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To Specialize or Not To Specialize

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on September 15, 2010 in Freelance Writing Business, Freelance Writing Jobs
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One of the biggest debates on the freelance writing range is the debate about whether it is better to be a specialty writer focusing on one niche or a generalist writer with a diverse selection of topics to possibly cover.

A lot of people straddle the fence on this topic to avoid pissing off their friends and mentors. They say, “Oh, there is no single right answer.” Or, “Well, you have to do what’s best for you.”

Screw that, I’m going to tell you the truth here and risk the wrath of those who disagree:

Being a specialty (or niche) writer is the best idea on the entire planet. Generalist writers are seriously missing out and making a huge mistake.

Oh man, it felt good to get that off my chest.

Big Fish, Small Pond

If you are competing for writing gigs against countless other generalist writers, you’re either getting clients through luck of the draw or bidding wars during which you are volunteering to be the lowest paid underling in the pool. A potential client cannot possibly try to evaluate all qualified generalist writers for his/her gig and is probably not going to fall in love with a particular writer who has written little or nothing on the subject of the project--and without love, you get a smaller payday.


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It’s also pretty hard to do a Google search for a writer of a certain topic and just happen upon a generalist writer with that particular topic listed on their site so that it even shows up in Google search results.

Section summary: Needle, please meet the haystack. Okay, now hop on in there.

What are You Going to SELL?

Your marketing is not targeted when you are a generalist writer. You’re busy trying to throw your business card at every Tom, Dick and Joe without actually being able to even really sell your ability to THEM. Sure, you can write like nobody’s business, but your knowledge about Eames era antiques is completely limited—and Tom, Dick and Joe want an expert for their online antique store.

But wait! You are soooo willing to learn! You can research the hell out of any subject! Anything a specialist can do, you can do better!

Sorry, that is just not going to sell most people who put their lives into their career and their work (which, by the way, is their specialty).

What you might end up with, however, is low-paying clients who aren’t truly invested in their reputation, career and website. The kind of client who has a ton of random websites on Cricket because the keywords pay well through Adsense. Not clients who cherish their knowledgeable writers, who pay well and who want you to bolster their presence and reputation.

Section summary: What you don't know can hurt your wallet.

Throw the Pie at the Specialist

There are specialists in every niche. As a generalist writer, how will you compete against them? How will you make a client choose you over one of them? A cheaper price? The fact that you’ve never left a participle to dangle? The uber-impressive ability to use affect and effect correctly without consulting the dictionary multiple times to ensure you’ve gotten it right? (Okay, I am actually impressed by this, but sarcasm works much better here than high praise.)

Well first of all, specialist writers have these abilities too--and sometimes, if they don't, the mastery that they have over a subject is much more valuable to clients than grammar prowess. Also, editors can always be hired to supplement that.

Section summary: Dance off with the specialists in order to win clients but be warned--specialists can pop and lock.

Before You Beat Me in the Face, Read This

There are a lot of ways you can specialize, and not all of them mean you have to pick one subject to write about exclusively. You can choose a broad subject with many angles like business or marketing, or a finite topic with a super-focused range, like personal taxes or corporate law. And a specialty or niche doesn’t have to be a topic; article writer, SEO writer, journalist, blogger—all of these can be used as a specialty hook too. The point is it’s a hook for your marketing. It’s a way to define your target client, master your niche, refine your pitch, create irrefutable value, show up in a Google search, command higher rates for a verifiable reason and create a more successful freelance writing career.

With all of this being said, it's not impossible to make a career out of being a generalist--and it's also not impossible to win the lottery, but you aren't exactly making that your retirement plan. If you have a successful career as a generalist and you've built a network of clients who refer you to others, congratulations! If you are a newer, struggling writer or an older, struggling writer who happens to be a generalist--switch to a specialty and I bet you'll see improvement.

Okay specialists and generalists—comment below. I’m ready for your sound and your fury :) Special thanks to @vcmcguire for the topic suggestion.

