Narrow your Focus: Why Writers Should Specialize

By Kelly James-Enger

Want to set yourself from other freelancers? Save time pitching, researching, and writing stories? Create a lucrative niche for yourself? And best of all, make more money as a freelancer?

I have one word for you: "specialize."

When I started my fulltime freelance writing career seven years ago, I employed what I now call the "saturation bombing" technique. I queried every magazine I could think of with a wide variety of ideas. At one point, I had 54 queries out--yet few were assigned. Those that were assigned covered the gamut of topics from business articles to bridal pieces to personal finance stories. Nearly every article concerned a subject new to me, so each time I wrote one, I spent hours researching and learning about the topic so I could write about it with authority.

Finally, I got smart, and started focusing my energies on three basic areas: health, fitness and nutrition. In the process, I quadrupled my income, broke into high-paying markets like Health, Redbook, Self, and Modern Maturity, and hit the six-figure mark for the first time as a freelancer. By choosing to focus on lucrative writing specialties, you can do the same.

In The Beginning...

So, what specialty is right for you? Think back to what you first wrote about--many freelancers find that their first assignments involve subjects that they're already familiar with. The same was true for me--my first article sale was to Cosmopolitan magazine. I wrote a service-oriented piece about how to survive your "last two weeks" at a job after you've given your notice. I had first-hand experience with this subject--as an unhappy lawyer, I had changed firms several times during my short career, each time hoping that the new job would be the right fit for me.

This trend continued--most of the first twenty or so articles I wrote were inspired by personal experiences. Looking back, I now realize that I was pitching fitness ideas early in my writing career. That's not surprising--I've been a runner for eighteen years, during which time I've competed in marathons and shorter races. My hobby unintentionally turned into a writing niche--and soon after, I branched into nutrition and women's health as well.

You're No Expert? Think Again...

You say you don't have a PhD? You don't need one to focus your writing in a particular area. Your educational background, life experience, and interest in certain subjects can all be translated into writing-related specialties. When I teach magazine writing, I have students list at least five subjects that they have specialized knowledge of or an interest in. Make a list of your own to get you started thinking about possible specialties.

For example, if you're a parent, you can easily turn your childcare knowledge into a specialty. Janet Mazur, a freelancer in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, had written about a variety of subjects. When she became a parent, she decided to add parenting and child care articles to her list of writing areas.

"It seemed a logical transition," says Mazur. "And frankly, I've written partially for selfish purposes when it comes to parenting. For example, there are so many things I wanted to know and a new mom, at home by choice, I yearned to connect with other women in the same boat." Mazur's first parenting story was a feature for a newspaper on how new moms could hook up with each other.

Another benefit of choosing a specialty that reflects your life is that you're often provided with an inexhaustible supply of story ideas. "It is one of the unexpected bonuses of having children and being a writer--a gift, really," says Mazur. "Children are an easy source, an endless well of ideas, because they change and grow all the time."

Creating Your Specialty

If you have experience in a particular industry, use it. My legal background led to stories on what brides should know about signing contracts with caterers, ways that small business owners can protect themselves from discrimination claims, and techniques that freelancers can use to negotiate contracts with editors. Writers who have experience in one field can use that as a stepping stone to others as well.

Joan Lisante, an attorney based in Oakton, Virginia, started her freelance career by publishing a humorous essay in several newspapers. She then realized that her legal background gave her a unique perspective on legal and business topics--and soon after, branched out to write about medical and technology subjects as well. Specializing has made her more efficient in her research and writing.

"I know lots of lawyers, so I don't have much trouble digging up legal experts," Lisante explains. "Even in medical writing, where I started out knowing no one, I've built a group of doctors I can contact for future articles. That's the bonus of a niche--getting that network established, so subsequent articles aren't as 'from scratch'."

You're not limited to one specialty, either. Bob Bittner of Charlotte, Michigan, writes about a variety of subjects, but he's creating a niche for himself writing about animals. "I wanted to break into Family Circle and I wanted to develop a specialty writing about animals and pets (yes, we have two cats)," says Bittner. "I had noticed that Family Circle ran a regular "Pets" column, so I thought that was a good place to pitch, rather than trying to break in with an investigative health piece or a "Women Who Make a Difference" story. Also, I figured that they'd get fewer well-targeted (and fresh) ideas for that section, so mine would really stand out. I must have done something right. My first pitch resulted in an assignment."

With clips of several pet articles in hand, Bob's now pitching to conservation markets as well. "For me, it's a matter of, first, wanting to make a living writing about things that interest me," says Bittner. "Following each of those interests results in developing a variety of specialties."

Will you create a specialty from the outset or choose a niche after you've had a chance to write about a variety of topics? The choice is yours. By pitching yourself as a writer with a unique background and specialized knowledge, however, you'll boost your profile with editors and increase the likelihood that you'll be offered an assignment. And in today's marketplace, with so many writers competing for stories, that factor can only work to your advantage.

Freelance journalist Kelly James-Enger is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003.) She can be reached through her website at:

© 2007 Kelly James-Enger All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.