Jack of all trades, master of none? Maybe. Maybe not.
To niche or not to niche, that is the question. Fiction and commercial writers, journalists and playwrights, beginners of all kinds and established professionals in every writing field – each of them wrestles with the quandary of whether or not to specialize their work around a particular genre, topic, industry, format, style, voice, etc.
If you’ve ever tried to crack the specialist/generalist code, you know what a complex question it is. There are myriad pros and cons on both sides of the debate, and those benefits and pitfalls change as business models evolve (something that seems to be happening at an increasingly rapid pace). Your position on the matter can also shift quickly depending on if and how you’re experiencing success with your writing. The resolve of a die-hard specialist can waver with the temptations of juicy projects and pay days that fall outside of her specialist “wheelhouse.” Conversely, a dyed-in-the-wool generalist can suddenly wake up one morning to find she’s become a specialist without meaning to just because she’s taken a succession of similar assignments.
But, what if you didn’t have to draw such a hard line? Unlike Yankee fans vs. Red Sox fans, there is some gray area between the generalist and specialist camps. Much like some pantsters do a little plotting and most plotters do a little pantsting, there are generalists who have some specialties and specialists with some generalist breadth to their skill set.
But, before we explore those adaptive variations, let’s talk a little bit about the two main contenders.
The generalist or “jack of all trades” is the writer who takes on almost any assignment. I don’t have any official stats to back me up, but I’d guess that most writers start their careers as generalists. In the beginning, you’re excited to have any assignment. You don’t really care all that much what you’re writing as long as it comes with a valuable byline or a decent paycheck. And, that’s totally okay.
The first step I call out in my post Five Often Overlooked Steps to Becoming a Freelance Content Marketer is: “Say YES.” That’s just what I did. Even when I wasn’t totally sure what I was being asked to do, I said yes and worried about figuring things out later. Sometimes it was a little stressful, but for the most part this approach afforded me a great self-education.
The well-known phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” definitely has a derogatory tone, but on the flip side of the coin is the concept of the “Renaissance Man” – someone who explores many different areas, creating a richly textured life. Proponents of the specialist approach argue that being a generalist makes it harder to compete and handicaps a writer’s ability to fulfill her potential, but there are actually many benefits to developing a broad (vs. deep) range of writing skills.
- Because you have not honed your skills around a particular expertise, you don’t have a way to either stand out from the crowd or make a strong case for yourself vs. another writer.
- Being a generalist means you’re up against a much bigger pool of competitors. Instead of being a big fish in a small pond, you’re a tiny fish in a huge pond.
- Some specialists suggest that generalists dabble in many areas instead of focusing on one as a way to avoid failure. The idea is that if you don’t fully commit to one specialty, you never have to worry about being the best and can just coast along as a kind of glorified hobbyist.
- Generalists typically can’t charge rates as high as a specialist’s because they don’t have any way to justify the greater expense.
- Generalists also tend to have to pound the pavement more than specialists. They need to be hunting down new gigs, and often have to start from square one if the assignment requires them to learn a new process or acquire new information.
- Generalists are very adaptable, so they can take advantage of a greater number of opportunities.
- To be a successful generalist, you have to be a quick study. The breadth of your work means that you’re almost always learning something new, so you have to “learn how to learn” and then learn how to apply what you’ve learned. This is a valuable set of skills no matter what kind of work you do.
- Generalists make good leaders. Their broad knowledge gives them a greater understanding of how all the pieces of a process and people on a team work individually and together. They can see the Big Picture more easily than a specialist with blinders on.
- As a generalist, you’ll never be bored. You might write greeting cards one day, press releases the next, a short story and a case study the day after that. The generalist gets to play in a lot of different spaces which can keep your curiosity and enthusiasm alive.
- The generalist approach also helps you diversify your income so you don’t get caught with all your eggs in one basket. This is a smart move for any freelancer, especially one just starting out.
- Generalists are often best positioned to innovate. Because they have experience in many different areas, they can connect the dots between disparate ideas to come up with new ways of doing things. This can be valuable to the writer’s clients, and can also be valuable to the writer’s own business if, for instance, she comes up with a new way to present stories or reach a particular audience.
