pace. What you can accomplish in an hour may be different than someone else and is often project dependent. Your pricing should reflect your knowledge and experience, and you should not be financially penalized for efficiency.
- Hourly pricing makes some clients nervous. Clients often want to know the approximate total cost of a project and whether it will fit into their budget. An hourly rate can sometimes make a client feel that they are signing a blank check.
Strategy: Consider using a “not to exceed” estimate, which Mayfield uses herself.
When talking rates with a prospective client, make a conservative estimate of the number of hours that will be needed to complete the project. Present your estimate in this way: “The job will take no more than ‘X’ hours to complete.” This gives the client an estimate of the final cost.
Remember to factor in complications that may arise (scope creep, for example). Once you’ve completed the projected number of hours of work, if there is still more to do, you and your client can discuss further arrangements.
Charging by the Project
When charging a project fee, your price varies and is based on the project at hand.
- Project fees are not directly tied to hours of work. You’re charging for your knowledge and experience rather than time spent.
- Scope creep can occur. Scope creep can become a problem if the scope of the project is not clearly spelled out in writing.
- Individual client factors may be problematic. A client who is unorganized or difficult to please may try to push boundaries by adding additional work or requesting multiple revisions, which can be problematic if the scope of the work covered by the project fee has not been clearly delineated.
Strategy: Get your scope of work right. One key to success in freelance medical writing is to spell the project out in writing and make sure the terms are acceptable to both you and your client.
Use your “effective hourly rate” as a guide. This is your project fee divided by the total hours needed to complete the job.
Using a Combination
Mayfield emphasized she thinks “it’s perfectly fine to use a project fee for some jobs or clients and an hourly rate for others, depending on the nature of the work and your preference or the client’s.” If the work pertains to a topic on which you have extensive experience and you can accurately estimate how much time it will take, charge a project fee. On the other hand, if you have a project that requires a lot of research and an unpredictable time commitment, charge hourly.
It's also helpful to consider what your colleagues are doing when thinking about how to set your own freelance medical writer rates. AMWA’s 2019 Medical Communication Compensation Report is an excellent tool to help you with this.
While hourly and project fees are popular pricing methods for freelancers, there are other options:
- Daily rate: May be appropriate when working on‑site at a meeting or in a client’s office.
- Per word (writing) or per page (editing/writing): Common payment method among trade publications and magazines.
- “Living wage” formula: Calculate your required annual income + 30% (expenses) + 30% (benefits), divided by average annual billable hours (generally about 1200 hours).
- “What the market will bear”: Vary your rates depending on your client’s expectations and ability to pay.
Variable fee: Consider the type of service being provided (writing vs editing vs project management) and the turnaround time (many freelancers charge a “rush” fee when a client requests an extremely quick turnaround on a project).
Knowing how to set freelance medical writing rates is an important part of being a successful writer. Once you know the pros and cons of each method, you can determine which one is the best fit for each of your projects.