Ask the Masters:
"Should I Specialize?"
It's tempting when starting out as a freelancer to want to take any assignment that comes along. But is that a good idea? Should you seek out work in all types of niches? Or should you specialize?
We asked AWAI Board Member Bob Bly, for his thoughts. Here's what he had to say …
"There are very important reasons to become a specialist as a copywriter, graphic designer, or travel writer … AFTER you've become established in your career.
"As a specialist, you're an expert. You don't have to spend as much time researching your product area as you do if the niche is brand-new to you. You have a more robust "swipe file." Your writing or designing is easier – and you're able to complete assignments much faster.
"As a specialist, you develop a reputation among potential clients as an expert who develops the perfect package every time … a freelancer who is on time and knowledgeable.
"And, as a specialist, you command more money than a generalist. While it may seem like you narrow your opportunities by specializing, the reality is that you have less difficulty getting good paying assignments. It's the same principle that allows brain surgeons to charge more than internists.
"But, as I said, this is AFTER you've become established.
"Cast a wide net when you're starting out. However, you should not take just 'anything that comes along.' If you do, your work will show it. Instead, adopt a 'broad-specialization' approach.
"Begin by writing down 10 things you are passionate about. And I'm serious. Write them down. Does the stock market get your heart pounding? Are you constantly advising friends about alternative health? Are you an information junkie? If so, add these potential specialties to your list.
"Do not limit yourself to business subjects. What are your hobbies and leisure interests? Are you a rabid fisherman? Do you love to read? Are you a fanatical quilter? Look closely at your life and what you choose to do in your free time. There are no better areas to specialize in than those that excite you. You write or design passionately about the things you love.
"Have you been working at your job or in the same industry for 10, 20, or 30 years? That qualifies you as an expert! One of my students was a schoolteacher for 28 years. I told her to look into marketing educational supplies – which she did quite successfully.
"However, don't make a mistake that many new freelancers make and limit yourself solely to those areas. Be open to new things that sound interesting. I know a copywriter who successfully specialized in health, computers, and investing. He was approached to do some real estate writing, which he'd never done. He tried it and loved it. And can make an outstanding amount of money doing it!
"If you're a travel writer, adopt the same broad-specialization approach. Develop a list of 10 to 15 destinations or travel activities you enjoy. This will be the basis of your job-seek list. At first, however, I do not advise you to specialize in specific types of travel articles (destination, special-interest, side-trip, and the like).
"By adopting this broad-specialization approach, you're not quite a generalist. But, by the same token, you haven't established yourself as a specialist yet – the approach that will eventually move you up into a higher income range.
"You'll discover that finer-focused specialization will happen almost automatically over the course of a year or two. You may have started out working in 10 areas, but let's say your last six out of eight assignments were all for investment newsletters. Guess what? You're an investment-newsletter specialist. If you've had 13 eco-tourism articles accepted over the past year, you're a specialist in eco-tourism!
"Broad specialization is an effective way to build the skills you are learning as a graphic designer, copywriter, or travel writer. But remember to specialize in areas that excite and intrigue you. Your passion will shine through … your work will sparkle with your enthusiasm … you'll be able to develop strong packages that sell every time. And you'll gain a reputation as a top freelancer in your field."
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