Saturday, May 3, 2008

Specialist or Generalist?

When it comes to writing, you have to decide to specialize or be a generalist. A generalist roams around, seeking opportunities everywhere. Generalists can write about growing orchids, seeking sunken treasure, improving direct mail response, and childhood vacinnations, all in the same week. They essentially go where the market and their inclinations lead them.

A specialist, on the other hand, finds a specific area or maybe even a range of subjects, and then rigorously writes only about those things. A specialist might pick a big field, like medicine, or it might be a narrow area, like recent movies.

So which one is better? In today's post-modern feel-good culture, it's hard to say one thing is better, but in writing, the answer to this question may surprise you.

It's generally better to specialize. Most people would think that generalists would have more money-making opportunities and, hence, more money, but those two things do not always combine happily. There are a couple of drawbacks to being a generalist.

First, you have to learn everything. You aren't an expert. A generalist writer might decide (or get an assignment) to write about new tire technology. Knowing nothing about the subject means that the generalist has to do a lot of research, make a lot of new contacts, and figure things out. This takes time and, you know the old saying ... time is moolah.

Second, generalists are, by definitions, not experts. Nobody wants to entrust their pet project to an admitted newbie. If a business is looking for a top writer to generate content about their multimillion dollar new franchise opportunity, they don't want to hire somebody whose last article was, "How to Bake Your Own Dog Biscuits."

You would think that narrowing the range would limit opportunities, but it gives you depth. Depth means you know the basics, you have a lot of contacts, and you may even have established a bit of a reputation. If you're known far and wide for your articles on dogs, any time an article about dogs is needed, you get the job. A specialist can ace out a generalist for an assignment any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

The problem with specialist is range. A good specialty is broad enough to span a lot of topics. I once met a woman who (no kidding) was launching a career as a freelance writer. She had made up her mind (she was one of those sorts of pale women who "make up their minds") to write only and exclusively about German settlement to Fayette County, Texas in the 1860s. I am not lying. Needless to say, her career did not get off the ground.

That's a little too narrow, sparrow.

But dogs could be a great specialty or even pets. The reason is that there is a wide range of content and a wide range of media that sometimes has to do with the subject. Think about it: dog training, dog shows, pets for children, pets for therapy, veterinary medicine, dog breeding, naming your dog, celebrity pets, the dog food industry, new types of dogs, dog toys, pampered pets, and so on.

Pick a specialty like medicine, business, finance, marketing, pets, families, childraising, religion, movies, entertainment, or real estate (the list goes on and on) and you have a pretty broad range of subjects. Plus you have the narrowness that allows you to learn some of the lingo, key books, authority sites, opinion leaders, and contacts.

Now there is truly no right answer to whether or not you should generalize or specialize as a writer. I know writers who have succeeded as generalists, but I think they face a lot steeper climb. The biggest objection to specialization is the fear that one might be bored.

Know what to do? Find another specialty and launch out again. There's no reason you can't be both a dog writer and a travel writer. Hey, you'd nail any job that came up on traveling with dogs!