For professional writers, specialties are double-edged swords. A niche can be as confining as it is empowering. So where exactly is the line?
“You can’t get by anymore just writing about one thing,” said lifestyle writer Jenna Birch. “If you try to do that, you are closing yourself off to a host of publications. You need to adapt to new topics by cultivating clips and expert topics.”
According to freelance writer Connie K. Ho, there’s a balance that needs to be achieved — there’s more to the business of writing than simply having or not having a niche.
“I believe that having a niche can be useful, as you can show that you’re an expert in the topic and you develop a network of people to use as sources,” Ho said. “However, it’s also good to be able to write about other topics to expand your range and writing opportunities. Like everything else in life, it’s a balancing act in terms of writing articles in your niche but also writing about other topics as well.”
“I read something once that said you should have two kinds of writing going on at once: the projects that you love and the projects that pay the bills,” she said. “Honestly, I think having a true niche and sticking just to that niche will harm you.”
Birch suggests that writers need to develop the ability to expand beyond just one specific kind of assignment to build a true career.
“You have to spread your wings,” she said. “I like this approach: always having something in the works that you really, really love crafting – maybe an essay or investigative piece – and then bread-and-butter work, which for me covers topics from parenting to health. That way, it’s constantly fresh.”
Value in a personal brand
Every writer needs an elevator pitch, and in this respect, a niche may seem helpful. As Birch explains, however, there’s more substance to it.
“Since I had no clips when I started, I spent 12-hour days scouring online job boards for work – places like NYC/LA Craigslist and ed2010 – figuring eventually I’d stumble upon someone willing to give an unproven writer a shot,” Birch said. “I focused on what I knew best, especially related to the publications I read most, and targeted fashion-writing jobs.”
“I think having a true niche and sticking just to that niche will harm you.”
Specialization was Birch’s entry into the field, but was far from her ultimate goal. From day one, she committed to growing her brand.
“I focused on fashion initially but never wanted to box myself into that,” she said. “I never considered myself a ‘fashion writer’ or anything like that. I always kept all options available and was so open-minded about opportunities.”
Where a niche can help you is in the ability to develop a network of contacts.
“I could my focus on health topics as I was working at a health clinic, and I felt I could bring my experience in the healthcare industry to my writing as well as to build off of my contacts,” Ho said.
It comes down to confidence & credibility
Ambition, tenacity, and determination are Birch’s key driving forces.
“If a new site or assignment came along, I’d think: Can I do this? Do I know enough about it? Can I handle this job? The answer was always yes,” she said. “I am perpetually curious and endlessly inquisitive, so I think I’ve always gone into assignments knowing at least a little about the topic. If I don’t know enough? I research.”
Birch’s words of wisdom — don’t jump into a niche just because you’re scared, and quit making excuses. Fear and self-doubt will only hold you back.
“With all the resources you have available to gather information, fear is just an excuse and a scapegoat,” she said. “In terms of qualities that helped me develop a reputation, I think it all boils down to one thing: never saying no. Be that writer. Be up for any assignment, able to find any source, willing to tackle any edits. I will pitch if the editor wants more ideas, I will turn things around quickly, I will find a way to produce a high-quality, polished piece every time.”
Ho emphasizes that it’s important to focus on your credibility beyond your specialty.
“In the beginning, it was difficult because I hadn’t established relationships or credibility with other publications,” Ho said. “However, once I started writing, turning in articles in a timely manner, and following up with editors, I believe it showed the organizations that I was someone who could be trusted and depended on.”
And When Things Aren’t Perfect?
“There’s always temptation to put something off, say no, or raise the white flag if something isn’t going your way,” Birch said. “Don’t do it. Things are going to go wrong; do everything in your power to turn things around, and make them go right.”
Don’t let your niche hold you back.
Image courtesy of fdecomite/flickr