Podcast Episode 7: Freelance Writing – To Specialise or Not to Specialise

This is the first of my solo podcast episodes – Lorrie and I are going to do some individual ones as well as continuing with the ones we do together, so I really hope you like it!

Tune in for information about whether or not specialising is a good option for freelance writers.

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Freelance Writing – To Specialise or Not to Specialise

Hello and welcome to Episode 7 of A Little Bird Told Me – the podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful freelance writing. I’m Philippa Willitts and I’m here today without my usual co-host Lorrie Hartshorn.
There’s no need to worry: Lorrie and I haven’t had some kind of horrific argument with me winning custody of the podcast. What we wanted to do was have a chance to add to the dual episodes by also creating individual episodes on topics that one of us might know more about than the other, or be more interested or specialised in. We are going to carry on with the dual episodes too, while adding in these shorter individual ones.

social wordle
social wordle (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

So, what I’m going to talk about today is whether or not freelance writers should specialise in a particular niche, or whether they would do better to be a generalist, knowing a little about a lot of things. There are certainly positives and negatives for each option, so I’m going to look at the various issues involved.

Now, personally, I’ve got a strange, but effective, combination of specialist and generalist work that I do. I market myself as able to do both, and have separate websites, one for general copywriting and one for more specialist work.

On my philippawrites.com site I promote my abilities to do a wide range of freelance writing tasks. I share links to my media writing, social media and SEO writing, blog posts, everything, really that I write. I also have a page on there about my proofreading and editing services, my educational background, and the different types of freelance writing I can do, such as press releases, blog posts, web copy – that kind of thing.

Then I have my specialist site: socialmediawriter.co.uk, where I explain that I specialise in writing about social media, SEO and internet marketing. I have a lot of expertise in these areas, so creating a separate site purely dedicated to them makes a lot of sense.

So, why would a writer choose to specialise? Firstly, the specialist expertise and knowledge that you have can mean that you can justify charging higher fees. Instead of being one freelance writer amongst thousands, you can grow to be a big fish in the small pond of your specialism! This means that your name is more likely to get known, particularly amongst the people who might be interested in hiring you, because it is easier to make contacts if you have particular targets in mind rather than just any business.

People are also more likely to refer people to you if they know you are a specialist in a particular area. For instance, while I am happy editing any kind of non-fiction documents, and happy editing fictional short stories, I know I do not have the specialist knowledge to do justice to longer fiction, such as novels. I also know that Lorrie specialises in literary editing, so I would feel completely confident referring any enquiries to her that I felt I couldn’t deal with. If she did not have that expertise, there would be no immediate reason to choose her over anybody else. Similarly, if somebody received an enquiry about some writing that involved some really in-depth knowledge about social media that they knew they didn’t have the expertise to cover, I might be the person to pop into their mind because I do specialise on that subject. That side of things does make it very hard for generalists to compete with specialists.

Having a website dedicated to your specialisation also makes it much more likely that you will start to appear in search engine results when somebody is searching for a writer in your niche. Generalist copywriting sites might list, say, “food writing” amongst many other examples of topics they can cover, but a whole website about food writing is much more likely to rank highly.

There are also benefits to specialising in terms of what happens when the work starts to come in. Firstly, there is often less research required because you’ve already got all the background knowledge you need. If I get a general copywriting task about, say, garden furniture, then the first thing I have to do is research garden furniture – I need to find out what’s available, what is currently on trend, how much it costs, what particular concerns customers have – all that kind of thing. Whereas if I get a niche commission about Pinterest, I already know what Pinterest is, how it works, who its primary users are, how companies are using it to promote their work and so on. So I can get straight onto researching the exact topic the client needs.

Some writers… rather than specialising in a particular subject, specialise in a type of writing. This might be e-commerce sales pages, or press releases, or scripts for sales videos. The same benefits – and the same drawbacks – apply, really, whether your specialisation is a topic or a style of writing.

But, there are also some really valid reasons for not specialising. The first is if there’s simply no area in which you feel you have a lot of expertise or interest. You have to be quite fascinated by your specialist area because it will hopefully end up being what you spend most of your time writing about. If nothing springs to mind to focus on, it is perhaps not the right time to think about specialising.

