When I first started off as a freelancer, I scoffed at the idea of settling down and writing on only one subject. I’m not going to be monogamous in my writing, I thought to myself. There are too many things I want to write about.
So, like any good, fresh solopreneur, I played the field. I wrote about topics I was interested in. I wrote about topics I wasn’t interested in. I wrote and I wrote and over time, I built myself a diverse—albeit eclectic—portfolio.
However, as time went on, I got pickier about the freelance writing work I’d pick up and the rate of pay I would accept. As many freelancers eventually learn, businesses are looking for specialized talent to tell their brand stories. Why? Because brands don’t have the time to teach freelancers about the peculiarities of their industry. They want to know that the person they assign work to knows the lingo and the statistics—and how to shape all those details into stories that capture the attention of their target audiences.
As Mary Mack, a freelance copywriter, said, “Quality content has become more and more important to businesses. Most of the companies I write for aren’t just looking for a solid writer—they want a solid writer who knows a specific industry well and can provide related samples of their work to prove it.” It makes sense, too. Put yourself in the perspective of a brand: why waste your time and money starting from scratch with a writer who may have talent, but simply doesn’t get it?
According to Freelancers Union and Upwork’s Freelancing in America: 2016 study, there are nearly 55 million people currently working as freelancers. What makes you stand out?
Who do you think makes more money: a general dentist or an endodontist? Both have the education and skills to perform root canals, though one is presented as a specialist. According to the American Association of Endodontists, “The average endodontist completes 25 root canal treatments a week, while general dentists do about two root canals a week.”
The same goes for freelance writing. Specializing in something makes you a hot commodity. The rarer you are, the more in-demand you’ll be.
I recently had lunch at a content marketing conference with an acquaintance who recruits writers for brands. As the meal went on, writer after writer stopped by the table to thank her for helping them find work. Each one asked something to the effect of, “How can I get more work like this?”
“Settle on a niche,” she’d tell them. “Brands are always looking for writers who are specialists.”
If you want to find more work—quality work that pays more—follow her advice.
If you’re just starting out as a freelance writer, or even if you’ve built a strong portfolio but are hearing this advice for the first time, the idea of choosing a niche might stress you out. For some, it might feel like hamstringing your potential. But the fact is, if you approach niche-building as a process that happens over time, you’ll come to find that it’s a strength, not a weakness. I’m not here to help find a way for you to skirt the issue of finding a niche. I’m here to remind you not to rush into finding one.
While brands and businesses may be looking for specialists, they’re also searching for well-rounded individuals with tons of talent. Is that you? Maybe. Have you taken the time to chase down every writing opportunity that keeps you up at night? Do you always wonder if your witty voice would lend well to copy instead of content? Do you want to try your hand at email or social communications? Maybe you geek out over SEO (join the club), and you’re looking for an opportunity to test your newfound knowledge.
These questions need answering. Pay attention to whatever it is that moves and shakes you, and maybe—one day—you’ll find a niche to marry yourself to.
Your previous work experience is the first place to look when you’re trying to narrow down a niche. What positions have you held outside of the realm of writing? Every job listed on your resume is a starting point. I worked in human resources for more than 12 years before finally taking the plunge into content marketing and writing. During that time, I focused on everything that happens between hiring and firing—such as training, employee benefits and wellness, and credentialing. Now, I’ve found a niche I love: writing for chief HR officers on high-level employment issues, as well as day-to-day employment issues for their staff.
What do you read? When you’re running in the morning, ruminating on your commute, or in the shower, what topics is your mind regularly drawn to? These are all clues that can point you toward a future niche. If you’re faced with too many options, the idea of making a decision can feel overwhelming. Grant yourself the freedom to purge, on paper, any possible idea you could ever dream up. Your list may consist of blog topics, statistics, or quotes that interest you, or strategies you’d love to suggest to a business. Everyone’s list will be different, so don’t put any pressure on yourself to perfect the ideation process.
Another tip is to make note of the kinds of writing projects you enjoy. Of all the assignments you’ve written recently, which did you find yourself most engaged with? That right there is a great place to narrow your focus.
Elizabeth Wellington, a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, shared her story with me: “I started as a generalist and narrowed my niche by noticing what I loved to write about. As I wrote about different topics, I kept track of the articles I enjoyed the most and which ones gained the most traction with audiences. I looked at that cross-section and noticed that they all spoke to an audience of Millennials about how to create a life and career that they loved. I started specializing in topics underneath that umbrella.”
This time, I’m giving you the permission to stop worrying about how to find your niche and start creating content (any content!)—but only if you get to work right away.
Take the list of topics you created and do some research to figure out which business or brands would consider publishing the content. Then, pitch your heart out. As Mary Mack said, “When you first start out, writing for various industries gives you the opportunity to hone your craft and voice. Some work may be similar to news writing, other [work] may be more playful. You won’t know where your strengths lie until you’ve diversified your writing.”
So cast a wide net, and see what work comes your way.
I’m hesitant to advise anyone to brand their career solely on monetary rates, but if you get paid a menial amount—even if you’re writing on topics that you’re passionate about—you’re going to eventually burn out. Success can be measured in many ways, and one of them is finance. A simple Google search will help you determine the going rates for various industries. Writer’s Market also has a helpful handout you can download and use as your guide. Try out a few different industries if you’re confident you have something meaningful to share.
However, if you land a high-paying gig that weighs you down, be quick to end the relationship—regardless of the high paycheck. Erin Montgomery, a social media writer, said, “I think the biggest thing newbies to freelance writing need to remember is [this]: don’t just take the writing job because you are getting paid. Make sure you are interested, because otherwise it will reflect in your content.” If your output suffers, you won’t get rehired. Plus, if your name is attached to a poorly written post or white paper, potential clients will notice and hire someone else instead.
After writing in multiple industries, you’ve likely worked with many editors. That’s great! They can help you narrow down a niche—as long as you keep the lines of communication open.
Always ask for feedback on your work. What are your strengths? Which topics garnered the most page views? Most brands have detailed analytics systems set up and will be able to inform you of any successes.
Don’t forget to ask about your weaknesses, too. There’s a lot you can learn about how you’re faltering. You might think your writing style is effective, but a editor can pinpoint grammatical issues that regularly occur or inform you that your ledes—the way you hook your readers—are weak. This feedback can also dictate fields you shouldn’t consider. If your storytelling isn’t up to par but your syntax sparkles, it might be a good idea to move from content to copy.
Finding a niche is a little like dating: you spend time with people (read: clients) and learn as much as you can about yourself in the process, in the hopes that one day, you find that one person (read: topic) you’ll gladly devote your freelance writing career to. From your future clients’ perspective, that devotion is everything.
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