The Accidental Specialist

I know things.

Some of those things are incredibly valuable and can provide substantial benefits for a number of people.  However, most of the things I really know aren’t interesting to most people.  Thus, they’re not what one would usually consider particularly marketable.

Don’t get me wrong–I have what I’d like to consider an exceptionally broad knowledge base.  It’s just that the deepest parts of that base don’t involve your standard cocktail party conversation topics.

Until the world evolves to the point where the politics of western movies, MLB utility infielders of the 70s and 80s, a time management-governed perspective on policy debate strategy, meals you can make using cream of just-about-anything soup and assorted other weirdness become hot topics, I’m not the kind of guy who can really write about what he loves while covering the bills.

This is why I don’t specialize in a subject matter niche.

The pros and cons of specializing

I frequently read other writers advocating specialization.  Someone did it in response to my last post here at FWJ.  I think it’s an outstanding idea–if you’re interested in developing an area of expertise that offers legitimate career opportunities.

Some of us aren’t wired that way, though.  Our interests are, let’s say, eccentric.  And no one has ever indicated an interest in a series of articles about David Lean’s utilization of nature as a character, the world’s greatest tuna casserole or a smarter means of bullpen utilization.  Meanwhile, I can’t imagine forcing myself to become a true expert on finance, gardening or auto repair.

Sure, I’ve learned a way to combine traditional budgeting with cash flow analysis to keep things going at home.  It’s true that I was the king of gardeners one hot summer in Eudora, KS, harvesting bushels and bushels of giveaway produce.  I’ve also breathed life into a dead ’62 Chrysler Imperial and once kept an ’85 Renault Alliance roadworthy with nothing but a cheap set of hand tools, a Chilton’s guide and the lack of an alternative.

In all of those cases, I learned what I wanted to learn to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.  I never felt an urge to master the world of personal finance and to develop and manage my own investment schemes.  I have no desire to learn the botanical details of tomato varieties.  I like it when we take the HHR to the shop and have them change the oil.  At the same time, I’m always interested in learning something about a new topic.

Recognizing this, I embarked on a career as a writer fully cognizant that I would be a generalist, not a specialist.

There have been advantages to this arrangement.  The world has been my oyster.  As it so happens, I’ve written about oysters.  When someone desperately wants material about the many uses of vinegar, how to organize kids’ parties, the transition to next-generation light bulbs or the evils of commercial dog food production, I haven’t hesitated.

That multiplied my opportunities for work because I haven’t ruled anything out (well, maybe a few things).  It has also provided me with an opportunity to learn new things, which I really do love.  There are other perks, too.

It’s had a downside, too.  You can tell people, “You don’t need a subject matter expert.  You need a communication expert willing to learn the subject matter,” but that isn’t necessarily as persuasive as the pitch from a writer who lives, breathes and sleeps the subject matter.

That’s the standard story, right?  The pros and cons of specializing.  Not much more to it than that.  At least that’s what I assumed.  And then I realized something.

I am a specialist.

I’m just not a subject matter specialist.

Instead of mastering a topic, I turned my attention to the mechanics of handling particular forms of writing.  Additionally, one of my strongest professional interests over the last several years has involved an ongoing exploration of how my clients run their businesses, how they use the material I create, what strategies work, which ones fails and what’s coming up.  I focus primarily on online markets so there’s always a wealth of new ideas, new developments and exciting stuff happening.

I didn’t start delving into all of those topics as part of a master plan to improve my business.  It just happened.  Accidentally.  As I started to notice its impact, I made it intentional.

That kind of specialization has provided me with a number of unique opportunities that I never expected when I started.  I’ve developed skills and a deep knowledge base on topics that many of the subject matter specialists with whom I’m competing for work don’t always have.  You might know more about how to raise gorgeous geraniums than I do, but I just might be able to steal that client away with value-added services and input.  Maybe not, but I’ll give it a try.  Even if it fails, I may end up with a new consulting client.  Who knows?

The moral to the story?

Subject matter specialization has its advantages and I’d never steer anyone away from being the “go to” person in their particular niche–unless the niche is crazily limited in popularity.  However, there is room for those of us who don’t necessarily want to write in the same topic area day after day, too.  I’ve found that works for me because of what I’ve learned “off the page.”

So, FWJ readers, are you specialists?  Budding specialists trying to establish credibility in a particular niche?  Generalists who’ll write about everything from skirt styles to barbecue ribs?  What works for you and why?

In the meantime, I might just write and peddle a piece about Sergio Leone and the way his representation of the American west in his spaghetti westerns exhibits a fundamentally European concept of physical space.  Maybe I can find a home in that niche that will allow me to continue overpaying someone else to change the oil.





5 responses
  1. Erik Hare Avatar

    This gives me a lot to think about. I’ve always steered clear of specializing, and not just because I’d get bored. I honestly don’t know how popular any given subject area might be, and I’d hate to be stuck with something that “seemed like a good idea at the time”.

    But it would help a lot in the referral area, which is where I need the most help. I’m terrible at getting work, not doing it. Ah, the life of a Generalist in a world of hyper-specialization!

    [ … how many times have I written about *that* subject on my own blog? too many to count … ]
    .-= Erik Hare´s last blog ..Convention Contention =-.

  2. Phil Avatar

    Specializing can haunt and help. I was a sportswriter for seven years, but I was treated like I couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Even though that was (and still is) true :), it didn’t mean I couldn’t write on different subjects.

    I finally took accounting courses to prove I could cover other items, and the paper moved me to a “bad” beat with the hopes I would fail (union issues). I didn’t, and spent another six years with the paper covering education, then transportation, then business. Over the last 20 years (starting at the paper), I’ve covered business, financial services and technology.

    But if an opportunity like health care (I’ve done a little) or some energy (I write for an Asian fuels pub) come up, I can point to that transition over time to show versatility, while I can also point out specialization to other prospects.

    The depth of writing has brought in clients I wouldn’t have been able to land otherwise, but the breadth is important when a sector crashes, as has happened to both financial services and technology at different times in the last 10 years.

  3. Imogen Avatar

    Thumbs up.

    The beauty of being a freelancer (for me) is the eclectic nature of the work. I LOVE having a job that requires me to pick up shiny pieces of information on my travels.

    When I started one of my many degrees (note ‘started’ not ‘completed’) my programming lecturer said that he didn’t want us to learn anything… except to be metacognitive. As long as we learned HOW to learn, and where to find the information, his job was done.

    Is it possible to call yourself a specialist in generalism? I’m working on it.
    .-= Imogen´s last blog ..Gmail is my homeboy =-.

  4. Deb Ng Avatar

    I started out specializing – I wrote mostly family finance stuff and wrote a weekly newspaper column and regular blog about how families can save money, but it was too limiting and I know about more than one thing. Plus, not only did I branch out my writing, but I branched out with other services as well. For example, social media.

  5. LIsa Avatar

    I specialize in many things… and each set of clients believes that I specialize only in their area of interest. To my fundraising clients, I specialize in grant writing. To my education clients, I specialize in educational writing. My autism readers think I’m an autism specialist. My exhibit label clients think I’m exhibit label writer. My science writing clients assume I do nothing but science writing.

    The key to multiple specialties is super-simple: multiple CVs, and a website that allows each specialty group to explore its area of interest.

    Pretty cool, actually.


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