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Is it Better to Be a Generalist or Specialist Freelance Writer?

by Jordan Rosenfeld
freelancing, money & life

How to Be a Strategic Freelance Writer

You’re a freelancer writer looking for the best writing strategy, that’ll net you more business at higher rates.

If you look left, you’ll find someone suggesting you stick to an area of expertise and focus on that for best results, to be a niche or specialist freelance writer. Look right, and you’ll be told to branch out and cast a wide net across a variety of topics and forms, to become a Renaissance writer. Truthfully, there’s no single right way to freelance write, but there may be a method that will work better for you that you haven’t yet considered.

I’ve seen compelling cases made for both sides of this argument, but one of the most common pieces of advice from these 12 freelancers who have six-figure freelance businesses, is to pick your niche and stick to it, at least until you have the luxury to test your way into offering broader writing services.

Here are some considerations that can help you narrow down the right approach for your freelance business, with advice from writers in the trenches.

In Favor Being a Specialist Freelance Writer:

 • Hone Your Skills. Build a Portfolio.

For the newer writer, specializing in a topic area allows you to refine your skills and build up a portfolio of work that will help you get other work down the road. Editors are looking for competent writers, not necessarily specialized ones, so if you earn your chops in a focused area, this gives you the confidence and the clips to branch out. Estelle Erasmus of New Jersey, a widely published former magazine editor and writing coach recommends this approach to newer writers, saying, “As a newbie, a specialty makes it easier to get assignments and build a portfolio. When you’ve been a bit more seasoned then you can try different things.”

 • A Better Baseline of Research.

Freelance writing can, at times, be an overwhelming job—you’re juggling multiple projects, clients and research. The more you specialize, says Leigh Shulman, an Argentina-based freelancer, “Overall your work is easier because you have a baseline of research already completed before you start writing.” She also believes that most writers should start out specializing. “It’s hard to have a real solid plan when you use a buckshot approach to writing, and in the end you don’t form strong connections with editors or enough expertise in any one area.”

 • Build Solid Contacts and A Good Reputation.

Erasmus also points out the importance of contacts when you work in a field of specialty, citing these to be “invaluable.” And, as many freelancers know, when an editor leaves one publication, they tend to take the names and contacts of reliable freelancers with them. If you’ve built a reputation in your subject, and have proven yourself to be efficient and produce solid copy, your editor in one area, say Fitness, may move on to a magazine that focuses on Parenting, and seek pitches from you.

Is it Better to Be a Generalist or Specialist Freelance Writer?

 • Spin-off Work.

There can often be additional benefits to specializing beyond just writing. In these ever-digital days, editors often look to writers who can create infographics, dig up data, and even create marketing materials. “When you specialize, it’s easier to turn your writing specialization into entrepreneurial endeavors,” says Shulman. “You can then also develop products and be paid to speak on your topics.”

 • You Can Still Cast A Wide Net.

Don’t buy the myth that specializing in a topic area limits you to only writing about one subject. Take Education, for example—within this realm are many dozens of sub-topics, from the personal—say a special program at an individual school—to the global: how different countries teach different subjects, and a vast range of ideas in between. Julie Schweitert Collazo, a New York based freelance writer, has a “geographic specialty.” She focuses on Latin America (to which she travels frequently), and, in the United States, on Latino communities and issues.

“A few years ago people kept bugging me to pick a niche and it was getting on my nerves,” she says. “But I didn’t want to say I was a travel writer of a food writer or a whatever writer because I was/am interested in so many subjects. Choosing that geographic niche helped me resolve both issues: the need to define and specialize while also leaving open a much broader spectrum of possibilities.”

In Favor of Being a Generalist Freelance Writer:

 • Keep it Interesting.

Perhaps the most common answer among generalist freelance writers, those who cover multiple topics or specialties, is that it keeps the work interesting.

Collazo says, it satisfies the fact that she has “So many interests, such as art, literature, politics, social justice movements, science and tech.” Tackling multiple subjects can keep the work fresh and avoid burnout. The longer you’re at it, too, the less intimidating it gets to try on new topics. Erasmus says, “After 20 plus years in publishing, I feel I’ve earned the right to write about the subjects that interest me. I can use my journalist skills to research any topic, and have the experience to know what makes a good story.”

 • Flexibility.

Generalist writers are the gymnasts of the writing realm; they’re flexible and able to bend themselves around new topics at a whim. If you choose to generalize, chances are you’ll get better at researching a new topic, and be able to say yes to new opportunities in new areas. You also widen your potential markets this way, never limited by the smaller parameters of the specialist, which has better financial implications for you.

 • Stretch Yourself.

If you stick too close to one topic area for too long, you might be limiting yourself. Many writers stick close to a topic because it’s safe and in your known wheelhouse; but if you don’t ever try writing about a new topic, you’ll never know if you could. Learning new subjects has also proven to be good for the brain, especially as you age. “I think a newer writer needs to try a variety of genres, lengths and subjects,” says Caitlin Kelly, a long-time freelance writer from New York. “It’s not always obvious what’s going to be a fit for a specialty — and you’re competing with people who’ve been on that beat for years, maybe decades.”

 • Get the Best of Both Worlds.

There are ways to cross the divide between specialist and generalist. Kelly recommends multiple specialties. “Being a specialist means knowing enough to write intelligently and engagingly about your subject,” she says. “You need credibility with your sources – but you don’t need to have a PhD in it.

I have multiple specialties, including business, design and personal finance — but still primarily consider myself a generalist in that I’m happy to tackle a wide range of topics beyond those three “official” specialties. In the past three months, Kelly has written on canine health, kitchen design and predictive analytics. “I love the variety of being a generalist, so I see the appeal in both.”

Whichever route you take, what matters most is that you pick topic areas that you can execute competently and enjoy the work in the process. Join Darren Murph’s class on How to Write Blog Content that Drives Traffic and hone your abilities at creating compelling content for your business.

What’s your opinion? Are you a generalist or specialist freelance writer?

Whether you’re starting a freelance career, or looking to grow your existing business, download our Free eBook, The Essential Guide to Launching a Freelance Career.

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Jordan Rosenfeld

Jordan Rosenfeld is a freelancer writer whose work has appeared in Mom.me, The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Writer's Digest, and more.