You Can Be a Jack-of-all-Trades Writer, or Not
While searching for information about specialization versus generalization when writing for magazines, I came across some articles on the subject in The Complete Guide to Writing Non-Fiction, one of my all-time favorite books. The book was written and edited by members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I bought my copy years ago and it’s dog-eared now, but the advice in it is timeless.
In the book, professional writers give the pros and cons of specializing and generalizing, detailing both benefits and drawbacks.
Alan D. Haas, a prolific freelancer, wrote on the joys of not specializing. When fairly new to freelancing, Haas discovered that if he wrote a piece about family-child relationships, editors expected him to write only about family life. Having spent considerable time in the corporate world writing on topics not particularly interesting to him, Haas was determined not to be pigeonholed while freelancing. He made it a point to diversify by writing for travel magazines, auto magazines, in-flights, health and medical publications, Sunday supplements, science books and more. That forced editors to tag him as a good feature writer on matters of topical interest.
“There are those who do prefer to be slotted as an expert on education or pop psychology or spectator sports or whatever; for them, that’s the best way to go,” he said. “But not for me. I am by nature eclectic and I choose to do what comes naturally to me.”
Julie Candler, a magazine writer and author of the book, Woman at The Wheel, argued in favor of specialization. “No matter what subject you query about, you may be rejected in favor of the specialist,” she said. “If you were an editor assigning a story on medical care or home improvements, wouldn’t you choose the writer who covers the subject full time? It’s a good argument for becoming an expert in one specific field.”
Some writers prefer to be Jack-of-all-Trades by writing as both specialist and generalist. They cover a range of topics while focusing heavily on certain types of articles — food, for example, or health or religion. I fit that category. I’ve written scores of articles on scores of subjects, but I call myself a generalist who specializes in profiles and business articles. I like writing in those areas and I believe there will always be markets for them.
In the freelancing business, it pays to watch markets and magazine trends. For every magazine that goes out of business in any year, several (or several dozen) more spring up to take its place. Right now, specialized publications are multiplying like mad. Check the magazine section of your local bookstore to see just how many specialty magazines are displayed. Freelancers who specialize in writing about automobiles or antiques may become known as experts in those fields and even pull in extra dollars in their specialty, or receive perks like textbook writing gigs or offers to speak at meetings or seminars.
For specialist and generalist alike, a huge and ever-changing magazine market is waiting to be tapped. We freelancers can pick those publications that draw our interest and concentrate on selling just to those specialty publications. Or we can be Jack-of-all-Trades and target our writing toward broader fields.
Ever the generalist, Haas advised new writers to leave specialized pieces to professionals better equipped for the job. “What an editor wants from a freelancer is an idea that neither that editor nor anyone else has thought of, and to do that you have to be versatile; a halfback who knows how to hit the right hole in the line, whenever it opens up,” he said.
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What is the plural of a handful? That question came up while I was writing the previous post (A Primer on How to Get Published in Magazines). I knew that mother-in-law becomes mothers-in-law and attorney general becomes attorneys general in the plural, but I wasn’t sure about handful. Handsful or handfuls?
Webster’s New World Dictionary specified handfuls and so did the Chicago Manual of Style, so I bowed to their authority and used that in the post. But I still think handfuls looks strange when written out. Some other plurals do, too. Look at tomato and mosquito and tell me that tomatoes and mosquitoes don’t look strange when written out.
It’s not just plurals plaguing me these days. I’m wondering, is anybody as bothered as I am about overuse of the word “currently”? Here are some recent examples I saw on blogs:
Currently I am happy….
It is currently 2:20 am in Australia.
I am currently age 65 and will be retiring next year.
Currently I am sitting in my big comfy chair….
Currently I like chocolate…..
Currently I am listening to an Elvis impersonator….
Those thoughts would work just fine without using the word currently at all. Some might be better by using the word “now” (I am now age 65 …..). And I suspect you can never recall chatting with a friend at a party and saying, “You know, currently I like chocolate….” Unless, of course, you’ve been known as a big butter-pecan fan in the past.
If we don’t use “currently” much when we’re talking with people, why do you think we use it so much in writing?
Another question. How long has it been since you heard someone begin every other sentence with “basically”? It seems like certain people used that word in almost every sentence for a very long time, but I can’t recall hearing multiple uses of it lately. Looks like basically has dropped out of favor, bumped off by overuse, probably.