Another point is that specialising does, by definition, really, limit the work you might be awarded. If somebody wants copy for 10 pages of a website, and only one of those is in your specialist area, you might have “niched yourself out” of getting a commission to write the other nine! By offering general, non-specialised services, you can open the market up massively in terms of the types of work you can get. You might also be more likely to keep a steady stream of work coming in if you do not limit your topics or types of writing to one or two particular areas.

Another point against specialising is that you will find that the work you get will depend on the ongoing success of the market you have specialised in. If you have been writing about film photography, and only film photography, for years, then the massive explosion of digital cameras and corresponding reduction in interest in film photography will have had a significant impact on the amount of people who want to commission work in your area. Of course, people do still want film photography writing although, relatively speaking, it’s become a much smaller part of the market.

social media
social media (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Trends can change quickly, and if you have failed to take this into account then something that’s a thriving market today could reduce in size dramatically with new fashions or technological advances. It’s one of the reasons why specialising in social media, I have to keep an eye on all the social media trends – I can’t just focus on say, Facebook or Twitter because that’s not adequate in today’s market, and because there will – at some point – be a day when Facebook and Twitter have become what MySpace is now. And if I’m not on top of the newer platforms, then I’ll be in trouble!

Offering general freelance writing or editing services does certainly keep life interesting, because you could be working on an entirely different subject every day or every week. It keeps boredom at bay!

If you do decide you want to be a freelance writer with a specialist subject, there are certain things you must do, and skills and knowledge you must have. Especially if you are expecting to be able to charge higher fees, the expertise you have has to be up to scratch to justify that.

There are various ways to develop – or claim – expertise in a niche. One is through education or training. If you have a degree in Sports Science, then sports or health writing could be an ideal specialist area for you. Similarly, the jobs you have done can inform your writing so if you used to be a teacher, education writing could be great, or if you have been a nightclub DJ then people will respect your opinions about, and writing on, music.

Having worked in the area you specialise in can have more benefits than that, actually, which is that you probably already have contacts in the area. If you left your job in Human Resources, say, to become a copywriter, then who are your former colleagues and employers going to go to when they need their website copy rewriting? You’re the obvious choice.

However you can’t rely on past learning or work experience to keep you going in a specialist field. This is especially true if you specialise in areas like SEO and social media like I do, as these are areas where there is new information daily. To keep on top of my niche, I listen to many hours of podcasts a week, I attend training and webinars regularly, and I read and read and read: everything I can find in these areas. The sheer amount of time I have to spend just to make sure I don’t miss any new developments, and to make sure I understand exactly what people are doing, currently, with Twitter or how they are using Google Plus, is huge, so don’t underestimate the need to not only have a lot of knowledge to specialise, but also time you’ll have to spend a lot and energy you’ll need to stay up to date, especially in fast-moving fields.

For me, a nice combination of general and specialist work suits me really well. I get the opportunity to really geek out about SEO and social media, and work with people who are as knowledgeable and passionate as I am on the subjects. But I’m also able to get those wonderfully random assignments about anything and everything that keep life interesting and fresh.

If you are doing the same, I would strongly recommend having separate websites for your specialist work and your generalist work. If you want some ideas about that, do check out my two sites: PhilippaWrites.com and SocialMediaWriter.co.uk. You can certainly link from one to the other, but the SEO will be better if they are separate, and people wanting your specialist work will be more convinced and take you more seriously if you have a dedicated website in the area.

Generalist working can be a good back-up plan if you are not getting enough work in your specialist niche, or if interest in that subject wanes in general. And being a generalist is not in any way ‘lesser’ than being a specialist, so don’t pursue a specialism just because you think you should. It’s like the difference between a family GP and a specialist neurologist: both have very different, but very important, roles to play and neither could work without the other.

So, hopefully that’s given you some things to think about when thinking about whether or not to specialise as a freelance writer and, if so, how to go about it. Let me know what you think. If you go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. You can find links to my websites, and how to contact me. You can also – from that page – subscribe to the podcast to make sure you never miss an episode. You can do that by RSS feed, iTunes and Stitcher Smart Radio. The links are all on our podcast page, which is at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

I’ve been Philippa Willitts – make sure you tune in for the next episode, and thank you very much for listening!