My college-days adviser at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism used to say, “Journalists need to a know a little about a lot.”
That remains good advice if you’re a general assignment reporter but not so good when you’re trying to get publications to spend extra money on stories you are uniquely qualified to write.
That’s why most experienced freelance writers will tell you it’s important to specialize.
It helps you market yourself as an “expert” in a specific field and can improve access to top-notch sources.
Certain kinds of reporting — medical, technological, legal, environmental, etc. — demand that you develop ways to write with authority through specializing and even might require advanced degrees or training.
But Professor Don Lambert’s advice remains relevant.
You can balance specialties to keep your writing from becoming one-dimensional.
For example, Syndie Eardly, an Akronbased freelance writer and editor, writes for religious publications to indulge her passion for spirituality, even though her “specialty” is business and legal writing.
She explains: “Writing for (Catholic Universe Bulletin) has never felt limiting since I have had a range of assignments that included such things as covering speakers at international conferences, doing personal profiles of people in the ministry and writing about a junior high organization in an elementary school that worked with conflict resolution.”
Jill Miller Zimon, a Cleveland-based freelance writer and former attorney, says she specializes by default due to time constraints and because she came into freelancing as a second career.
“My first published pieces concerned what I knew best — mental health and the law, education, parenting, religion,” she says. “As an entree into writing, I think sticking with what I know and focusing on those areas has worked to my advantage.”
However, Zimon recently started to get requests from editors to cover topics less familiar to her.
“Because I only have 10 to 15 hours per week to devote to writing, I haven’t gone much beyond my comfort zone — yet, but I do expect to,” she said.
Specializing in religion has helped Nashville, Tenn.-based Amy Green focus her business.
“Like a newspaper beat reporter, I know the sources, politics and trends of my specialty well, and this expertise is valuable among editors,” says Green. “It gives more depth to my reporting, and I use it to market my skills and ideas.”
Because his wife works in the U.S. Foreign Service, Dan Kubiske, co-chairman of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee, went into freelancing because it is a job that travels well.
“The problem always has been getting newspapers, in particular, to agree to take the piece,” he says. “One editor told me, ‘If it is important enough, we’ll get it from the AP.’ My argument is always that I offer targeted and more focused articles for the newspaper than the AP or any of the wires can.”
Kubiske found that it was easier to build contacts and sources once he knew something about a topic.
“So in Hong Kong, most of my efforts were on trade and the environment — areas about which I already had some knowledge and had begun to build contacts,” he says.
Kubiske, now based in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, has developed steady work writing for newsletters, which by their very nature force specialization.
“I can skip many of the introductory questions that a generalized reporter would have to ask about a company or commodity and get right to the meat of the topic,” he says. “That means more productive interviews with sources that develop a sense of trust with me because they know that I know what they do is important and that the industry is important.” The secret — maybe not so deep and dark — is that you can have many specialties.
And that’s why I still take Lambert’s advice. My resume states that I write personality profiles, small business, education, women’s issues, lifestyle and book reviews. That cuts a wide swath, which is perfect for my sometimes- ADD brain. My advice: Don’t box yourself because the fun in this job is exploring, engaging and indulging diverse interests.
The trick is balancing between writing about your specialties and new interests that could become specialties.
Keeping your freelance writing business somewhat diverse also protects your revenue source if an area you specialize goes south and loses favor with editors.
Los Angeles-based writer Roberta Wax says:
“I love covering the TV industry one day, air transportation another. “I like being able to explore different worlds, to learn about subjects I otherwise wouldn’t.”
And learning new things is the main reason many of us become writers in the first place.
Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based writer and editor. She serves as co-chairwoman of SPJ’s national Freelance Committee and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her online web log, Creative Ink, can be found at www.creativeink.blogspot.com.
Tagged under: Freelancing