I went to a top expert on this one, Rutgers University professor, Dr. Jack Lynch, who says qualifiers such as basically rarely add anything to a sentence. “They’re the written equivalent of ‘Um,'” he said.
We don’t hear as many of those ‘Ums’ as previously, and that’s a good thing.
On a different note, “Where’s it at?” is one expression that drives my friend, Juan, to distraction — whether the question comes from her children or from others. Echoing her own mother’s words from long ago, Juan always answers, “It’s between the A and the T.”
That’s the only logical response to such a question.
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Here’s a short primer on how to get published in magazines. It’s strictly a formula, but by following it, you could be published within a short time. And checks for your articles could begin appearing in your mailbox.
We’re assuming here that you’re a reasonably proficient writer with basic knowledge of spelling and punctuation. With this formula, submit queries to publications by email (if they prefer this method) or by regular mail, along with self-addressed stamped envelopes.
Many writers use this 1, 2, 3 formula when starting out in the freelance business. The formula worked for me and it could for you. Here’s the formula:
1. Start Local
2. Move into Regional
3. Go National
1. Start Local. Write five or six articles for small newspapers — paying or non-paying — in or near your community. Your goal is to build a clip file of published articles. Target small newspapers first, not magazines, because they are more likely to buy your work — and there are more of them. Don’t bother with big daily papers — they’re hard to break into. Start with small nearby newspapers.
Write about someone or something that strikes your interest. Can you find someone who grows beautiful roses? A Scout leader who served for several decades? A shop owner who writes poetry in his off-hours? A former sports legend? A bed-and-breakfast owner? When you contact these individuals, tell them you’re preparing an article for publication and plan to send it to such-and-such newspaper. Bring along a camera when you interview them and snap a dozen or more photos to illustrate each article. Stress the community connection in every local article you write. Meanwhile, begin collecting every regional magazine you can lay hands on.
2. Move into Regional. After your first articles are published in small local papers (and they should be if you do a reasonably competent job of writing them), use those bylined articles to move into regional markets. Approach editors of magazines where you live, in nearby towns, and across your state and area. Send the editors copies of your best clips with query letters targeted to each publication. Study the magazines to learn the types of articles they use, then develop your own article ideas based on the results. Does a publication use profiles of individuals or business owners? Does it have a focus on health or business? Does it run nostalgia pieces or feature stories of individuals making a difference in the community?
Make sure that your ideas are a good fit for each publication. You wouldn’t send a business publication a query about an unusual hobby, for instance, unless that hobby had morphed into a thriving business. Note the publication’s style and tone. Does it use first person pieces? Are the articles down-to-earth and personal or more formal? What sources do they use for quotations? Try to envision what your proposed article would look like in the publication alongside one of those articles.
3. Go National. As your work appears in regional publications and your clipping file grows, begin to target national magazines. Proceed as before, choosing your best clips to send to these editors. Develop very narrow targeted ideas for the publications. Hone each query to a state of perfection.
Whatever your interests and your target magazines, check websites and writer’s guidelines to learn what the publications want to buy. When you receive assignments, make sure that you give the editors what your queries offered: professionally written articles that reflect your status as a selling writer.
Some people call this 1, 2, 3 method a “paying your dues” approach. I call it a common sense road map to getting published in top magazines. It’s been said that bylines beget bylines, and I’m a firm believer in that premise. It’s a proven way to build a portfolio of published articles to help propel you into higher-paying magazine markets.
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How many how-t0-books do you have on your bookshelf? Until I went looking for a misplaced stylebook this week, I had no inkling of just how many “how-to-do-its” I own. Some are old friends that I’ve relied on many times, especially Bob Bly’s books. His Secrets of a Freelance Writer and The Copywriter’s Handbook have guided me through many a writing-related quandary.
But there are many others. The 30-Minute Writer by Connie Emerson is a neat little paperback I’ve owned since 1993. It offers some great insights into writing and selling short pieces — essays, mini-profiles, opinion pieces, humor and more. Lots of practical advice within its pages.
Richard Balkin’s How to Understand & Negotiate a Book Contract or Magazine Agreement is another much-consulted book. Can’t remember when I bought this book, but I can recall that I’ve learned a lot about contracts by reading it.
