Should You Specialize or Generalize?
by Moira Allen

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Q: In planning to write magazine articles, should I stick to a specific topic to start, or pursue several at once? I have several areas of knowledge and interest (dogs, nutrition and natural health, Christianity, theatre), and I'm not sure quite where to begin. Each area seems to require such an in-depth expertise that I am afraid if I don't specialize, I will not be deep enough in each "industry" to do it justice. And yet, I don't want to limit myself or my writing opportunities to one area. What do you think?"
(-- Ellen C., Kirkland, WA)

Ellen's question has no simple answer. Should one specialize in a particular area of writing, or "generalize" by targeting many different subjects and markets?

The answer depends on many factors. It depends, for example, on your goals as a writer. Do you consider writing a hobby or part-time job (or an extension of your non-writing career), or are you attempting to make a living as a freelancer? Do you want to be known as an "expert" in a particular field, or do you want your name to be known more widely?

The answer also depends upon your particular specialty. Does your area of expertise offer many marketing opportunities, or only a few? Does it require "in-depth" knowledge, or simply a measure of interest and good research skills?

There are advantages and disadvantages to both options. Knowing what these are may help you (and Ellen) make the best choice for your writing career.

Specialization

It's tempting for a new writer to concentrate on an area of familiarity. Specialization makes life easier: It allows you to focus on only one new skill (writing) rather than two (learning new information). As discussed in Taking Your Specialty for a Spin, your specialty can also help you break into certain special interest markets, where your knowledge of the subject can help compensate for your lack of writing credentials.

Specialization can also help you build a reputation as an "expert" in a particular field. This is especially useful if writing is a sideline to your primary career goal. (For example, if you're a counselor or therapist, you may write articles related to that field to enhance your reputation -- while writing articles on other topics would do little to promote your career.)

Writing within a particular field also enables you to build upon your previous work as you "climb" from lower-paying markets to better and more prestigious publications. So long as you work within that specialty, your clips will always be relevant, and editors in the field may become familiar with your reputation even before you start to work for them. You're also more likely to receive repeat assignments from publications that view you as an "expert" on their subject.

It's important, however, to choose a specialty that allows such upward mobility. If you choose to specialize, one question you should ask is "What is the market for my field?"

Ellen offers some good examples: She mentions expertise in dogs, nutrition and natural health, Christianity, and theatre. Of these, two offer excellent marketing opportunities and two offer more limited choices.

If Ellen were to specialize in "dog writing," for example, she would find that her opportunities are somewhat limited. High-paying dog publications (magazines offering from $300 to $500 for feature articles) are limited to the "big three": Dog Fancy, Dog World, and The AKC Gazette. Of these, Dog World [which is now owned by Fancy Publications] accepts very few freelance articles, Dog Fancy pays on publication, and the Gazette focuses exclusively on topics of interest to breeders and exhibitors.

Moving down the ladder, Ellen may find several smaller, even more specialized markets (e.g., Gun Dog). She'll also find that she can't sell reprints of articles published in "the big three" to smaller markets (such as Good Dog), because the smaller magazines assume that their readers may already have read the larger publications. Finally, she'll find that the market for dog-related articles outside the pet market is fairly limited.

If Ellen is seeking a career as a pet care professional, these issues may not be important to her, because any articles she sells to the pet magazines will enhance her career (and primary, non-writing source of income). If Ellen is trying to make a career as a writer, however, she'll find that this area may be too limiting.

On the other hand, if Ellen chooses to specialize in "nutrition and natural health," her options will be much broader. She'll find dozens of health magazines on the market, and she'll also find this topic in demand among a wide range of women's magazines. She may also be able to tailor this topic to other types of publications, such as sports magazines, outdoor publications, country living markets, etc. She could also combine this specialty with another area of expertise -- Christianity -- and pitch articles on natural health and nutrition to the many Christian publications on the market. She could even write about natural health care for dogs!

This example illustrates both the advantages and the dangers of specialization. Choose a topic that is too narrow, and you'll find yourself "stuck," no matter how well-known you become in the field. Choose a broader topic, however, and you may find that your reputation as an "expert" leads to many worthwhile opportunities.

Generalization

The benefits of generalization are simple: The more subjects you can write about effectively, the more marketing opportunities you'll find. If you're serious about making a living as a freelance writer, generalization can help ensure that you never run out of markets to write for.

Generalization can be a good approach if you don't want your name associated exclusively with one type of writing. Perhaps you enjoy writing about dogs -- but you don't want to be known as a "pet writer," because you fear this label will hinder your ability to convince editors that you can write about other topics. You may also want to build a more diverse portfolio of clips that will reflect your ability to handle a wide range of topics.

Generalization requires good writing and research skills. When you generalize, you won't always be able to rely on your own expertise; instead, you'll have to learn how to ask the right questions about subjects you know very little about. Since you're not an "expert," you'll need to find good interview sources. Most of all, you need a willingness to take chances -- to say "yes" to article assignments that may take you out of your comfort zone of familiarity.

While this can mean more work, it also means that once editors can rely on you to turn in well-researched articles on a range of topics, your range of assignments is likely to increase. Nor do you have to worry about the limitations of your "niche": The market is wide open. You may write for a dog magazine today, a health magazine tomorrow, and a Christian publication next week.

Generalization also has its downside, however. When you generalize, you lose the advantages associated with being recognized as an "expert" on a particular subject. As Ellen suggests, for some publications, "depth" is an important criteria for a writer. Generalization may also be a disadvantage if you hope to write a nonfiction book, by making it difficult for you to demonstrate topical credentials to a publisher (or to your audience).

As I said before, there is no "one size fits all" answer to this question. Either decision will open some doors -- and close others (or at least make them more difficult to enter). Perhaps the best answer is: Never allow anyone else to tell you that you "should" choose a particular option based upon another person's experience. This is a decision you must make for yourself, based upon your interests, upon your goals, and most of all, upon what will bring you happiness and fulfillment as a writer.

Find Out More...

Take Your Specialty for a Spin, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/basics/specialty.shtml

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

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Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

 

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