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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

One of the reasons I make good money as a freelancer is that I no longer try to write about anything and everything the way I did my first year or two of being self-employed. I found that to be a good recipe for working my butt off…and not making very much money. As a specialist, I’ve developed lucrative niches that make it easier to market myself, boost the likelihood of getting assignments from new-to-me markets, increase the amount of money I can charge, and give me an inventory of material I can resell again and again.

What about you? Do you specialize? If not, why not?

Here’s the thing. Simply by living your life up until now, you've learned about a variety of subjects. Chances are you've worked a number of jobs, probably in different industries. You've had relationships with people—family, coworkers, lovers, friends. You've taken classes, maybe obtained a college degree or two. You've overcome obstacles. You've explored hobbies. You've developed interests, likes, dislikes, opinions, goals and dreams.

Each of us has a unique history and life experience. If you'd like to break into print, or if you want to make more money from your freelance work, why not harness that experience to help you do so?

I've been a fulltime freelance journalist since 1997, and I've been teaching magazine writing and speaking at writers' conferences and other events throughout the U.S. for almost as long. I've helped new (read: inexperienced) writers get published for the first time, helped seasoned writers break into more lucrative markets, and helped writers of all experience levels work more efficiently and make more money as a result.

All by suggesting that they specialize.

Let me make something clear. Specializing doesn't prevent you from writing about anything you want to. You still have that option. (And I do venture out of my pigeonhole occasionally to tackle new subjects.) It does mean that you focus on your unique strengths and background, especially as a new writer. Specializing can get you into print. And over time, it can transform a so-so freelance career into one that lets you reach your dreams and monetary goals.

First, limiting the majority of my work to several subject areas means I have a background in most of the topics I cover. That means that I can stay on top of what's happening in my specialities, research and pitch articles more quickly, and research and write them more quickly once I get assignments. That makes me much more efficient than someone who’s always covering new subjects (say, a travel writer always covering new destinations or a profile writer).

Creating a nonfiction specialty (or specialties) can also help you:

• Get more assignments, even as an inexperienced writer;
• Command higher per-word rates;
• Position yourself as an expert and build a platform (all-important if you want to write books);
• Obtain assignments from higher-paying markets;
• Develop relationships with editors and other clients;
• Create an inventory of stories for reprinting and reselling;
• Branch into other types of writing (such as books and corporate work); and
• Break into new subject areas.

Set Yourself Apart from the Pack

Imagine that you're an editor at a magazine. Chances are that you're overworked and underpaid. One of your many tasks is assigning stories to fill the pages of your magazine. Every issue. No matter what.

That's the bad news. The good news is you've got no shortage of freelancers to help you do it. In fact, you receive hundreds, maybe thousands of queries a month. Some are from experienced writers; many more are from "newbies" with little in the way of clips or experience. Who do you choose to work with?

The writer who you believe can deliver the story. And all things being equal, would you rather assign this piece to a freelancer who's new to the subject, or the one who already has experience with it?

The answer is clear. That's why I suggest that new writers (and even experienced writers pitching new or hard-to-break-into markets) start by pitching stories they are "uniquely qualified" to write. Then highlight that experience with a query that includes four basic parts:

• The lead, which is designed to catch the editor's attention. It might be a startling statistic, a recent study result, a timely news event, or an anecdote. The key is that it interests the editor enough to continue reading.

• The "why write it" section. This paragraph (or two, if you have a particularly detailed query) fleshes out the idea, demonstrating why the readers of the magazine will be interested in the topic. If the readers will care, your editor will care, too.

• The "nuts and bolts" paragraph. Here you give the details of the story itself. What types of sources will you contact? How long will the story be? Will it have sidebars, and if so, how many? What section of the magazine will the story fit in? What's the working title?

• The "I-am-so-great" paragraph (or "ISG"). Here, you highlight your relevant qualifications, including your writing experience and background with the subject matter. This is the paragraph where you showcase your unique qualifications and convince the editor to give you the assignment.