How to Write Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool is a classic on the subject of queries. I think it appeared in hardback earlier, but I bought it in 1990 when it came out in paperback. A very helpful book, in my opinion.
Then there are three how-to books that I acquired but never followed through on the advice they offered. Not yet, at least. At one time I knew I just had to have How to Write Romances by Phillis Taylor Pianka because I’ve always wanted to write a romantic suspense novel, and her book would certainly help me do that. That was in 1988, I think, but somehow I never found time to start writing the novel. Perhaps next year, I tell myself, with a sigh.
How to Write with a Collaborator by Hal Zina Bennett with Michael Larsen gives good practical advice about writing in tandem. The title reminds me how much I enjoyed reading The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell. I bought the Bennett/Larsen book when a writer friend and I were considering joining forces to produce publications for organizations. Instead, a permanent corporate writing job turned up that she just couldn’t turn down.
I’m actually in the process of writing a non-fiction book proposal, so I’m glad that I already have Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal on my bookshelf. It’s also a paperback that came out in 1990, proving once again that I’m seriously behind the times.
Then last week when I was at Barnes & Noble, I picked up The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall. I keep it beside a special and very comfortable chair I go to whenever I have spare time for reading. So far, I’ve read only 20 pages. At this rate, it will be months before this book finds its place on my bookshelf.
Now I’m wondering about the books on your bookshelf. Are there many how-to books? Would I like them? Would I find them helpful? Will you share notes on some of them here? Your comments would be most welcome. And if you’d like to write a guest post about the books on your bookshelf, please go to LDDaley@gmail.com and let me know.
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©2007 by Laverne Daley
We’ve all heard the advice: write about what you know.
I like to turn that around and say: write about what you don’t know.
If I wrote only about what I know, I fear my bylines would be few. Although some writers can write profusely about family, pets, work or whatever draws their interests, I probably would run out of article ideas in a short time. That may be why many freelancers take a wider view in vying for bylines and checks with our names on them.
Also, there’s no possible way for most writers to know beforehand all the subjects we write about. Part of the fun of freelancing is being introduced to new and exciting subjects. We don’t have to possess specialized knowledge. We just have to know where to find it. We usually gather background and related information, but we gain most of our knowledge by interviewing experts in the subject we’re covering.
That’s not to say that writers can’t have specialized knowledge of their own. Some writers build careers around their love for a sport, hobby or avocation. Or they write so extensively at their jobs or about their own particular interests that they become experts. They are good at writing about what they know.
I know a writer who is a whiz about taxes (he’s also a CPA), so that’s his writing specialty. Two healthcare writer that I know carved out successful careers in that specialty. They became experts by interviewing healthcare practitioners and scientists for years and writing articles based on those interviews. Some writers acquire so much specialized knowledge that they may be recruited to write books in their area of expertise.
While it might seem that specialists are in the catbird seat, the rest of us need not despair. There’s plenty of room for generalists. We can write about anything or everything that interests us. I fell into the write-what-you-don’t-know category years ago. Here’s a small sampling of what I’ve covered as a freelancer, with scant prior knowledge of any of the topics: robots, fashion photography, dermatology, literacy programs, the lumber industry, manufacturing telephones, AIDS, earthquakes, environmental landscaping, science, renewable energy resources, coon dogs, antiques, printing — and that’s just a partial list.
I did not come up with ideas for those articles. Sometimes a local editor would phone to offer an assignment, and often serendipity played a part. Maybe someone read one of my articles in AdWeek or a local business newspaper and made an assignment based on that work. I did not have to submit clips or write queries, which certainly made my job easier.
However our assignments come, we generalists find joy in writing about this wide world and the wonderful things taking place in it, and about the people who make those things happen. We might not know much in the beginning, but we learn a lot in the process. We are never bored with the subjects we cover or the people we meet.
Tramping around a factory floor, poking into someone’s basement to learn the secrets of growing award-winning African violets, touring a candy factory, interviewing a poetry-writing banker, delving into commercial stock photography, talking to mature adults just learning to read — who could be bored with such a job!
Writing about what we don’t know opens us up to new ideas and expands our universe. Every article that we write can be a learning opportunity and a great adventure.
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