I’ve read a few career blogs lately that discourage freelancers from being “generalists.” They suggest that it’s far better to focus your writing in a niche (this advice is often attached to some product you need to purchase to figure out your niche — but that’s beside the point). At least by some measures, having a niche apparently makes you more employable.
It’s the subtle implications of the word “generalist” that bother me. Being defined as a “generalist” implies the opposite of “specialization” and often carries the vague implication that your career is scattershot or that your choices are capricious in some way. It might even suggest, perhaps, you aren’t as reliable or should not be paid as much, since you are not an “expert” in anything.
But the hitch is that a freelance writing “generalist” IS an expert — they are an expert in writing and written communication.
For instance, I’ve studied, taught and practiced writing for over 25 years, which I think qualifies me as having specialization in writing. The content I cover has ranged widely, but I have written novels, articles, greeting card verse, travel write-ups and descriptions, real estate ads, blogs, articles, short copy, arguments, blogs, news, press releases, letters, short stories, analyses, and well, just about anything else.
Content experts usually have worked in an industry and have become experts in that field, and sometimes they decide to freelance, but this is a completely different career arc than the freelance writer who has studied and mastered the practice of writing with the intention to write for a living — and to write many different things. Freelance writers are generalists by nature, I suppose, but they still have a definite focus and skill set.
One way of looking at it is to take the content expert (say, my spouse, who is a writer, within his field, but he’s really an industry expert). If we took one of his analyst reports and told him to convert it to an 800 word short story with a complete arc, compelling characters, and a strong message, he would probably be able to do it because he’s a smart guy — but it would take time, and he admits (since I ran this by him as I’m writing it), it would be a struggle.
Now, take the expert writer (me). I am asked to write up a technical report from data gathered on a neighborhood that is comprised mostly of vacation rentals for real estate agents. No problem. I’m then asked to write engaging and appropriate descriptions of the homes and apartments for online sales. No problem. Then I get an idea for a short story or novel from one of the write-ups, and start working on that, too. Oh, and I can post social media posts on several platforms about all of these other pieces of writing, and toss in a few blogs. This is the flexibility that an expert writer can bring to any content.
If I want to be a medical writer, I can learn to do that — I have the writing skills, so if I want a content niche, I can learn one, but I don’t have to. It doesn’t mean I’m less focused, it means my focus is determined by the client I’m working with and their particular writing needs. I’m an expert in meeting those needs.
In fact, I would say, definitely be a generalist, because that’s how we continue to hone our craft, which doesn’t happen if we’re only writing one thing all the time. We’ve spent our lives learning to write effectively and to adapt to many different writing situations. To do that, we need to continue to write in many different fields and situations.
So while I may be a generalist in terms of content, call me an expert writer, because that’s my specialty.