Let me give you a few examples of compelling I-am-so-great paragraphs from early in my freelance career:

• When I pitched a story on a hidden dating treasure (also known as "shy guys"), I made sure that I mentioned that I am an extrovert who fell in love with and married a shy guy. ("10 Reasons to Date a Shy Guy," Complete Woman, October/November, 1997.)

• I pitched a true-life feature about a young woman's struggle with a serious, debilitating yet undiagnosed medical problem to a number of women's magazines. In my ISG, I wrote that I had already spoken with the woman and had her permission to write her story. ("An Answer at Last," Woman's World, April 7, 1998.)

• When I queried a bridal magazine with a story idea on the importance of communicating about money, I included an anecdotal lead about a money argument between newlyweds. In my ISG, I revealed that the couple was me and my newlywed husband. ("A Match Made in Financial Heaven," Bridal Guide, March/April, 1998.)

But the ISG isn't only for new writers. As I've garnered experience in a variety of subject areas, I've harnessed it to break into new markets as well as other types of writing. For example:

• When sending a letter of introduction to IGA Grocergram, a trade magazine for grocery store owners, I neglected to include that I'd recently worked part-time at Trader Joe's, a specialty grocery store. But when I followed up with editor by phone, you better believe I worked that fact into the conversation! My firsthand experience with “end caps” and loading the reefer (nope, it’s not what you think) helped cinch a steady gig for me.

• When contacting The Pampered Chef about freelancing for their corporate communications department, I mentioned my relevant experience writing about food and nutrition for national magazines. (I'm not a big cook; otherwise, I would have said so.) The marketing director received dozens of letters but this fact helped my letter of introduction stand out—and got me a lucrative freelance assignment.

• When sending a letter of introduction to a medical consulting firm, I mentioned both my health-writing background and my work (even though it had been years prior) doing PR for a small hospital. Once again, I got the gig.

Get it? The idea is to always look for some connection you have with the work you're pitching, even if it's a tenuous one.

Do What I Say, Not What I Did

Let me confess something: I didn't start out as a freelancer understanding the importance of a powerful ISG. I learned the hard way, sending out hundreds of queries that were rejected. I would pitch any and every idea, regardless of how much I knew about the subject—and my sketchy, poorly conceived queries reflected that. So did my annual income.

When it came to magazines, my approach at the time was to look for possible story ideas and then find the appropriate markets for those articles. I was querying several dozen magazines at the same time—an approach I don’t recommend. Yet a few assignments trickled in. BRIDE’S assigned me a piece on combining two households into one when you marry. Vegetarian Times asked me to write a 600-word story on creating a local vegetarian group. I wrote about a unique high school paper for the trade magazine Editor& Publisher. The Lion asked me to cover a charity car show sponsored by the local Lions club after I pitched the idea.

What made these ideas—the ones that were actually assigned—different from the ones that were rejected? Well, I had some kind of experience with all of the successful pitches. I'd recently combined two households when I married my husband. I’d met a woman who'd started her own local vegetarian group in a nearby small town. I'd attended an educational conference where I met the founder of the high school paper, l paper at a conference, and I'd contacted the martial arts expert about doing a story after I read about him in the local paper. As for the Lions car show? It was held in my town every year—who better than me to write about it?

So far, so good. I was learning the importance of the ISG, even if I didn't call it that yet. But during this time, I had no intention of specializing in any particular area. I wrote about any idea that I thought would fit a particular market and bring me some cash. It didn’t matter to me if I was writing about charity car shows, one-on-one marketing techniques, or animal research alternatives; I only cared about the assignment, the clip, and the check—and rightly so. With my limited experience, I couldn’t afford to be too choosy about work. I needed to build my portfolio and gain experience—after all, I had no journalism background and was basically learning the ropes by trial and error.

There had to be a better, easier, more lucrative way to work.

And there was. Rather than trying to cover a wide variety of subjects, I started to concentrate on a handful of topics that interested me and were a part of my life—health, fitness, nutrition, and relationships—and began developing a specialty in those areas.

