Generalist or Specialist? (P.S. Seeking a Few Successful Generalists for Webinar…)

(Sorry it’s been so long since the last post. The book launch (and myriad technical issues) have kept me hopping of late. We’re back on track…)

Finishing up a round of work for one of my regular commercial freelancing clients recently, I once again paused to savor my original choice to be a commercial writing generalist. Yes, I tout my sales and marketing background as positioning me nicely to write effective copy in that arena, but within that broad category, I enjoy taking on projects types across the spectrum.

And frankly, I wouldn’t have landed this client as a specialist focused on one industry or writing project type. Over the past three or four months, she’s hired me to work on commercial writing projects spanning the gamut: marketing brochures, ads, direct mail, flyers, emails blasts, landing page copy and a lot more – for one of her clients.

I love the variety and she loves that she can get everything she needs from one person. She’s crazy-busy all the time, with little time to juggle writers; she needs and wants ONE reliable and multi-talented writing partner.

Others in our field (you?) love the specialist route. Folks like Michael Stelzner (white papers) and Casey Hibbard (case studies) spring to mind. Others zero in on one industry – usually the one they came out of. They love (or at least don’t mind) operating with a narrow focus, and are typically rewarded handsomely for doing so – often more than generalists.

But, while income potential is often higher for specialists, in my humble opinion, you should choose either route, first and foremost, because you truly enjoy that path, not because you think you’ll make more money. I mean, isn’t one of the key reasons for self-employment to do what you enjoy?

WANTED: A few successful generalists (like me!) to showcase in upcoming webinar. I’m looking for a few commercial writers who’ve gone the generalist route by choice and thrived (i.e., a six-figure writing income, ideally, or close to it…); big plus if you have a web site. If that sounds like you, email me.

Are you a generalist or a specialist, and why did you chose your path?

If you’re an ex-generalist/now-specialist, why did you make the change? Is your job satisfaction and/or income higher as a result?

Have you found that being one or the other has helped you weather a tough economy?

What do you see as the pros and cons of your path?

15 replies
  1. Daniel Casciato
    Daniel Casciato says:

    I’ve been a generalist since I’ve started copywriting. I write anything from tourism content for a client’s Web site to a newsletter about spray foam insulation to copy for an esteemed university to a blog about universal design. I love the variety that comes with being a generalist. Before I became a FLCW, I was in PR for several different organizations and wrote about the same industry and the same topics day in, day out. I got bored quickly and I felt my writing suffered as a result. I got too comfortable where I was at.

    As a generalist, I’m learning about new topics every week. I do believe being a generalist has helped me weather the tough economy. I get contacted for just about any writing project. If I’m too busy, I have a writing partner (also a generalist) who I will refer clients to.

  2. Star
    Star says:

    I used to say I could write about anything but plasma physics, but now,
    I find I do ask the prospect what the subject matter is. I tend to
    have the most background and things to contribute in the health area,
    fitness (do as I say), and education. I really don’t “do” hospitality,
    finance, green, construction, DIY, and so on, even though common
    selling techniques can span these industries.

  3. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Daniel and Star!

    I’m with you Daniel – I love that every day I can learn about something new. And even though I might not seek these topics out on my own, if someone’s paying me $125 (and often more as a true hourly rate) to learn and write about it, I can adapt… 😉

    And Star, I’m with you, too. There are project types I once took on happily but not anymore. Just not interested in speeches, video scripts, long PPT presentations. Heart’s not in it, AND I know others who will happily take them on…


  4. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    I’m a generalist for now, but I’m only in my first year of business (as a FLCW, before I did freelance journalism). Yesterday, I was contacted by an art director who I sent a prospect e-mail to. She didn’t have any design projects that she needed content for, but she DID need someone to edit/rewrite her resume and cover letter! I quoted her a price and the deposit is already in my PayPal account.

  5. Brian Westbye
    Brian Westbye says:

    Hah! If ever there were a label for me, it’s generalist. I started out as a music critic. My first paid FLCW gig was a membership renewal direct mail campaign for Audubon. From there, I’ve written web copy for a multi-millionaire Austrailian businessman, an orthodontist in Long Beach, CA, a community college in Ann Arbor, MI and product blurbs for an online emporium for baby gear. (And I’m not a parent, nor a student!) I always say, keep your eyes open, and take whatever makes (dollars and) sense. Ya never know.

  6. Devon Ellington
    Devon Ellington says:

    Generalist and anti-niche. I love the fact that I can write about anything that interests me and get paid for it. I write a lot of fiction and scripts, and publish under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. The early part of the year was when I made much more money from the fiction than the business writing; however, my business writing client base has steadily grown over the past few months again.

