Having a specialization pays off

By Kathleen O’Neil

Many freelance writers start off as generalists and, either by plan or accident, end up specializing in a particular topic because it can save them time and get them more work. In fact, of the six panelists who discussed specialization at Saturday afternoon’s “Beat It” session, only one identified himself as a complete generalist.

Specialization saves writers time by cutting down on how much research they have to do for new stories, and allows them to identify what’s really a new development worth covering, said Michele Nijhuis, freelance writer and contributing editor at High Country News. Once editors become familiar with a writer’s work and peg the writer as an expert on a particular topic, they will begin to assign the writer stories, often eliminating the need to pitch.

Freelancer Douglas Fox spent seven years as a life science generalist, going through “pitch hell,” before he had an opportunity to accompany a group of researchers on a two-month expedition in Antarctica. “I thought it’d be a one-night stand kind of thing,” he said, but after writing seven articles about the expedition, he found himself being considered an expert. Following his return, National Geographic assigned him a story, one that he didn’t pitch, about West Antarctica, passing over writers he thought had more experience in writing about that particular research.

“They still wanted someone who had been to Antarctica. I realized my specialty isn’t [the science], it’s embedded reporting in cold, shitty places.” Fox said. He’s since been assigned many stories on ice and polar regions, and has been on several more expeditions.

Panel co-moderator David Wolman, a freelancer and contributing editor for Wired, was the panel’s strongest voice for being a generalist. He said he’s interested in too many things to specialize, although he is willing to stick with a topic for a while. Wolman is the author of two books, and, after writing an article in 2008 on the Egyptian government’s efforts to restrict the use of social media, he’s returned to the topic many times.

Still, Wolman says he likes being a perpetual novice. “I like that I’m borderline panicking when I start to research a story. It keeps me humble,” he said. He says he’s more likely to ask the questions readers also unfamiliar with the subject would have. He agrees it’s not as efficient as specializing, and finds he tends to compensate for his unfamiliarity by over-reporting. It also makes marketing himself a challenge, he said.

Betsy Mason, science editor at Wired.com, said that she trusts pitches from specialists more, feeling she can rely on their abilities to identify a story and to get sources to agree to talk. However, she said she might favor a generalist to cover a new topic, where no one is a specialist yet, since she would know that writer is comfortable starting from scratch.

October 16, 2011

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