The generalist may not be able to claim absolute mastery of any one skill, but her ability to adapt, see the Big Picture, and learn on the fly can pay big dividends. The generalist is a survivor. She is an omnivore. Unlike the specialist who requires a particular kind of assignment and situation to survive, the generalist can eke out a living almost anywhere doing almost anything.
On the other hand, we have the specialist. I tend to think of specializing as a more traditional track. The specialist mindset embraces a singular goal, a mapped-out plan, years of study, and 10,000 hours of practice – all dedicated to one particular skill or area of focus. The specialist is the go-to resource whose name is synonymous with what he or she does: the ghost story guru or the poetry prodigy or the jingle genius. These are writers who have committed lock, stock, and barrel to a single purpose and devoted all their energy and efforts to being the best they can be at that one thing.
Just like with the generalist, there are pros and cons to being a specialist:
- You can be pigeon-holed and subsequently denied the chance to ever explore other kinds of writing. This might be fine with you if you remain 100% in love with your specialty, but if you ever want to branch out, the specialist label can hog tie you. This is why many fiction writers assume pseudonyms in order to write across genres. Even commercial writers sometimes adopt different personas to promote different kinds of work. For instance, a copywriter might have site that caters to enterprise-level B2B companies and another that speaks to small business owners. You have to be careful about how you position yourself and a specialty can limit your options.
- Sinking all your assets into a specialization can also put you at risk of obsolescence. The audience for your particular brand of YA glitter-vampire novels might dry up. A new search engine algorithm might eliminate the need for human SEO copywriters. The demand for old-fashioned newspaper journalism might plummet. You get the picture.
- On a related note, specialization can sometimes tie up all your income in one or a handful of clients or projects, meaning that if something goes wrong you could lose a big chunk of your business in one fell swoop.
- When you’re a specialist, you can pick and choose which assignments you take. You’re a known entity with built-in credibility, so no one’s going to ask you to “audition” for the job.
- In fact, you rarely have to cold call or otherwise hunt down new business or book deals, because people will come to you.
- Similarly, because you’re one of only a few people who can claim such a high level of expertise, the competitive field is much smaller. Instead of going head-to-head against one hundred adversaries, you might only have to deal with a dozen. You’ll have better odds.
- You can also charge higher rates because … you’re worth it. You’ve paid your dues and proven yourself and people know what they’re getting for their money. They understand the value of what you deliver and are willing to pay a premium for it. There’s no need to haggle over prices. If they want you, they’ll pay. Period.
- In theory, as a specialist you will be better able to work “smarter instead of harder.” While a generalist must continually hustle and often reinvent the wheel, a specialist can hone one process and skill, greatly improving efficiency. In this way, a specialist may end up being able to make more while working less. Think of the industry experts who can charge a $10,000.00 a day consulting fee.
Specialists are sought after for their unique expertise and experience. They can command higher prices because their knowledge and skill enables them to produce results that are highly valued by their audience. Still, specialists have to make an enormous up-front investment of time, effort (and, often, money) in order to attain such heights. This forces them to give up any tangential opportunities and while putting them in a position of great authority can also put them at greater risk of obsolescence or being pigeon-holed.
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Clearly, there’s no “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes to whether or not you should be a specialist or a generalist. There are upsides and downsides to both paths, and which one is the best fit for you depends on more variables than we can cover here.
That said, there is a “gray area” that blend the depth of the specialist with the breadth of the generalist. Personally, I’ve found both these hybrid approaches to be valuable in my own career. I’m not saying they are perfect solutions, but I can say that they have each played an important role in keeping me gainfully employed over the last eight years.
The Generalist with Specialties
This title applies if you’re a writer who is willing to take on a variety of assignments, but has developed a specialty or two that help differentiate you from your peers. Your specialties might be crafted by design or they may emerge organically. In the first case, you might be interested in a particular topic or style of writing and actively pursue relevant assignments while also possibly working independently to establish yourself in that space (even if you’re not getting paid for it). In the second case, you may notice a trend in the kinds of assignments and projects you’re given based on the client or clients you work with or the publishers who have accepted your work. For instance, maybe you’ve done a series of story-driven case studies for a business client, and suddenly other clients are coming to you for that same kind of deliverable. Or, maybe a gothic short story you wrote was accepted by an ezine, and then an editor at another pub reaches out to see if you’ll do something similar for them. Even if you didn’t set out to be a writer of gothic short stories, you might suddenly find yourself writing more of them and becoming known for them.
