In May 2018 I attended my first European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) Congress in Barcelona.
This was the first step into a new world and the culmination of a lifetime love affair with lab-bench academic biomedical research.
In the September 2018 issue of Medical Writing, the official journal of the EMWA I share my experience as a first-time attendee, together with other exceptional medical writers.
Curious about what brought me to the medical writer’s world? Or what can you expect if you join?
Here I transcribe it for you. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
Here is what happens when new freelancers attend an EMWA Congress for the first time
Barcelona, grey and cold at the beginning of May. One may think that in Barcelona the sun always shines. Which it does.
But they also say “Hasta el 40 de mayo, no te quites el sayo”, which means until the 40th of May don’t take your coat away.
That was precisely the case for the Friday afternoon when Mariana and Francisco were attending a workshop at the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) conference.
Who would want to be outside enjoying the beach and a lovely energetic city when there is so much going on inside the EMWA conference?
Two scientists turned writers sit next to each other to begin an exercise on establishing a robust dialogue for problem-solving during a writing project.
What do two Spanish people do? Yes, they chat (sorry Alison!). Wasn’t it about dialogue, anyway?
Indeed, the Spanish communication gene is also expressed in scientists. Perhaps, at a lower level than the general population, but detectable and even with surprising results in some cases.
Immediately they noticed they had something in common: love for basic science and a new career in writing.
Here, they describe their experiences of EMWA and the Freelance Bussiness Forum (FBF).
This is how the freelance medical writing world got real for me at EMWA
The extensive amount of resources for freelancers available on EMWA’s website gave me the trust I needed to invest in becoming a member and attending the conference.
Barcelona, again and always
More importantly, Barcelona is the starting point for the most significant events in my life: studies, work, family and friends.
It was immediately crystal-clear for me that I should start my new professional road there as well. Plus, I had accommodation, family vacation and babysitting all in one! How could I miss it?
After my second maternity leave and the end of my temporary contract, I had some time to think about my next steps.
What can I offer to society?
What do I like? What do I want to do?
All these questions and their answers simmered together and guided the route to where I want to be: to help people understand the scientific facts behind news, products or projects with my writing skills. And I am still on my way, so ask me next year!
Improved my writing, editing and project management skills
By planning my days at the Congress in Barcelona, I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of workshops, sessions and intense rhythm.
It was challenging to keep my focus since every session was exciting for me as a newcomer. I decided to select the workshops that complemented the training on writing that I had just finished and registered for several foundational seminars.
In “managing your freelance project”, I was lucky enough to sit next to Francisco. I learnt a lot from the workshop, but also by meeting people like him, who are ahead of me on the freelance path.
The Freelance Business Forum
And being a new freelancer, it was almost an obligation to go to the Freelance Business Forum (FBF). I was curious, nervous, excited and my senses were sharper than they were, at least during the last year (remember: I come from maternity leave, with little sleep time).
Especially important for me was to participate as a moderator (table leader) of the table discussion session. Guess what topic I moderated? How to find the balance between life and work. I hope at least one person could benefit from the vivid discussion I had with another new freelance mom. Check the FBF 2018 report!
I arrived at the EMWA Congress in Barcelona thinking that the workshops will push my writing skills forward and that the FBF will open the door to some new business relationships.
Networking and fun
Yes, I did learn a lot from the workshops. Yes, I did get some business ideas from the forum.
But, what impacted me the most, what I benefited the most from, was the interpersonal relations, the quick chats during coffee breaks, lunch, the networking event, the group works during the workshops, the freelance discussion tables and the after-congress activities.
Working as a freelancer can be a lonely job
Being myself an introverted scientist, I did not quite envisage the length of solitude that I would have to experience as a freelancer.
I instantly connected with so many friendly and helpful professionals and got the invigorating energy of human interaction.
Incredibly talented scientists like Francisco and so many others gave me the motivation and encouragement to put all my effort into this new career step I am taking now.
The imaginary freelance medical writer world that grew in my mind since I started working on it, suddenly got real. And it was great.
Transferring a life of scientific experience into writing services
Although I had immensely enjoyed my life as a basic research scientist for 25 years, it got to a point in which the efforts of surviving in academic life became less and less appealing, for many reasons.
With short-term contracts and ever-shrinking budgets, sustaining a small biochemistry and molecular biology lab could be very frustrating.
But also, I felt that most of what I had published, on DNA replication and repair, was only remotely connected to real-life health problems: just satisfying my own curiosity about things was not a good enough reason to spend taxpayers money.
Working from home
Working from home with total freedom was for me extremely appealing, so the decision to become a freelance medical writer 2 years ago was easy.
It also helped that my daughter had just been born, and the intensity of scientific life would make logistics too complicated. My wife, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, provided me with a first few contacts, and soon I developed a good client base, which has been expanding ever since.
At first, I could hardly believe that I could be paid substantial amounts of money for writing papers and grants, the very same kind of work that I used to do for pleasure. Discovering that I could make a living from my experience in writing and publishing papers was a revelation.
But not everything is perfect in medical writing: I do miss the discussions with colleagues on current scientific topics and giving talks on my own research.
Now, I spend endless hours typing in quiet solitude, so last winter I was looking for any good reason to spend a few days away from my home office.
I was eager to meet other people with the same professional pathway as mine.
Attending the EMWA conference was the perfect occasion to combine travel and professional interests, and I was eager to meet other people with the same professional pathway as mine.
Being a newbie at these meetings, I did not know exactly what to expect. I was overwhelmed by the number of seminars, courses, lectures that were going on at the EMWA conference, and I found it hard choosing the topics or events that I wanted to attend. However, all the activities that I joined were insightful for me.
Personally, I had rarely met other medical writers (MWs are a rare breed in Spain), and I was curious about the kind of people I would find doing the same as I. I was fortunate to meet Mariana and other scientists now successfully working throughout Europe as MWs, and these social interactions were by far the most rewarding aspects of the conference.
At the FBF I enjoyed the cheerful talk by Helen Baldwin and the discussion tables. I joined one on project budgeting and pricing, which seemed to be very popular with other attendees. I learned quite a few things, such as that other medical writer’s sign formal contracts on every project they do.
I still find budgeting one of the most troublesome aspects of being a freelancer and I wish there were some general rules or guidelines to follow.
I returned to my desk in Madrid energised and with some fresh ideas on how to grow as a freelancer but, most importantly, with new friends on whom to rely for professional advice and companionship on this adventure.