Do You Have to Be a Specialist to Succeed?

By Mark Nichol

Do you need to specialize in subject matter to be a successful writer or editor? You’ll get different answers from publishing professionals, and both “Yes” and “No” are correct. The devil’s in the details.

If you have a master’s degree or a doctorate in a particular discipline, and you’re a good writer, you will likely be in demand for your combination of subject-matter expertise, reportorial aptitude, and writing ability. Even if you lack a higher degree (or any degree), you can still develop a reputation for knowing a subject and writing well about it — it’ll just take more effort to get to that point.

Consider, too, that specializing in one topic does not negate the possibility of branching out. There’s nothing to keep a nuclear physicist from writing music reviews or financial advice on the side, or from abandoning the lab for steady work at concert venues or on Wall Street. Again, you’ll merely have a steeper climb to those locations.

Specializing can lead to security, but security can lead to stasis. You might find that the stability of your work in one niche discourages you from branching out. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether to make a permanent leap of faith into another area or whether to jump back and forth.

Keep in mind, also, that if you do choose to specialize and you don’t have an existing basis for your selection in the form of an advanced degree and/or job experience, and you have not yet decided on your particular passion, research which subject areas are saturated with writers and which niches have a shortage of subject-matter experts.

Understand, too, that assigning editors do not have a monolithic mind. Some will cling stubbornly to the notion that only a strict specialist is suitable for a particular project, while others will adventurously assign a niche article to you because they like your style, not because of your résumé.

Successful generalist writers abound, because the market is massive. Most content outside of academic journals and technical documentation does not require deep subject-matter knowledge. Writers are often required only to research a topic carefully and document their sources for verification in order to produce an authoritative article or book. And many freelance journalists choose to remain generalists because doing so allows them to flexibility to seek out a wide variety of writing assignments.

The same considerations are true for editors as well. I’ve edited scholarly tomes and quip-equipped desk calendars, magazine articles on pharmaceutical science and education reform, and newspaper columns and corporate white papers.

My two primary editing clients are book publishers; one produces trenchant, thoughtful books about social and environmental issues, and the other’s bread and butter is paid for with books about the making of Hollywood movies and histories of professional sports teams. (I’m a film buff, and though I don’t follow athletics, I know the difference, say, between a corked bat and a fungo bat. How? I looked up the terms.) I enjoy work from both sources and other diverse ones, and consider myself fortunate not to be locked into one niche.

You may feel the same, or you may prefer to specialize. The important thing to note is that the choice is not up to the market, but up to you.

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3 Responses to “Do You Have to Be a Specialist to Succeed?”

  • Mihai

    You know, the third paragraph is just genius! I am a computing student and I enjoy writing a lot! Many people have told me that I don’t have skills in this even before trying to see if I may or may not produce valuable content! Once when I was talking to my Computing teacher in high-school about a stanza which I considered to be ridiculous and ill-written she just told me that “We shouldn’t try to judge as it’s not our field of work!”. Well, so what if it isn’t?

    This article is really a mind opener for many,
    Thanks!

  • Lena

    I think understanding and having knowledge about the subject matter saves a lot of time in research. While it is beneficial to have subject knowledge, it is not an absolute necessity.

  • jennifer

    Shouldn’t “assigning editors do not have a monolithic mind” read “assigning editors do not have monolithic minds.”?

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