In the years since then, I’ve met hundreds of other freelance writers, and have discovered that the majority of the ones who are successfully freelancing fulltime (let’s say making more than $60,000 a year) have created niches for themselves. Maybe they write about fitness and health. Or business and technology. Or food and nutrition. Or home and garden. Rather than being generalists, they’re now specializing in specific areas, and reaping the benefits of doing so. Why not consider taking a similar approach?


  1. Kelly, thank you sooo much for all of this information. You've provided a wealth of knowledge. It is always exciting to hear from successful freelancers. I've always held off on specializing, because so many things interest me, it's very hard to narrow down, and I don't want to be bypassed by any editor on anything. Is that valid? But at the same time, I need to make more money. Are you saying to definitely approach editors as a specialist? That there's no such thing anymore as a general freelance journalist (I think my journalism degree has become obsolete in this day and age!)Anxious to hear your thoughts.

  2. Great advice, Kelly! I think finding a niche is definitely the key to success in today's market. It can be a generalized niche (mine started as family and parenting) and become specific depending on experience, market demand or current events (family technology is now my specialty).

    And, a niche doesn't box you in at all - the best thing about a niche is that once you stake your claim to it, you can write about almost anything with that niche perspective! (Family) travel, (Family) movie reviews, (Family) technology, (Family) wellness - the possibilities are endless!

  3. Hi, Kristine! Do I think there are still generalists out there? Of course. But I think that with so much competition out there, you're better off pitching yourself as a specialist to get your foot in the door. You want to stand out to the editor (in a good way) and specializing helps you do that. You can always "expand" your specialty after you've proven yourself to the editor. (For example, I recently wrote a piece on social media--a topic I'd never covered--for one of my regular markets. Even though I specialize in health, fitness and nutrition, my editor knows I can handle just about anything. But I wouldn't have pitched that to a new market as it's not my regular beat. Make sense?)

  4. Hi, Sharon! Thanks for your comment...I actually thought this post was a little long but I had a lot of info to include. :) And thanks for sharing how you've grown and expanded your specialty over time...I think that's what freelancers have to do to keep up with changes in the world and with markets.

  5. Hi Kelly,

    I have a somewhat newbie question to ask you. For many years I've had this burning desire to be a writer. I have been working at jobs that aren't writing or art, the two things I love and wish to do, and I've constantly put off taking a leap. My problem is that despite all the advice you can find everywhere, I can't seem to find any steps to getting published with basically no published writing experience.

    Query letters like you suggest, are fantastic but you generally include clippings. What if you have none at all? What type of markets would be the easiest to break in to without and previous published articles?

    I want to start from the beginning... But I'm a bit lost where to go.

  6. Hi, Jen--
    When you don't have clips yet, you write the strongest query you can, preferably an idea that you have some kind of personal experience with. And look for a market that you can write for more than once--regional and trade publications are a good place for you to get your foot in the door (as opposed to national magazines, where the competition is much tougher). My first 10 sales or so were all subjects I had personal experience or a connection with, and I also demonstrated in my query how the idea was a good fit for the market (something new writers often forget). So it's not a question of recommending specific markets so much as finding one that you feel you could write for more than once, pitching an idea you have a connection with, writing a strong query, and showing the editor that it will work for her readers.

    If you haven't read Ready, Aim, Specialize! you'll find it helpful as it has two dozen sample queries, including many from first-time writers (that all led to assignments). Hope this is helpful and good luck!

  7. Thank you so much Kelly! You reply so quickly haha. I didn't expect to see you reply for a while.

    I've actually had your books for a long time, when I first decided I wanted to write some day. A few freelance writers suggested your books as a launching point.

    I think I just need to bite the bullet and start writing the queries... I tend to think too much and stall because of it. I'd like to thank you though, because your books, newsletters and blog have always been such a help to me and I hope some day I might be able to help others the way you do as well.

  8. You're very welcome, Jen, and you're've just got to bite the bullet and do it. :)