Writing for Magazines — Generalist or Specialist?Posted: October 29, 2007
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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