The Basics of Freelance Contracts for Medical Communicators

    The-Basics-of-Freelance-Contracts-for-Medical-CommunicatorsHow familiar are you with the language of freelance contracts? Do you know how to spot a problematic contract clause?

    As a freelance medical communicator, you are running your own business. Even if you’d rather be writing than wading through legalese, learning the basics of contracts is part of the job.

    A good contract sets expectations for both parties and protects you from unscrupulous clients.

    A bad contract can harm your relationship with the client, create extra work, or lead to insufficient compensation. 

    Step 1: Create an Accurate Estimate

    After a client contacts you about a project, the first step you can take is to proactively create a detailed project estimate. This is critically important, because spelling out your terms in advance can help avoid time‑consuming contract negotiations.

    Ask Questions

    Before you submit an estimate, try to square away as many questions as possible. 

    • What is your budget?
    • What is your deadline?
    • Will I be required to attend meetings or phone conferences?
    • Is travel involved?
    • Who is the point of contact?
    • Do I provide an outline and source materials/references, or do you?
    • How does your team handle revisions? 
    • Do you have samples of similar projects?

    The answers to these questions will help you shape your estimate. 

    How Do You Charge Clients?

    One of the first decisions you need to make is whether to charge a project rate or an hourly fee. There is a good amount of debate among experienced freelancers on this topic. In a 2013 article in the AMWA Journal, Elizabeth L. Smith, former president of AMWA, says that regulatory writing is often done on an hourly basis, while medical communication assignments are more often billed on a project basis. Brian Bass, another past president, makes the case for project fees, writing that “charging an hourly rate punishes the proficient and rewards the inefficient.” However, he adds, if you’re just getting started in the business, you might want to start out charging by the hour.

    If you are wondering what to charge, you might want to consult AMWA’s 2019 Medical Communication Compensation Survey results. 

    What Should You Include in Your Estimate?

    • The scope of your work. For example, if you are preparing an outline or doing the research for the writing project
    • The timeline for completion, and the timeline for invoicing
    • The estimated cost of the work, including your rate and the method (hourly vs. project) by which you will charge for work beyond the initial deliverables, such as additional revisions

    After you present a clear estimate to a client, they may agree to your terms. Their written okay constitutes a legal contract, but either party may follow up with a separate contract. If your estimate is clear and detailed, the client may include some of your terms in a contract they generate. 

    Step 2: Agree on a Contract

    Contracts can be simple or complicated. During a Jam Session for Early‑Career Freelances at AMWA’s 2018 annual conference, later published in the AMWA Journal, Cathryn D. Evans provided this list of the most important elements that should be included in contracts. 

    • A clear description of the product or service you will provide 
    • An outline of the project (included in or attached to the contract) 
    • Specification of background material to be used 
    • Due dates for the first draft for the client’s review and return for revisions/completion 
    • Number and extent of revisions you will provide 
    • If the fee is fixed, the specification of the fee that will be charged and everything the fee includes—and, equally important, what that fee does not include 
    • If the fee is hourly, the specification of the hourly rate (including a maximum number of hours, or “ceiling,” if appropriate)
    • Provision for reimbursement for out‑of‑pocket expenses
    • Payment schedule 

    You may need to add other items to your contract, depending on what type of writing you do. Some freelancers include provisions for late fees, kill fees, copyright assignment, and liability. For more details, refer to the full article in the AMWA Journal

    A contract is an agreement between two or more parties. If there is anything that is unclear or seems unfair to you, you have the right to question it. If you have a question about the legal aspects of a contract, it is a good idea to seek professional legal counsel. 

    Sample Contract Language

    In the event that the client asks you to generate a contract, here is some basic language for a freelance contract.

    Rate: [Company] shall pay [Consultant] consulting fees at the rate of [$X] per hour. It is the expectation of [Company] that [Consultant] will devote hours as estimated per project for services performed under this Agreement. 

    Additional work: In addition, if [Consultant] is engaged by [Company] to provide additional services not outlined under this Agreement, the compensation structure and terms of payment for such fees shall be separately negotiated and agreed to in writing at that time. 

    Expenses: [Company] shall reimburse [Consultant] within 30 days of receipt of [Consultant’s] invoice for all reasonable reimbursable expenses, if previously approved by [Company]. 

    Invoicing: [Consultant] shall submit an invoice to [Company] within 30 days of the work completed. 

    Payment: [Company] will pay [Consultant] for services actually performed within 30 days of receipt of invoice(s) received, as instructed by the relevant Statement of Work. 

    Get Paid Promptly

    One issue that arises in some freelance contracts is a contingency on payment. On occasion, a client will try to insert a clause that looks something like this: “Each invoice shall be due and payable to [Consultant] within 15 days after receipt by [Company] of payment from [Company’s client].”

    That’s not something you should sign. You are contracting with the client, and your payment should not be contingent on them receiving a payment. 

    Step 3: Learn from Experienced Medical Communicators

    When it comes to freelance contracts, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. AMWA’s Freelance Network Online Community hosts a robust thread about freelance business issues that includes robust discussions about compensation, contracts, marketing your business, and other helpful topics.

    If you’re looking to learn more about contracts and other business‑related topics, there are also materials designed to help you launch or advance your career as a medical communicator, including AMWA’s Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Medical Writer and Expert Tips for Freelance Medical Writing. These resources provide advice from seasoned professionals who are sharing experience and expertise with you.

    With the experts in your corner, you’ll be more comfortable signing your name on the dotted line.



    December 6, 2021 at 9:00 AM

    American Medical Writers Association

    AMWA is the leading resource for medical communicators. The AMWA Blog is developed in partnership with community members who work every day to create clear communications that lead to better health and well-being.