In either case, you didn’t invest the same amount of time and effort a specialist would have in studying and practicing the particular skill; but, the opportunities you’ve grabbed while operating as a generalist have given you the chance to build up a little more experience in one particular area. This doesn’t mean you have to start calling yourself the Story-Driven Case Study writer or the Gothic Short Story writer. But it does give you the ability to legitimately say that you have a greater depth of experience and credibility in those areas.
The power of being a generalist with specialties is that you now have a way to set yourself apart from the crowd. Your specialty can be knowledge of a particular industry or sector (software startups, non-profits, retail boutiques, etc.), a certain audience (maybe you’re a grade school teacher who is totally plugged into what nine year-old girls are reading), a specific deliverable (white paper, interview, blog post, etc.), or a style of writing (conversational, academic, technical). There are hundreds of other ways you might differentiate yourself from all the other generalist writers out there.
Once you start looking for them, you’ll see generalist-with-specialties writers everywhere. These are the writers whose LinkedIn profiles say things like, “Experienced freelance writer specializing in long-form, journalistic essays and research-intensive content for B2B companies” or, “Multi-talented writer with a focus on humor, nature writing, and parenting topics.” Though they aren’t closing themselves off to any opportunities, these writers are taking advantage of their ability to claim some extra know-how in particular areas. By calling out these “special features,” they make themselves more visible and attractive to specific audiences – clients, editors, even agents.
The Triple Threat
The classic Hollywood triple threat is, if memory serves, the star who can act, dance, and sing. Of course, the concept of the triple threat has been adapted to all kinds of professions, including writing. The triple threat is a writer who brings additional skills to the table. I, for instance, am an experienced project manager. My clients find this extremely valuable because it means that not only can I manage my own time and deliverables well, but I can also help them manage an entire project team. Because I can develop project plans, manage budgets, and handle the operational communications for an entire project, I have the ability to take a lot of work off my clients’ desks. They like that. It makes me a more valuable member of the team than another writer without those skills.
How else might you position yourself as a double or triple threat? Maybe you have analytics skills that help you disseminate and interpret data so that you can extract the Big Picture story while still conveying all the gory details. Perhaps you have mad research skills that you can put to good use on long form eBooks, white papers or historical fiction pieces. Maybe it’s your fiction writing skills – setting, characterization, building tension – that make you so good at creating effective case studies for business clients. Maybe you’re excellent at interviewing people. Maybe you have a particularly poetic style. Maybe you kick ass at headlines that convert. The possibilities are almost endless.
And, the components of a triple threat writer don’t have to be skill-based. Maybe you’re just a super fast writer who becomes the go-to resource for crunch-time assignments. Maybe you have specific industry, niche, or genre knowledge based on non-writing experience that gives you the ability to cut down on research time and turn out pieces that are more in-tune with the reader audience. Perhaps you have a great network of contacts in a particular industry or community, enabling you to get the inside scoop on specific topics and events. Again, the possibilities are almost endless.
The trick of positioning yourself as a triple threat is to recognize all the value you bring to the table. Very often, we are blind to our own gifts. We take them for granted. Sometimes it’s a case of assuming everyone can do what we do. Other times, we just overlook certain experience because it doesn’t have to do with writing directly. Be creative. Don’t short change yourself. Take an inventory of everything and everyone you know. Think about what’s different about the way you work. In addition to my project management skills, I have also developed strong processes for helping guide clients through different kinds of projects. More than once, a new client has told me they hired me because I could clearly explain to them exactly how we would approach a project and get it done. They found that reassuring. So, make that list of everything that makes you unique and all the different ways you can bring a little something extra to the table. And then make it work for you.
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So, to niche or not to niche … to be a jack (or jane!) of all trades or a specialist … these are still the questions. Hopefully even if you’re still not sure which path you want to take, you now have a better sense of all the options before you: generalist, specialist, generalist with specialities, or triple threat. What other variations do you think exist out there in the wilds of the writing world? Have you seen other writers carving out space for them using a different approach? Have you found your own way to create a successful and fulfilling writing life? I’d love to hear anything you have to add. After all, the journey is more fun when we travel together.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.