What Every Writer Needs To Know About Becoming A Specialist-writer

If you are already working as a writer, even if you’re not supporting yourself in that field yet, you’ve probably heard the argument of specialist versus generalist. In simple terms, a specialist is a writer who focuses on a narrow area of expertise. In other words, he or she specializes in a certain subject. The generalist, on the other hand, takes a more expansive view of things and writes on whatever subjects come along.

If your goal is to be a professional writer now or in the near future or even just to make some part-time money as a writer, you need to decide where you intend on finding work and how you’ll get it. Are you going to look everywhere and accept just about anything of interest? Then you’re a generalist. Or are you going to narrow your sites and concentrate on certain topics? That’s a specialist.

You can decide to generalize or specialize based on your personality, your whim, or the circumstances, but it is sounder business (and writing is a business) to make a conscious choice.

So which is the better choice? The answer may surprise you.

On the surface, it would appear that a generalist can earn more simply because he or she is more open to work from all sources. After all, if you specialize in a narrow field, you are immediately limiting the number and types of assignments for which you’ll qualify.

However, a generalist can have a tough time finding work! It can be harder for a generalist writer to land assignments than a specialist, simply because the specialist can sell his or her expertise in the field.

For instance, I specialize in medical writing. That immediately precludes me from a lot of writing assignments. However, when medical writing jobs come up, I have a very focused portfolio of previous articles and projects to present. I know the lingo. I have a lot of contacts in the field. My references are great; in some fields, I have references that my editors often know personally or know about.

In some situations, I can wow a potential customer by showing him examples of my writing and past projects that track very closely to what he is asking me to do. This kind of calling card is very powerful. When you know the lingo, know the turf, and can prove you can handle the job, it is hard to lose out on an assignment.

If a generalist were to apply for the same writing gig at the same time, I’d blow the generalist out of the water.

By the same token, if the writing assignment were on raising kids, I’d be on even footing with the generalist, if I bothered to apply at all.

In terms of landing a job, there is really no scenario where the generalist has the edge over the specialist.

Now you could argue that the generalist can make it up with volume. After all, a generalist is free to pursue just about any writing assignment that comes along. He can write about raising horses, traveling to Iceland, or how to buy your first home. I’m limited to medical.

But medical is actually pretty broad! If you specialize, don’t hesitate to specialize in a “big” field. I once knew a woman who embarked on a writing career with the most narrow specialization I’d ever heard of. She was going to write solely about 19th century German immigrants to Fayette County, Texas. Okay, she didn’t make much of a career out of that, but that’s a great example of getting over-zealous with specialization! She might have succeeded had she specialized in writing about Texas. Or about writing about 19th century historical subjects.

Specialists need to keep a specialty that’s focused but not so narrow that there are only one or two potential jobs that come along in a year. Medicine is a great specialty. It includes cardiology, pediatrics, the healthcare crisis, patient advocacy, geriatrics, dermatology, and just about anything else you can think of that involves health. Plus there are lots of businesses in this field and I write a lot for business as well as for publishers.

Other great specialties might be real estate, business, politics, or music.

Once a generalist and a specialist have landed assignments, the specialist has another edge. Specialists already know the basics in their field. As a medical writer, I know the lingo and the research methods. The projects that I work on rarely require me to do much general research, read too many articles, or even look up new words and terminology. I have a lot of contacts in certain fields, so I’m not always scrambling to get some good interviews or fabulous quotes. I don’t have the queasy feeling that generalists sometimes get when they’re writing about a subject they don’t know.

This isn’t to say a generalist cannot do a good job. But it takes longer. As an example, let’s assume I were to tackle an assignment on how to grow roses on the Gulf Coast; since I am no gardener, this would cause me to have to do a lot of general background researc. I could probably do a decent job on the article, but I’d need a lot of time and lot more effort than a person who specialized in writing about gardening topics (and who likely had already done some articles already on roses and gardening in extreme climates).

Specialists get good at snowballing one assignment into another. A patient pamphlet on breast cancer can become a springboard for my suggestions to do a pamphlet for breast cancer patients’ families, particularly kids of women with breast cancer. I could then take that same body of research and pitch some newspaper or magazine articles on the ramifications of breast cancer for the whole family. This might lead to some articles for cancer patients’ websites. And I might be able to approach a pharmaceutical company that makes a drug for breast cancer patients and show them the body of work I’ve done and be able to work on projects for them, like patient education slides or the script for a take-home DVD.

That’s not an exaggeration. Specializing allows you to get in deep into a subject and then see how one topic and one assignment flows naturally into another.

Specialization makes it easier to get assignments, faster to complete assignments, and helps to keep generating assignments. In fact, many specialists are so well known to companies, editors, and other buyers of writing that they don’t pitch stories at all any more, but just try to keep up with assignments that are handed to them. A good specialist can spend more time writing (that is, making money) and less time marketing (that is, spending money and time).

But many writers balk at the idea of specialization. I’ve even heard people say that the reason they wanted to write in the first place was in order to do lots of new things. They fear that specialization will put them in a rut. There iis a bit of truth to the rut argument. Medical writers are rarely asked to review movies, write about designer hand bags, or cover the scandal of executive compensation in major businesses. So what if you want to be more of a Renaissance man or woman and write of many things?

You can try multiple specialties. In this method, you take the best of both worlds of specialist and generalist. You pick two or three subjects that interest you. Don’t pick too many more than that or you’ll lose focus. Then you develop depth in them so that you get some expert-level status.

You can pick art, business, and home renovation. Or medicine, travel, and childcare. Or whatever two or three topics grab you. Ideally, they should be far removed from each other, since you can dilute your specialty by playing it too wide. For instance, I write about medicine but I don’t ever write about alternative medicine. Why? If my medical editors knew I was writing about acupuncture or other therapies they might not approve of, it would make me seem less of an authority.

So if you’re going to write about business, don’t write about “get rich quick” businesses as well as the Fortune 500. If you’re going to write about travel, don’t write stories about “everybody is out to gyp you” and then write stories about cruises and hotels. If you write about losing weight sensibly, don’t also write about “lose 10 pounds overnight” miracle pills. You need to establish not only a specialty but some boundaries for that specialty.

Some writers with multiple specialties actually use different names for each field, but that is probably not necessary. If you work in two very different specialties, you’ll not see a lot of overlap in terms of editors or experts, so there is no need to go cloak-and-dagger.

But if you are interested in writing as a business, specialization is the more profitable angle. You’ll develop extensive and impressive credentials, have a Rolodex full of very important contacts, and recycle your body of work into multiple assignments much more efficiently than a generalist!

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