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Yo Prinzel
Yolander Prinzel is the profit monster behind the Profitable Freelancer website. She has written for a number of publications and websites such as American Express, Covestor.com, Advisor Today, Money Smart Radio and the International Travel Insurance Journal (ITIJ). Her book, Specialty Ghostwriting: A New Way to Look at an Old Career, is currently available on Amazon.

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16 Comments

  1. Jennifer Mattern September 15, 2010 Reply

    Agreed completely. The serious money is very rarely in simple writing ability. It’s in specialty knowledge. The big mistake I see a lot of generalists make is in assuming that specialization means one, and just one, type of writing. They think they’ll be bored. They think there won’t be enough clients. They’re wrong.

    You can definitely have more than one specialty. The trick is to keep them similar so your markets (and therefore your marketing work) is tied together. For example, this is enables you to run just one professional site to attract those clients. There’s another option though if you really want to specialize in drastically different areas — you set up different marketing plans for each distinct target market. Of course this is far too time consuming if you’re talking about more than two or three specialty areas.

    Another option is specializing in a type of writing. I know quite a few “generalists” who aren’t actually generalists. They’re specialized SEO content writers. But because they don’t understand that yet, they don’t know how to convey the strong value in that to clients, and they don’t make nearly as much as they could be making (or as much as they want to). And I think that’s one of the biggest issues really. It’s less about people choosing to be generalists and making a mistake of it, and more about them not conveying value effectively because they’re promoting their services as the specialists they secretly are.

  2. Rebecca Garland September 15, 2010 Reply

    Count me in with the freelancers who have a personality disorder. I need to specialize and I have a new domain to help me do it, but I just haven’t been able to commit. I think I need a day in a dark room to lay on the floor and come up with a brilliant plan for where I want to take my career. But I can’t get 5 minutes of peace, much less a day. In fact, I think my career’s gone business without me, but I just need to make the leap and redirect my attention away from one site and market plan to another. This is my year though. Wait, maybe I need to get going on that education writing in the limited time I have. Damn. Back to my disorder again.

    • Jennifer Mattern September 15, 2010 Reply

      Try “calling in sick” for that alone-time. You’ve earned some sick time / personal time. Even if it’s just an hour or two. Curl up in bed, and ask the hubby to take care of the kids while you “rest.” I’m sure you’d do the same for him.

      • Rebecca Garland September 15, 2010 Reply

        LOL – It’s not for lack of trying. The hubby is great at helping out, and I can call in sick when I need to, but somehow I never actually use that time for business. I just close my eyes to think and wake up a few minutes later. LOL! Okay, this really is my year though – change is in the wind and all that.

    • Yo Author
      Yo September 15, 2010 Reply

      I know exactly what you mean. Writing finance is easy for me, it’s ingrained in my psyche, requires little research and I’m really good at it because I have a wide frame of reference that allows me to remember regulations and tax laws that will come into play and that helps my clients end up with a more compliant and/or insightful end product–HOWEVER–it’s not exactly my burning passion. I’d much rather focus on humor, television, movies, fiction–you get the picture.

      But I’m building out those portfolios in the background and moonlighting in order to bring those things more into focus in my career over the coming years. You know, at 35 I realize that I’ve got another 25 years before retirement. I highly doubt I’m going to want to focus on one, two or even just three niches during all that time.

      I think you should not put too much pressure on yourself in choosing your next step. Pick the thing that you enjoy the most and that can help you earn enough to maintain your way of life and go with it. It’s not like it’s the last career step you’ll take.

  3. @vcmcguire September 15, 2010 Reply

    Okay, I’m convinced.

    I have always felt leery of specializing, because if I wanted to do the same thing every day I’d just get a day job with benefits and paid sick time.

    But I’ve fallen into being a specialist by accident, which I think is fairly common. If you start out as a generalist, and get a few good gigs where you are really able to do your best work, similar work tends to flow in.

    In my case, I started a blog on a topic that interested me, and ended up being offered a regular writing gig in a related area. That has in turn led to other work.

