The Generalist vs. The Specialist

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One of the biggest problems facing modern day freelance writers is whether to spread out and write on a variety of subjects, or whether to specialise in markets they are able to “expert” in.

It’s a problem both for established writers as well as those starting out, because while it may be the route to job satisfaction for one writer, it may also be the road to a life of boredom for another.

One thing for certain is that both generalising and specialising have equal pros and cons, which should all be considered before attempting to switch from one to the other.

A lot of writers choose to begin their careers by marketing themselves generally, and then making the gradual move to working in more specialised fields, but it is not uncommon for specialist writers to go in the other direction so they can broaden their portfolio, or if they have explored every avenue, to seek out new areas in which they may wish to specialise.

In this article we will explore further the benefits to writing in both fields in more detail.

The General Writer

Writing general articles across a broad spectrum of subjects is an excellent way for new freelancers to gain experience. It allows for never ending opportunities in the type of work taken on, and it means the writer can spread their wings and try new things without the fear of restriction. It also means they can ditch what doesn’t work in favour of what does if they feel it isn’t working out.

Once a few writing gigs have been successfully completed, a new writer’s portfolio can quickly grow, and when the chance for higher paying gigs or the option of specialisation present themselves, the writer will have a healthy clippings folder from which to choose from in order to boost their chance at bagging their next big gig.

Generalisation means a writer is totally unrestricted to most kinds of work other than, of course, specialised fields, and it also affords the writer an extremely enjoyable way to make a living. Moving from subject to subject, researching new and topics, and exploring new ideas, means every day in the freelancer’s life will never be dull. It’s a marvelous way to meet new and interesting people, and to broaden one’s horizons.

This of course can present its own problems when it comes to the time it takes to carry out this research and turn articles around, so be wary of taking on new subjects under tight deadlines.

And finally, after working within the general field of freelance writing a writer will discover exactly what subjects turn them on, and what ones hold them back. It is an excellent way of discovering what areas may be considered if a move to specialisation is favoured. Experiences gained writing generally can often help the writer decide which areas to specialise in at a future date.

The Specialist Writer

Specialist freelance writing calls for a different kind of writer, either one who already is a specialist in a particular field, maybe after having come to writing from another industry, or for those writers who have exhausted themselves generally and now wish to narrow the markets in which they write.

Freelance writers who specialise are often able to create a niche for themselves within a particular market, which although may sound restrictive, can have many benefits. Among these is the opportunity to class yourself as an expert, meaning people, and more importantly editors, will take you more seriously.

If an editor takes you seriously as a talented writer who knows a particular topic inside out, he or she is going to be more inclined to keep using you as a source of articles – provided you meet their deadlines and publication requirements. This in turn means more work, and eventually, an ongoing relationship with an editor or publisher, which is something every freelance writer dreams of – a steady source of income.

Establishing yourself as a guru and making a name for yourself also opens up many doors when it comes to self-publicity. A successful freelance specialist writer can use this background to market him or herself through other websites of a similar nature, thus cementing their reputation.

As with general freelance writing, specialisation also means a writer has a never ending source of markets to choose from. Where your career lies will depend on what your specialist knowledge is, so it is important to choose those subjects in which you know best, and feel you could talk about for hours on end.

Some writers refuse to specialise citing the lack of exposure to new markets as their main foible, but for those who do, there are as many who say that writing in a field they feel passionate about gives them the opportunity to be able to expand even further on their knowledge.

And for any specialist writer, the questions that must first be asked are; what do you know well, where do your main interests lie, and can you write about these things on an on-going basis and keep it interesting?

No matter how you choose to further your career in freelance writing one thing is always certain – it’s a fascinating and liberating way of life.

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7 thoughts on “The Generalist vs. The Specialist”

  1. The one thing about being a specialist writer that is easier is keeping on top of new things and events in your field. There are fewer newsletters to read, few articles, etc. Also, you will be paid more (usually) if the world thinks of you as an expert. Of course, you have to put in the time (years) in your field first to have credibility, but I think it’s worth it.

  2. John, some authors prefer to use “they” in order to avoid being biased, with the “he” or “she.”

    We discussed that extensively here

    Personally I still prefer to use “his” or “him,” though, at the risk of being considered sexist 🙂 .

  3. I enjoy writing in different areas, and follow whatever interests me.

    That said, I also keep a list of what I call “Areas of Specialized Knowledge”, which is a list of topics in which I have extensive experience and contacts gained over the years.

    When pitching for some assignments, especially in the case of jobbing in with a media firm that has a variety of clients, including the list in the pitch package is helpful.

  4. I am very much hoping you might be able to help me contact John May of the Generalist.I have tried to contact him on [email protected] but have been unsucessful.I would be extremely grateful for any information you might have.
    Many Thanks
    Kathy James

  5. I liked the article! The specialist and general aspects of a writing career have been thoroughly dealt. My decision to be a copywriter
    has given me a niche which gives me lot of pride and a living too.
    I can bank on my 12 yrs of experience to give the needed positioning to any product or service( strategy) and can talk endlessly about it.
    Thanks for reinfocing the idea of a specialist!

  6. Make it more clear on the comparative analysis between newspaper writing and specialized writing. Many thanks!

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