Ask a Freelancer: How Can I Switch Specialties in the Middle of My Career?By Nicole Dieker May 26th, 2015
I’m a regular contributor for a high-traffic pop culture blog. I write exclusively for one of their verticals, which launched last year. They have another vertical which overlaps with a major interest of mine—as well as the field I studied in both undergrad and grad school—and I’d like to write for that section as well. It’s a different editor but at the same publication, so I’m not sure how I need to approach this. How can freelancers convince editors to give them a chance on a new beat?
Prior to the beginning of this year, I had two major beats: personal finance and the business of freelancing. Nearly all of my clients offered me gigs that dealt, in some way, with either making or spending money.
Then I wrote a story for Boing Boing about GeekGirlCon since going to conventions is an important part of my freelance career. After that article went live, SparkLife reached out to ask if I wanted to write for its site—the audience primarily consists of geek girls, after all.
I could, at that point, have pitched SparkLife a bunch of personal finance articles meant for a teen audience. But at that time, I was really interested in the upcoming movie Into The Woods, so I pitched them the story that became “I Wish, More Than Anything, That Disney Gets Into The Woods Right.” That’s how I broke in to pop culture writing. Now I write reviews and pop culture stories for both SparkLife and The MindHut, along with my personal finance writing for my other clients.
You will make the jump easier on yourself if you gradually transition to the new vertical. For example, if you’re a science writer who wants to work on stories about movies, your best bet is to start with a story about science in movies, not a 2,000-word polemic about the greatness of Keanu Reeves.
So don’t think of your new beat as a switch. Think of it as a pitch. You’re going to expand your freelance portfolio one story at a time. The only difference is you have the advantage of trying to switch gears for a site that already knows your work well.
If a publication has hired you to write for one of its verticals, then the editorial team already respects your talent. And if you’ve been contributing regularly for months, you’re a valuable asset to your editor.
Earlier this year, when I interviewed Pacific Standard digital director Nicholas Jackson for a Scratch Magazine story on the business of freelancing, he told me the only way he can publish Pacific Standard is “to rely on writers with whom he has already developed relationships.”
The relationship you’ve developed with your editor gives you room to make the pitch for something new. Write up your pitch for a single story that’ll run under the new vertical. Include the reasons why you are the best person to write this story (your grad school experience, the fact that you played Little Red Riding Hood in Into The Woods, etc.). Then take the leap. If you’re a freelancer without a regular contributor gig, the same ideas still apply, but you’ll just have a somewhat harder time making contact with a new editor.
There’s no guarantee your idea will get accepted, but if an editor turns you down, it’s because the article you pitched isn’t what she’s looking for—not because she thinks you should only stick to your usual beat.
Should you tell your current editor that you’re pitching a new vertical? Sure, why not? Before you send your pitch, write a quick email to your contact that says, “I’ve got a story idea that I think would be great for Vertical X; do you think Editor Y would be interested?” This takes care of the courtesy of informing your current editor that you’re pitching someone else within the publication, and it gives your editor the opportunity to help you improve your pitch before you send it. More importantly, it puts your current editor on your side. Most editors I’ve come across like to see their freelancers succeed, and they’ll be happy to help in these situations.
After you complete your first story for the new vertical, continue to send new pitches to your new editor while still maintaining your workload for your original beat. You’re essentially running the Freelance Ladder play all over again, moving up the ladder one pitch at a time, except you have the benefit of a regular contributor job to keep you financially afloat as you gain experience in a new vertical.
This method, or a variation of this method, will work for all freelancers looking to switch specialties in the middle of their careers. The great thing about being a veteran is you don’t have to prove to anyone that you can write. You don’t have to prove that you can complete work on time. All you have to prove is that you’re the best person to write a specific story. That’s how sportswriter Mitch Albom sold the idea that became Tuesdays With Morrie, how visual artist and activist Molly Crabapple became a journalist reporting on Guantanamo Bay, and how I ended up reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Nicole Dieker wants to see you succeed just as much as your editors do. That’s why she is excited to answer your freelancing questions. Please send Ask A Freelancer questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.Image by Mellimage/Shutterstock