Monday, January 28, 2008

Should You Specialize? The Pros And Cons

I've always resisted specializing. Creatively, i write short fiction, poetry, memoir, and novels. Professionally, I write content articles, web copy, ebooks, autoresponders, e-courses, and a hodgepodge of other types of writing, as well as proofreading and editing. I've started to specialize slowly over time in web content with an educational (rather than salesy) tone, and this has happened naturally as I've chosen to pursue certain types of projects over others. But I certainly don't specialize as much as I could. Some writers write only one type of project (like Michael at Writing White Papers, for example) and others focus only on certain markets, like financial writing or medical writing.

Specialization is the way to go for many writers, and there are good reasons why. When I was first getting started, I heard a lot of advice to pick a niche--the more focused the better--when planning my business. Here are the most commonly-cited benefits to specializing.

You can command higher rates. There's a perception that if you specialize in one thing, you're better at that thing than anyone else. A writer who writes only brochures may be able to charge more for a brochure project than a writer who does brochures, website copy, articles, proofreading, et cetera. The phrase "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" certainly applies to client perception.

Clients hire freelancers in one of two ways: either by finding one writer they like and bringing him in for every project they have, or by looking high and low for just the right fit for each project. In my experience, higher-paying and more established companies tend to be the latter; the former tends to consist of small businesses who don't have the time or resources to look for a new writer on every project. Those high-paying clients look for writers with a portfolio of work that looks just like what they're looking for--not versatility.

You may get more work if you can corner a niche. If you're a generalist, your competition is every other writer out there--other generalists and niche writers for each specific job. But if you only write for one specific niche, word might get around that you're the "go-to" guy for that niche--and you'll have much less competition. You'll reach a smaller audience, but they'll only be looking at you.

Despite the benefits of specializing, however, i've never quite been able to bring myself to do it entirely. Here are a few reasons why I continue to offer a range of services, and probably will for the foreseeable future.

Many types of writing may make you a better writer. I feel that the more versatile I can be, the better I am as a writer. Sometimes different types of writing inform on and improve each other. For example, the type of characterization and storytelling skills prized by fiction writers can make a nonfiction piece much more gripping, and the type of linguistic precision and discipline required by poetry can make any type of writing better.

Professionally, I feel that being familiar with a wide range of writing projects makes me better able to understand my clients' marketing needs. Because I handle a variety of projects, I'm well-placed to become that "go-to" writer for businesses who need a single partner they can trust. I can also increase my sales by offering an autoresponder series to an article marketing client, web page writing services to an e-book client, and so on.

Writing the same thing all the time is boring. Some writers have made successful careers in niche markets. But I couldn't imagine only writing about one topic all the time. I'd get burned out pretty quickly. I love learning new things, and if I focus on one topic constantly, there's a limit to how much I can learn. So I look for projects on a wide variety of topics. I can also get burned out by doing the same type of project all the time. One of the things I love about freelancing is that I don't have to focus on just one thing--I can learn new skills and offer new services all the time.

I used to stress a lot about finding my niche and what to specialize in, and now I hear sometimes from people just starting out on whether to be a specialist or a generalist. My answer now is to let it happen naturally. If you're new to freelancing, take on a wide variety of different projects. Write sales letters, newsletters, articles, and brochures. Try on lots of different writing styles, and write on any topic that appeals to you. Eventually, you'll find that you particularly like certain types of projects; when you write in a certain tone your clients tend to love it; or you just love writing about a certain topic. Give your specialty time to evolve--or stick to being a generalist. Peter Bowerman of The Well-Fed Writer makes a decent living at it, and no doubt you can, too.


Unknown said...

Some bloggers suggest that specializing is like agreeing to be typecast if you are an actor. (See Penelope Trunk's blog, for one.) And if you want to be a working actor, then that's sound advice. Just as Robert DeNiro, who is pretty much always a gangster or borderline personality of similar type.

But if you want to free to explore a variety of roles, then refuse to specialize. You might work less, but enjoy it more because, as you said here, variety of work is its own reward, beyond just the paycheck.

Yuwanda Black said...


I specialize because it's easier and more cost efficient to market that way. I also happen to enjoy my niche (real estate, mortgages and general small business issues).

But, I find that once clients use me, they "force" me into the generalists role.

I've gotten jobs because of my niche writing, and have gone on to write on everything but once I've turned in a few projects.

As long as I make my financial goals, I tend to be a pretty happy camper.


Matthew C. Keegan said...

I do like to write about various subjects as they stimulate my mind and encourage me to expand my horizons.

My strengths, however, are in automotive writing a very broad field which includes auto news, reviews of makes/models, alternate fuels, you name it. I've grown into this area having started writing about cars on a regular basis just three years ago. Indeed, I can command more money and receive better recognition with this topic.

As far as media, I am working my way into print magazines (regional, for example) and will be developing a new blog for a client. If there is money to made and it is something that I want to do, I'll take a good look at it.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Jay: that occurred to me too as I was writing this--the typecasting issue. Typically, actors hate to be typecast because it basically negates the art and craft of what they do--there's no acting involved if all they do is portray something they do naturally on and off stage. It's why the people who succeed in acting aren't necessarily the best actors--but the clearest distillations of their "types."

@Yuwanda: That happens a lot to me, too--and you're right, as long as you're making money, it doesn't matter.

@Matt: you bring up a good point--it's important to know your strengths whether or not you choose to specialize to a high degree. And some niches are actually quite broad.