How to Change Your Freelance Beat in the Middle of Your CareerBy Nicole Dieker June 3rd, 2021
When I first started out as a freelance writer, my posts covered everything from train travel to musical theater to career advice for aspiring comedians. But at a certain point, I began writing more and more about personal finance, and suddenly I became known as a personal finance writer.
Once you’ve established yourself as a particular style of writer, clients may start to ask you to do more of the same type of work. It’s easy to get pigeonholed as a journalist who specializes in healthcare, a ghostwriter who works with thought leaders, or a blogger with a focus on lifestyle design.
But for many freelancers, writing about the same thing day in and day out can lead to stagnancy or even boredom. When your career has reached a certain point, you may begin wondering whether you can break out of the beat—and the brand—you’ve worked so hard to develop. Luckily, it’s possible to switch up your freelance beat without losing your reputation, pausing your income stream, or making a complete career change.
Here are a few steps you can take to establish a new beat and a few new clients.
Start pitching (again)
When looking to break into a new topic or industry, approach the process like you’re just starting out as a freelancer. That means proactively pitching versus sitting back and fielding assignments. Research publications and organizations that publish the kind of writing you want to do, figure out whether they accept unsolicited submissions, and craft the perfect pitch. The skills you’ve learned over the years will come in handy here.
Many editors are happy to accept quality pitches from established freelancers, even if the story is outside someone’s wheelhouse. “I’m an editor for two online magazines, and I work with freelance writers on a regular basis,” said Corina Onet, editor for Chef’s Pencil and My Affordable Luxury magazine. “I don’t have any issues working with writers that pitch stories outside their main area of expertise, as long as the articles are engaging and well-researched.”
When I served as a senior editor at The Billfold, I also had no problem working with freelancers pitching outside of their primary beat or brand. Instead, I evaluated incoming pitches on two basic criteria:
- Is this story strong enough to engage our readers?
- Does this writer have a plan for executing the piece?
In both cases, a writer’s beat rarely came into consideration. Instead, I evaluated the pitch email and any attached clips to get a sense of the writer’s style and decide whether they had the skills to execute their plan.
Reach out to your network
Mid-career freelancers often have long-term relationships with anchor clients that provide steady income. If you’re a writer who specializes in a popular niche like personal finance or B2B marketing, you’ve probably started to get inbound client requests from businesses who have seen your work and want you to do the same kind of writing for them.
With a well-established network, covering a new area may be as simple as reaching out to the editors you know and letting them know what you want to write about. But be prepared to show a clear connection between the work you’ve done in the past and the work you’d like to do in the future.
Be prepared to show a connection between the work you’ve done in the past and the work you’d like to do in the future.
As I mentioned, a lot of editors think of me as a personal finance writer. So when I began pursuing stories that had more of a science angle, like the piece I successfully pitched about how to use deliberate practice—a learning methodology for mastering a new behavior or skill—to improve your writing, I noted that it was a natural evolution from the habit formation pieces I had previously written for Lifehacker. I also made sure to link to a few posts I’d written about deliberate practice on my personal blog to prove that I had enough knowledge to pull off the transition.
Paulette Perhach, a writer who covers everything from personal finance to yoga, was able to land a ghostwriting gig after letting her network know she was looking for additional clients. She successfully pitched a major writing center in Seattle—a departure from the tech clients she had taken on in the past. Now, The Writer’s Welcome Kit is one of the most important work examples in her portfolio.
Publish your own writing
The old adage about careers is that you need to have experience to get experience. But the good thing about freelance writing is that you can demonstrate your skills by publishing your own work.
Journalist, author, and PR expert Sharon Geltner recommended putting as much of the kind of writing you want to do out into the world as possible. That may mean launching a Substack, posting articles to Medium, or even self-publishing a book.
“A writer can demonstrate their expertise to cover a given field by self-publishing a book on Amazon about the subject,” Geltner said. “Quote experts in the field and keep the chapters short with catchy titles.”
Geltner also suggested that writers look for beat-building opportunities that don’t involve writing—like speaking at the local Rotary or Kiwanis club. The more you establish yourself as an expert in a field, the more likely you are to get writing opportunities that let you to build on that expertise.
Perhach is as comfortable ghostwriting for celebrities as she is writing for Vice or The New York Times. She enjoys the variety that being a generalist has afforded her. “I like to do a lot of different kinds of work,” she said. “I want to write about everything.”
At this point in her career, Perhach lands New York Times stories on topics as varied as cybersecurity careers and the Japanese denim industry. She’s able to do so because she’s established one of the most important skills a freelancer can have—the ability to tell a compelling story on nearly any topic.
“I think of my brand as curiosity.”
“The New York Times special section editor told me that she likes to work with writers who are versatile,” Perhach explained.
This skill can send all kinds of work your way, and it can also make editors more likely to accept your next pitch—even if it’s unlike anything you’ve ever written about before.
What gets lost when we focus too hard on topical expertise is that freelancers can also specialize in types of stories. Maybe you’re great at investigative reporting that deals with hot-button issues. Or you’ve mastered the celebrity profile. (Or maybe both?) To develop versatility, return to the mindset that helped you build your freelance career in the first place: A willingness to take on any subject and make it gold.
“I think of my brand as curiosity,” Perhach said. “I’m looking to pursue big stories.”Image by Oleg Lyfar