Freelance writers face a strategic challenge as we seek to develop our business. Consultants and marketing gurus tell us to specialize. Get known for one thing you do well. Sell that service. Let everyone know that if they want that thing—you’re the one to hire.
The problem is that, as a matter of survival, we have always had to take on varied projects. Our diversification allows us to take on many different jobs. Should we ignore our ability to write devotionals, Bible studies, culture reviews, or youth pieces in order to focus on, say, interviews?
Another factor: Many of us are genuinely interested in those many things. Our brains are wired for multi-tasking. In some cases, that’s why we’re freelancers. If we had to do only one type of writing, we’d get bored fast.
But could the consultants be right? Is our breadth keeping us from finding a successful niche? Is our desire to be everything to everyone keeping us from being anything to anyone?
I’d suggest a “both-and” approach.
- Whittle down to your best thing.
What type of writing do you enjoy most? What subjects do you know the most about? What readers do you connect with? What assignments have you received the most compliments on?
Many freelancers would have a list of ten different subjects/styles/audiences in answer to those questions. It might help to think in terms of samples. If you were asked to provide one published piece to prove your skill as a writer, what would it be? Could this help you zero in on a specialty?
If you have a list of ten possible specialties, begin the painful process of cutting it to three. Console yourself with this thought: You’re not abandoning the others; you’re just choosing your headline. You’re a shopkeeper selecting the merchandise to display in the front window. You can still sell the other stuff, but you want to present a captivating display around one theme.
- Study the market. Fill the gaps.
Do online searches. Talk to editors. Read some of your target publications. You’re looking for demand and supply. What types of writing and subject matter do publishers want? And what writers are currently filling those needs?
Perk up when an editor says, “What we really need is this.” And, frankly, if you see a subpar piece in a target publication, it may indicate a gap in the supply. Perhaps you could provide an upgrade in their capacity for that type of writing.
- Find a quality you specialize in, in addition to a genre.
What do editors want? If you don’t know this already, ask them. They want clean copy they can edit quickly. They want clear prose with a little imagination but not too much. They want deadline-meeters.
It’s possible you could sell your services completely on these terms: “I can write whatever you need. Clearly. Quickly. Correctly.” But it’s still helpful if you can create a link in editor’s minds between a particular subject and your name.
- Group your specialties. Broaden your pitch.
If you’re the world expert on Habakkuk, good luck. You might want to broaden your focus a bit. Old Testament prophets? Go broader. How about “applying biblical insights to modern issues”?
If your top three subjects are church history, missions, and pastoral leadership, you could possibly combine them into “the growth of the Christian faith around the world, in history and today.” Creative combination may help you hit several sweet spots and still craft a unique identity. When it stops making sense, you’ve stretched too far.
- Rethink your website strategy.
Many of us, myself included, have websites that are all about us. And why not? We are asking people to hire us to write for them. Shouldn’t we try to impress them with who we are? Essentially these websites are elaborate business cards, and they’re effective in making introductions.
But marketing experts are now telling us to turn the focus on our customers. What do they want that we can offer? Oh, eventually we get to trumpet our own value, but we start by identifying our clients’ need and then pitching the ways we can meet it. To do that, we need a site that doesn’t just introduce us; it markets us.
And to market ourselves well, we need to zoom in on the one thing we do better than anyone else. Establish that link in an editor’s mind, and you will get work. Later in the conversation—perhaps deeper into your website—you can add the et cetera. “Oh, yes, I also do this, this, and this. Check out my samples.” But streamline your pitch to your specialty.
A year ago, when I was an editor, I asked a writer what sorts of things he wrote. This writer—I’ll call him “Michael Foust” because, well, that’s his name—went through a litany of the subjects that we all share. But there was one specialty I heard and remembered—he did movie reviews. A few months later, our blog needed articles on some new films being released. I thought of Michael, and he delivered some great pieces. Somewhere in that process, he sent us an email pitching some other subjects he could tackle, and we signed him up for at least one of those, too.
In his case, it helped to specialize, but it didn’t mean abandoning the other things he liked to write. Maybe that can work for the rest of us, too.