    I do have multiple specialties, but they all run together: real estate feeds into home ownership, which feeds into gardening and also personal finance, which feeds into insurance. There’s enough variety that I don’t get bored.

    That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t accept work writing about Eames era antiques, however. It’s a short jump from real estate and home ownership to interior design, after all. See how a specialization could be leveraged into other topic areas if need be?

    Thanks for running with my topic idea, Yo.

  4. Carol Tice September 15, 2010 Reply

    When I meet a generalist who’s making great money, I’ll change my mind…but everyone I know who is doing well has a solid specialty. They’re a tech writer, a business-finance dork like me (or Yo!), a healthcare writer, a white-paper specialist.

    It’s so much easier to build your credibility with a specialty. And you’re competing with fewer writers, instead of the universe of everyone who can hold a pen.

    The proliferation of content mills and all of these “must be willing to write on a wide variety of topics” type places I think have made it the worst point in history to be a generalist, as they’ve cheapened the value of being able to write on a broad range of topics.

    But if there’s a happy generalist out there, please weigh in!

    • Yo Author
      Yo September 15, 2010 Reply

      I know that some generalists do have successful careers (okay, I can think of 3) but most of the people I know who are successful are specialists. Another angle to consider is one of referrals. Often, if I get an inquiry and need to refer it on to someone else, I want to refer it to someone who I know specializes in that field. It helps me sell the client on the person and makes me look connected to some great movers and shakers, so it’s win/win.

      • Jennifer Mattern September 15, 2010 Reply

        Another good point. I send out a lot of referrals to other writers. And they don’t ever go to generalists. If someone doesn’t have significant experience in a specialist style of writing or specialized knowledge in the subject area, I won’t put my reputation in their hands since those being referred often come back to hire me or are already clients of mine.

  5. Wendy S. Johnson September 15, 2010 Reply

    Originally, I specialized in Speechwriting, but I got more requests for self-help material that I thought about switching and just adding the speechwriting as a provided service. Figuring out a way to narrow down that specialty has been difficult. But, I’ve been researching several possibilities and have a few options to look into further.

  6. Rebecca Garland September 16, 2010 Reply

    Now look what y’all did! I spent a valuable hour doing keyword research and buying a new (pretty outstanding) domain. Looks like I’m officially an education writer, now. LOL. I’ve been planning to do it in a few years when I started my doctorate, but why wait? Now I’ll have no excuse not to start writing the books on teaching troubled teens. Great. Like I have time for that. *grins*

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel September 18, 2010 Reply

      You know as well as I do that the doctorate isn’t where most of your experience for these topics is going to come from, so why wait????

      • Rebecca Garland September 18, 2010 Reply

        Well, that’s not entirely true. The experience is already there – 9 years in the trenches means a lot, but in the education field to move into publishing and presenting, having a lot of letters behind your name makes you more credible.

        My plan was to wait to start less for experience, but more because I’d have to write a doctoral thesis which I could use as a basis for some pretty outstanding ebooks, website content and published works. The long term plan is to semi-retire to writing, teaching at the university level and touring the country presenting curriculum-based inservices about the kinds of kids I specialize in.

        It was less about waiting for experience and more about waiting until I have time to go whole hog. In the meantime, I should hopefully have some marketing time opening up and might just go ahead and work the “easy” parts of the market – lessons, articles, etc. and save the “hard” stuff for when I’m ready to go back to school.

        Signing off!

        Rebecca A. Garland, M.Ed. (LOL)

    • Jennifer Mattern September 20, 2010 Reply

      Glad to hear you settled on one of those domains. Good luck with the change Rebecca! :)

  7. Rebecca September 16, 2010 Reply

    I struggled with, “To specialize or Not to specialize.” I know I can’t be everything to everyone, and I don’t want to do so. I narrowed down my specialties to parents/teens personal development, the arts & entertainment, charitable events, and education (online curriculum). I guess it’s time to change my website to reflect my specialties.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel September 18, 2010 Reply

      It’s hard, but it is supposed to be about making your career both more manageable and more successful, so don’t stress too much. After all, it’s not like you’re locked in for life!

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