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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.
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.