This blog is based, in part, on an AMWA webinar presented by Monica Nicosia, PhD, CMPP.
At this point in history, when so much of our life and work happens online, it is almost hard to remember a time before digital tools were essential for the work of freelance medical communicators.
Even before the COVID‑19 pandemic, which sent so many workers to their home offices, freelance medical writers and editors often worked from home. Remote workers need secure, efficient technology that helps them to balance work lives while maximizing the efficiency of the hours that are billable to clients.
What are the most common digital resources that are essential for freelancers? What types of software are experts recommending to advance and thrive in this line of work?
The AMWA webinar Tools for a Digital World, Part 1: Medical Writing and Running a Freelance Business covers hardware, software, apps, and cloud‑based services that have proved critical to freelance work. It also shares the results of a survey, Freelance Medical Communicator Tools of the Trade, and identifies the most common technology used by freelance medical communicators.
What Do Freelance Medical Writers Need?
The work of freelance medical communicators involves the creation of print or digital documents related to medicine and health care. The skill set varies according to the niche; for example, regulatory writers will need slightly different tools and skills than medical writers who focus on creating or editing scientific manuscripts.
In general, freelance medical communicators need tools for these essential functions.
Tools for Writing and Editing
- Reference management
- File sharing/transfer
- PDF unlocking/Full-text finder
General Office Tools
- Digital security
- Data storage and access
- Web design and hosting
Freelance Business Tools
- Time tracking
- Project management
Why Digital Tools?
Digital tools improve efficiency and reduce time spent on nonbillable work or on boring, tedious tasks. They also make billable tasks more efficient and improve the quality of work.
The digital world is evolving quickly, especially in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI). Some tools you have been using continue to be useful, while other technologies have evolved that may result in the need to reevaluate your digital workplace.
Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are often referred to as “workhorse software” that is essential to freelance work. Many freelancers also rely heavily on Adobe Acrobat for working with PDFs and citation management software such as Endnote, Reference Manager, or Zotero.
In the past decade, Google Drive has also become a common way to share documents among collaborators, allowing for comments, edits, tracking different versions, and more.
What Software Does Your Office Need?
Each freelance medical communicator’s digital requirements will be different. Still, the medical communicators who were surveyed shared their favorite tools of the trade that make collaboration and creating excellent documents easier.
Writing and Editing
Key tools for medical writing/editing include the Microsoft Office suite, which includes Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Some freelancers prefer to use Google Drive, which has unlimited storage. You can create documents, forms, spreadsheets, and presentations using Google Drive. It has functions that allow freelancers to gather and track reviewers’ edits and comments. It also allows the creator to control who can alter the document.
Working with PDFs
Many freelancers use Adobe Acrobat for viewing and annotating PDFs of articles and other sources. For unlocking PDFS: FreeMyPDF is free software that removes passwords and restrictions on printing, copying, and highlighting text.
Freelancers use web browsers such as Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge for researching and visiting sites such as PubMed, NCCN.org, and ClinicalTrials.gov. Unpaywall is a free Chrome extension that harvests content from thousands of publishers and makes it easier to find full‑text PDFs.
Many freelancers use the software called EndNote (available at a discount for AMWA members) to manage a literature library and keep track of citations as they write.
PerfectIt is a customizable proofing software (available at a discount for AMWA members) that checks consistency, abbreviations, and style rules. Many freelancers find it essential to work with a checklist such as AMWA’s Medical Editing Checklist.
Transcription software is used to transcribe audio files to text. Freelancers use paid sites like Rev, Transcribe, Temi, or Otterai, which has a free beginning package.
Tools for Running a Freelance Business
Freelance medical communicators are business owners who require many of the same tools as other small businesses. There are many excellent accounting/bookkeeping packages available; examples are QuickBooks, Quicken, Xero, or FreshBooks. When medical communicators are evaluating accounting software, they should look for a user‑friendly interface, intuitive navigation, and a mobile version.
Core features for freelancers are invoicing, tracking payments, and logging expenses. The software should include easy ways to digitize and save receipts and record expenses.
Freelance medical writers are often juggling multiple projects for diverse clients. That is where time‑tracking apps such as Toggl and Harvest come in handy. Look for a time‑tracking app that will also help create invoices. When choosing an app, consider the degree of complexity in your time tracking and invoicing — for example, whether you work alone or in teams, and whether you need to track time offline.
Your Customized Toolkit
We are living in a golden age of technology, and the right technology can enhance the work lives of freelance medical communicators. The number of software products available is dizzying, and many freelance medical writers find that networking — online and in‑person — can help them choose tools that will make the work more efficient, collaborative, simple, and rewarding.