freelance writers
Storytelling Communications

Attention, Freelance Writers: Stop Calling Yourselves “Generalists”

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Like many freelance writers, I like to think I can write about anything. With the right amount of research and enough hours dedicated to a project, I can tackle subjects from leptospirosis in dogs to behavioral psychology to used-car sales. But, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. Adaptability is an admirable quality, but it won’t necessarily move your freelance writing career forward. When editors and recruiters view your vast skill set they’ll think, “She must be okay at all those things. I wonder if there’s anything that she’s really strong in.” (As the old adage goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”)

If you want to make money as a freelance writer, you need to be seen as an expert. So, how do you prove to the people who can hire you that you’re not just a generalist?

Simple: you choose a writing niche.

Remind Me: Why Just One Niche?

One of the toughest aspects of being a freelance writer will be finding new work. One day you’re turning away new assignments because you’re overbooked, but the next you’re desperately searching for work. A well-defined niche creates a brand, making prospective clients want come to you—instead of forcing you to actively search for new companies to partner with. Plus, your prospects know exactly what it is you write about, so there is no need to waste time on leads that end up going nowhere.

You already know that with 55 million freelancers in America, there’s a lot of competition, which is why deciding on a niche should be your number-one priority. Recruiters and editors already have a talented pool of freelance writers to choose from, so when they’re actively searching for talent, they want to find a subject matter expert—someone who specializes in a particular topic. They aren’t interested in hiring a generalist. They want someone who knows their industries intimately; someone who follows the trends, knows the players, and is constantly thinking about the next big industry shift. Knowing a field inside and out means there are nuances you understand that someone couldn’t glean from reading a few articles and synthesizing a couple of strong quotes. That’s the power of choosing one niche. (Okay, two is also fine, but you really don’t want to go nuts with this.)

Amanda MacArthur, cofounder and content director of Lantern Content Marketing Adventure Company said, “I always ask, as part of our application, what the writers’ personal passions are. If someone is an avid gardener, that’s important to me if I have a client who sells gardening equipment. That’s why when I hire, I look at the entire resume. If I have a client who’s an HR software company, I’d rather hire a writer who worked for 10 years in HR and freelanced on the side than a seasoned magazine editor with all the technical abilities but no heart in the game.”

gardener with a water hose

Subject Matter Experts Write Stories That Feel Authentic

Have you ever read an article and thought, “Wow, I wish I wrote this?” I know I have, and every time this happens I pause to find out why I’m so moved. Usually, it’s because the author is a whiz at storytelling, weaving in current market statistics with knowledge or information that can’t easily be uncovered through a Google search. And those writers are often difficult to find. With content so easily being recycled in this digital age, many people consider themselves experts, but are they really?

When was the last time you stared at a cursor not moving on a blank screen, willing your fingers to tap, tap, tap something, anything, so your word count would move past zero? If your answer was “recently,” I’m going to bet that you’re not passionate about what you’re writing about. Engaged writers write (and share) genuine content.

Recruiters and editors are looking for freelance writers who know an industry inside and out. A niche gives you an edge from the competition because you’re already in the know with trends, style, and research. Plus, you know the competitors inside and out—which is a huge help when it comes to ideating stories that fill gaps in industry content (not to mention a huge boon where sourcing is concerned).

Bri Hand, an editorial manager at Skyword, is heavily involved with writer communications, and often recruits new writers for her clients. She said, “I tend to have more trust in writers who specialize in a particular niche because I know they’re dedicated to fully understanding the topics they’re writing about. I work with a lot of writers in the tech space, and it’s incredibly helpful to know that they have a solid grasp on the subject matter because it’s something they’re truly interested in, especially for in-depth, technical articles.”

MacArthur agreed: “The most important thing to me is that content is authentic. Readers know when they’re being played. Writers that specialize in a niche already know the pain points of the reader and can incorporate storytelling into their dialogue using legitimate field experience.”baby feet

The “Lifestyle” Niche Isn’t a Thing

I don’t want to hurt your feelings (honestly, I don’t), but saying you write in the lifestyle niche devalues your skills. (Are we still friends?)

People create lifestyle content because they enjoy sharing their passions and interest with the world. I get it. Life changes us, and we want to write about it. After my daughter was born, I was obsessed with all things baby-related. And, truth be told, I was becoming an expert in many different areas that would fit under the broad lifestyle umbrella: recipes, DIY clothing, and parenting, to name a few. But the operative word there is broad: at the end of the day, saying I was a lifestyle writer would have meant a lot of different things to a lot of different recruiters or editors, but it certainly wouldn’t have defined me as an expert in any one particular area, or given me a leg up on any other lifestyle writers in consideration for client work.

So I could have reinvented myself as a writer and started a lifestyle blog—but instead, I thought: how can I take this new found passion and make it profitable with my current (or future) clients?

Honestly, it easier than I first expected. For my insurance clients, I wrote about baby-related health issues. (Let’s just say I’m now desperately passionate about baby teething.) For my HR clients, I wrote about FMLA and preparing for an employee’s maternity leave. If you find yourself wanting to discuss your passion for Pokemon Go, but your niche is in advertising, write an article about how businesses can attract new clientele by making their storefronts Gyms in the game. A little creativity goes a long way when it comes to staying in your niche, but inviting your interests in.

If you’re still afraid to settle into one niche, remember: you may write in one niche for a while, be it a year or 10, but you’re free to augment it or shift away at any time. There’s no reason why you can’t carve out a new niche within the span of your career. In fact, I’d recommend always keeping your writing current. Feel free to take a step to the side and publish an article on renovation if you’ve recently purchased a home or a post on politics during an election season. Doing so strengthens the solid portfolio you’ve built with your already strong niche. Just remember: before you advertise the change in your bio (and as part of your personal brand), be sure you support it with enough samples to stand out to the next recruiter or client who comes your way.

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Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. After a 12+ year career in human resources – specializing in employee health and dental benefits, as well as wellness programs– she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy and content creation. Erin believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She lives in Southeastern Massachusetts, neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, one of her favorite small cities. Learn more about her at www.erinollila.com.

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