    Pro: I hate structure, so I love being able to create every day as it happens. The bigger the swatch of unscheduled time I have, the more productive I grow. I love being able to follow anything that interests me, and pick and choose the types of projects I want to work on. I love being able to travel and experience new things and just take a day off if I want (provided I’ve met my deadlines). And during the recession, having wide abilities made it easier for me to land work, while I watched many of my specialist colleagues flail and panic. And royalties make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Plus, they pay the bills, so I can keep on the heat in the winter months!

    Cons: I could probably make larger amounts of money more quickly by specializing. Fiction has a much longer time between creation and publication than business writing. However, the royalties make up for it, and my royalties got me through lean months this winter. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make. Another con is, because I do many different things, I have to have many variations on marketing materials, and, because I’m constantly publishing, they need to be updated frequently. Sometimes I let that slide, due to volume of deadlined work, and then it’s a pain to catch up.

    I’m willing to deal with the cons because the pros outweigh them by so much.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Caitlin, Brian and Devon!

    Caitlin, here’s to many many more… And Brian and Devon, you sound like happy generalists just like me! It IS a lot more interesting life, as I see it. And to echo Devon, in tough times, being a generalist can definitely make it easier to keep a wider range of clients happy. And yes, I could make more as a specialist, but wouldn’t have as much fun, and that would take a lot of the joy out of it.


  8. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    I’m an ex-generalist, now specializing in dietary supplements and alternative health products and services. It’s an area I’m passionate about, and I found it much easier to focus my marketing efforts once I chose a niche. I also saw my income jump by about 25% the first year I made the change. But I really have the best of both worlds – because clients still remember me from my generalist days and hire me. Currently I have two large alternative health projects I’m working on (a magalog and a supplement website launch) and this week I’ve also churned out a brochure for a non-profit organization and a profile of an industry executive. It’s a common misconception that once you become a specialist, you won’t ever be able to mix it up with non-niche projects again, but I haven’t found that to be the case. About 24% of my work is outside my niche.

  9. tom barnett
    tom barnett says:

    I have been in the commercial writing field for two years so far and have found a fair amount of success. What I found however, is that my work experience and domain knowledge helped me gain my first ‘in’ in the commercial writing field.

    I hope to transpose myself to a generalist in the future – however, right now being a ‘niche’ writer is serving me well.

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Eileen, And yes, Brian, I’m not surprised at the 25 % jump in income – the power of specializing, which you SHOULD do if some specific arena really calls to you. And Tom, your story is typical and a smart strategy – it’s always a good idea to leverage what you know out of the gate, even if you don’t want to specialize in that arena over the long haul. But you might as well make it easier on yourself when starting and then branch out once you have the portfolio and contact base to do so.


  11. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    I’d say I’m a generalist who specializes in b2b tech marketing communications.

    I fit your definition of a generalist in that I write in almost every form, format and medium: print and broadcast ads, marketing collateral from single sheets up to 12-page brochures with multiple inserts and everything in between, annual reports, white papers, Web pages, email newsletters, speeches, exhibits, press releases, audio-video presentations.

    I’m a specialist in that most of my work supports the marketing of technology-based products and services.

    But that’s not all I do. And just as your graphic design client turns to you for all her copywriting requirements, I’ve got a couple of studios who similarly rely on me. One was my largest source of work for most of this decade; another tech-oriented b2b marcomm agency was my largest source for the first half of my freelance career from 1991 through 2001.

    Anyway, doing good work for agencies and studios that have lots of different clients is what continually opened doors to me to assignments that I might not otherwise get if I had to compete for them directly — for example, consumer-targeted radio spots and the very fun and consumery subscriber newsletter for a nationwide high speed Internet provider.

    For the future, especially as my 60s rapidly approach, I’d like to become a bit more of a specialist and transition into doing mostly annual reports and white papers — fewer, but higher paying, projects. But I need to think about how to make that happen. And with this being a down year for me in terms of volume, I’m taking on every assignment I can get.


  12. Jerry Jowers
    Jerry Jowers says:

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  1. […] Should you be a generalist or a specialist? var addthis_product = 'wpp-264'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":false,"data_track_addressbar":false};if (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}Way back in 2009, I read a blog post on whether you should be a generalist or a specialist. […]

  2. […] Back in July on this blog, we explored the age-old issue for commercial freelancers: “In my commercial copywriting business, Should I be a generalist or a specialist?” (Read it here). […]

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