During the recent WordCount Blogathon, there was a healthy discussion between several writers on the pros and cons of having a freelance specialty.
Some writers love the variety that comes with freelancing. They prefer writing about issues they feel passionately about, no matter what the subject. Others focus on stories on varying topics if they think they can sell their work to a certain editor or publication.
Then there are the writers who are more comfortable focusing on a specific subject or niche.
For the vast majority of my freelance career I’ve chosen the latter path, concentrating on one or two specific niches. I’d rather spend my time and creativity on stories for a select number of publications I work for all the time than coming up pitches and finding markets interested in buying them.
But how does one go about developing a niche?
Here are a few suggestions:
Decide on a specialty. Think about the types of stories you enjoy doing, and whether they have a common thread, theme or subject. How would you feel about working on more pieces on the same subject? Is the topic broad enough you could continue to come up with new material to cover on a regular basis? If you’d rather haul trash than cover the sanitation industry week in and week out, odds are pretty good that wouldn’t be a good niche for you. But what about parenting? Or cleantech? Or video games? In my first go at freelancing, I started out covering health care topics because I’d been a health care trade magazine editor and knew I could sell stories on that subject to my former employer. But I left that magazine to get out of the health-care news business. So I made a deliberate decision to segue into high tech – sounds antiquated now but that’s what the PC industry was called back then – because at the time, tech was hot and the supply of writers knowledgeable about the subject couldn’t keep up with demand. If this seems opportunistic, well, it is. As they say, follow the money.
Get some training. Deciding on a specialty is just the beginning. If you don’t have a lot of experience writing about that subject, you might need some training above and beyond what you can get on the job. Luckily, there are resources available for all types of journalism specialties. Many journalism organizations have online resources and hold annual conferences, including the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. You can see a bunch of other groups on this list from Arizona State University’s j-school.
Start out small. If you’re just getting up to speed in a new specialty, consider accepting assignments you normally wouldn’t based on the market or the pay. Think of it as an apprenticeship – the publication gets your services at a discount, and you get paid to learn a specialty. If all goes well, you’ll have a solid base of clips on your new specialty to show higher paying markets. Over time can gradually reduce the number of assignments you take on your old specialty and increase the amount of work you do on your new one.
Use a steady gig to jump from one niche to another. Sometimes you develop a specialty only to burn out on the subject or see the publication you write for regularly fold or cut back on the freelance they use, which happened to a lot of independent writers during the recession. In these situations, you can use your current specialty to move into a different one. One weekly tech industry trade magazine I wrote for had some back of the book sections on book reviews and other subjects tangentially related to the tech business. After establishing myself as a regular contributor, I started pitching those sections, specifically pitching stories related to workplace issues. At the time I mainly approached it as a mental break from writing about bits and bytes all the time, but it paid off. Not long after, a former colleague from my newspaper days started working as an editor at an HR industry trade magazine and asked me to write for her. The toehold I’d developed writing about workplace issues for Client No. 1 gave me confidence to write from Client No. 2, and a growing list of sources in the industry to draw from.
Talk to editors about the other types of writing you do. The only reason that HR industry magazine editor knew I’d been writing about workplace issues for a different publication was because I told her. Don’t underestimate the value of talking to editors about what else you’re working on. You never know what special projects, new publications, blogs, etc., they could be cooking up that you’d be perfect for, if only they knew the other types of work you do. If you have a good relationship with an editor this should come up in conversation, and if it doesn’t, figure out a way to slip it into your next chat – another reason to talk to editors by phone every so often and not just check in via email.
Write about the same topic for a different audience. Specialties aren’t just about writing on different subjects. Once you’ve established a beat, you’ll start seeing story possibilities everywhere. Some of them will be relevant to publications you already write for. Others might be better suited to a publication that reaches a different type of audience. If you normally cover the restaurant industry for restaurant industry trade publications, for example, think of pitching a restaurant trend piece to a consumer publication, a general business magazine or a local or regional business weekly. If you normally write for consumer publications, this could mean looking for angles an industry trade publication might be interested in. Just realize that trade and consumer publications have difference audiences so you’ll need to adjust your writing accordingly.
If you’ve cultivated a freelance career around a specific beat, how did you do it? If you started out in one specialty, how hard was it to jump to another?