Make your Own Niche:

How to Create a Writing Specialty

By Kelly James-Enger

When I started freelancing seven years ago, I wrote about a variety of subjects. I wrote real estate advertorials for the local paper, copy for brochures for small businesses, and magazine articles on topics that ranged from new developments in treating urinary tract infections to "10 reasons to date a shy guy". I had plenty of work, but I wasn't very efficient.

About four years ago, I changed my approach. I decided to focus my writing in several areas—primarily health, fitness, nutrition, and bridal writing—and that decision has paid off. I spend less time researching queries and articles, I know where to find experts and relevant information and data, and knowing of my specialty, editors often call me with health, fitness and nutrition assignments. Even better, I make twice as much money while working fewer hours than before.

Want to set yourself apart from other freelancers, nab better-paying assignments, and spend less time at your computer? Develop a writing specialty, and you can do all of the above. Contrary to what you might think, you needn't be an M.D., or other recognized "expert" to focus your writing in a particular area. Your educational background, life experience, and interest in certain subjects can all be translated into a writing-related specialty.

What Makes You Special?

When I teach magazine writing, I have students write down at least five things that they have specialized knowledge or interest in. Make a list of your own unique qualifications to help you start thinking about what you're bringing to the table when you pitch a story.

For example, have you traveled the world? Lived in different parts of the United States? Raised children? Dealt with a chronic medical condition? Are you an avid gardener? Can you whip up fantastic dinners in thirty minutes' time? Have you run your own business? Do you have first-hand knowledge of a particular industry, trade or profession? What are your hobbies? Who are your friends, family members, coworkers and colleagues? What sorts of specialized knowledge do they have?

Creating a list of these subjects will often trigger story ideas and will give you an idea of the many areas in which you have a background that other writers may not. For example, when I created a list of my own in a recent writing workshop, I came up with the following:

• My dad is a dentist;
• I've been a runner for 16 years;
• My sister is a police officer;
• I'm a vegetarian; and
• I'm a lawyer.

Even a quick look at this list reveals that I have some unique knowledge I can use when pitching and writing articles. Granted, there's probably not a huge demand for articles about vegetarian attorneys, but I do know more about teeth than the average person. Not only is my dad a dentist, I even worked as a dental receptionist at his office between college and law school. This doesn't mean that I'm a dental expert by any means, but when I was writing about canker sores and had a quick question, I knew who to ask.

If I have questions about law enforcement or how the criminal justice system works, I can ask my sister. Maybe I'll pitch an article on how to avoid speeding tickets, or what homeowners should do to reduce their risk of being burgled or becoming a victim of crime. Stephie can answer these questions and lead me to other experts or sources of information I might not otherwise know about.

And my years of running have given me an endless supply of story ideas. I've written about using heart rate monitors, stretching for flexibility, and how to get more out of your workouts. The fact that I pay attention to what I eat (and eventually became a vegetarian) led to stories about easy ways to eat better, overcoming the biggest diet pitfalls, the negative emotional consequences of constant dieting, and a slew of weight-loss stories. Again, I'm not a fitness or nutrition expert per se, but my longstanding interest in both subjects gives me a depth of knowledge that the average writer simply doesn't have. Can I call it a specialty? Sure thing.

Get Ready, Set, Specialize!

Ready to create your own writing niche? There are basically three ways to do it. You can specialize from the outset; you can wind up specializing without really intending to; or you can consciously decide to specialize after you've already been writing for a while.

Some writers consciously choose a niche at the beginning of their careers to set themselves apart from other writers in the field. If you're a new writer, this can be an effective way of getting your foot in the door. Melba Newsome, a freelancer in Matthews, North Carolina, was working fulltime as a paralegal when she decided to start writing. She found the process frustrating at first. "When I was trying to break into magazines, I kept getting rejected or heard nothing back at all. I got absolutely nowhere sending out service or health ideas," says Newsome. "Then I pitched true life stories and got a response. I got my first assignment for a national magazine—Family Circle—with a true life story. I continued writing everything but realized that I had much better batting average with these types of stories."

Newsome decided to focus on finding and writing stories that the editors wouldn't be able to come with on their own. "It was clear that so many of the lifestyle or general interest ideas were generated in-house. But there was no one at the editorial meetings saying ‘I have a great story about a woman who was in a harem for 6 months,'" she explains. "They needed writers on the ground and outside of New York for that. That was me!" In the years since then, she's written more than fifty true-life stories for magazines including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Essence, Good Housekeeping, and Family Circle. Her unique niche and the fact that she's willing to dig to find stories have made her invaluable to editors—and ensures a constant stream of work.

Other writers, like Kathy Sena of Manhattan Beach, California, simply fall into niches that complement their backgrounds and skills. Sena, a former technical writer and editor, started freelancing fulltime in 1994 with sales to Weight Watchers and Cosmopolitan. In the years since then, she's written hundreds of articles about health, lifestyle, and parenting. She says her specialties have helped open new markets to her and boosted her income as well.

"I write two syndicated health columns for United Parenting Publications, a group of 27 regional parenting magazines. That helped me break into markets such as the L.A. Times health section and Shape magazine," says Sena. "In addition to getting more assignments, I'm able to get higher rates for my work because of specializing. Also, when you specialize, you tend to more-quickly build up a Rolodex full of great contacts — which leads to more article ideas and more work." While Sena continues to write in her areas of interest, she's branching out into other areas as well—she's started writing essays as well, and has had several published in Woman's Day.

Finally, many writers start out as generalists before deciding to concentrate in one or more areas. Freelancer Sam Greengard of Burbank, California wrote for a variety of national consumer magazines, writing about "pretty much anything and everything" until about ten years ago. "At that point, I recognized that was a pretty huge opportunity in business and technology writing, so I made a conscious effort to focus on business and tech," says Greengard, who had a business background as well as in interest in technological issues. "I never told anyone that I wouldn't work for them. I simply stopped pitching editors in the general interest arena and began focusing on business and technology. It probably took about 3-4 years to really take off."

Greengard's choice of specialties have allowed him to develop a lucrative niche and a stable of regular clients who come to him for business and technology assignments for consumer, trade, custom and corporate publications. He's also improved his productivity because stories take him less time to report and write. "Over the years, you conduct interviews, you read the trade magazines, you read material on the internet, and you develop a pretty strong body of knowledge," says Greengard. "By specializing I've developed a body of knowledge, so I don't have to go reinvent the wheel every time or have to research a topic I know nothing about—chances are I know something about it and I know enough to ask the right questions."

No matter what type of writing you do, you only have a limited number of hours in the day to create your work. Specializing can help you make the most of that time, set you apart from the thousands of other writers out there, and improve your bank balance. Consider how you can mine your own life experience and background to create a lucrative niche of your own.
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.