Using a photographic analogy to make a point about writing is a good way to present one of the toughest decisions you will face as a freelancer: the choice between focusing tightly on a particular area (genre, style, subject, medium) or becoming a generalist who does a little bit of everything. Most writers start out by dabbling in a wide range of disciplines and gradually hone their skills in one or two.
Which choice is the best one? There are as many answers to that question as there are writers. In other words, it is a highly individual decision. On one hand, if you specialize, you can become an expert at one or two things; but, as a consequence, you will be limiting yourself. On the other hand, if you try to be all things to all people, you will enjoy tremendous variety and an ongoing education; but you may always feel like a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. The general rule of thumb is to get all of the experience you can in a broad array of disciplines and subject matter, and narrow your focus to those for which you seem best suited.
To be a generalist, the advice is simple: whatever comes along, seize the opportunity to learn about it, tackle it, and add it to your growing list of capabilities. You’ll be amazed at how fast that list grows. If you opt to be a specialist, you will learn a lot about whatever subject you choose.
The longer you write about a subject, the more of an expert you become, until one day you realize that you know a great deal about it and that your knowledge is marketable. If your interest persists and you stay in the job (full time or freelance), you will have found your niche. Then, you have two alternatives: you can invest yourself totally in this single area, or you can use it as a launching pad to learn and write about other related areas. Either way, you are becoming a specialist, which is always a strong foundation on which to build.
Editors, too, are more likely to accept submissions from subject experts than from writers whose background are more general. One of the less tangible but most important outgrowths of knowing your stuff is the confidence it gives you. When you’re face to face with the CEO or some other high-ranking executive, it’s important to know the subject well enough to ask intelligent questions.
Another advantage of becoming well versed in a particular subject is your marketability. While clients or editors are often willing to invest in letting you learn on the job, they would much prefer to hire a writer who knows her business. The ideal, of course, is to keep building on what you have learned and eventually to be considered an extension of the client’s staff.
While writers can learn about anything we set our minds to, we all know we are better suited to some subjects than to others. To write about technology requires an aptitude for left-brain thinking, i.e., concrete, logical, mathematical, scientific. To write about dance, theater, or any facet of the arts, you would more likely be a right-brained thinker—creative, abstract, intuitive. It’s partly a matter of preference and partly a matter of inclination, and they often go hand in hand.
What happens when you find yourself writing about a subject you find philosophically abhorrent. Just as we have an affinity for certain subjects, we can have aversions to others. If you’re an environmentalist and you are hired to write for a company that is being sued for pollution, what do you do? If you are an advocate for gun control, do you take on the National Rifle Association as a client? If you sincerely believe in cultural diversity and tolerance, and your client or editor routinely makes racial slurs, do you resign? These are not far-fetched examples. While they don’t occur every day, they may well be the type of choices you will face from time to time.
One of the joys of freelancing is freedom of choice—to take on only the assignments and clients you really want to work for… to pick your subject and become a sought-after expert… or to tackle whatever comes your way. It is completely up to you!