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Why freelance writers don’t need a niche

By December 12, 2017 June 29th, 2019 15 Comments

I know. It’s a big call. Everywhere you look you’ll read blog posts about finding profitable niches, podcasts about finding a lucrative specialisations and Facebook groups crammed with writers trying to pick a niche. I get it. Over the past two years it’s been my main concern. But I’ve come to one conclusion: freelance writers don’t need a niche. And this is why.

Why freelance writers don’t need a niche

But first let me go back to the end of 2016.

I was absolutely consumed by finding my niche. I agonised over it. I made lists. I brainstormed. I listened to podcasts where niche became a verb (hello ‘niche-ing’ down). I even wrote letter to Leo of Rachel’s List asking about whether freelance writers need a niche. I probably should have just listened to her advice (summary: you don’t need a niche!), but I guess I had to figure it out for myself. 

In my review of 2016, this is how I answered what I had worried about most last year:

My top worry for 2016 was around trying to narrow down and find a niche. It wasn’t that productive – but I did do a lot of thinking around it – but I am still not any closer to finding a niche.

Embarking on a year of full time freelancing without a niche terrified me.

I wanted that short, snappy elevator pitch about what I do and who I do it for, but it just wouldn’t come.

Years ago I went to a beauty therapist who only waxed eyebrows. That’s all she did. She was, as her signage said, The Eyebrow Queen. And lord, did she do a good job. And she seemed to be raking in the cash. She charged $50 for about 5 minutes of eyebrow waxing.

I could see that she was the go-to person.

I got the theory. I understood it. If you niched down and specialised, it was lucrative and you’d be the writer for people in that industry.

But I still couldn’t pick a niche.

I didn’t have just one thing I wanted to write about.

So at the beginning of 2017 I decided to put my niche-related fears aside and just write what I was interested in. I pitched editors stories that I was curious about and wanted to write, and connected with potential clients who worked in areas that I felt connected to. 

At the start of this year I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I needed to have a niche, but it’s now December and I’ve barely given it a second thought.

I’ve realised a few things.

I don’t have a niche and because I don’t have one I haven’t excluded myself from potential jobs.

I write for magazines, newspapers and corporate clients on a whole variety of topics – food, travel, parenting, business, lifestyle and more. You could say they are my niches, but I think I have too many to be considered a specialist. 

This year I’ve started writing more about food and dipping my toe into travel writing waters. If I had picked a niche that I made myself to stick to then I would have had to say no to opportunities and press trips that have came my way.

If you’re a freelance writer or journalist and you have a niche, that’s great. There are lots of advantages to having a niche – writing articles takes less time because you know your subject matter, who the experts are, what the latest research says and so on. That means it’s potentially more lucrative because you’re quicker at producing the content. People also easily understand what you do – “I’m a health writer who produces content for insurance companies” is instantly comprehensible. And having a niche means that people can find you easily – you can optimise your website, LinkedIn profile and social media platforms with keywords for your area or areas of specialty.

But I think the pressure and emphasis on having a niche is unfounded. Especially if you’re in the first few years of your freelancing career and especially if a niche hasn’t made itself apparent to you.

If you don’t have a niche, don’t panic. 

If you don’t need a niche, what do you need?

Clients.

If you don’t have a niche, you need clients.

Freelancing is fickle. It’s up and down and in order to ride the waves you need to make sure that your boat is weighted equally. Ok, that may not be the best analogy but you get where I’m going.

If you lose one editor or client, you don’t want the whole ship to go down. You want to be able to lose an editor or two and still have the ship be steady. 

This post is not about how to find clients, but if I’ve learnt anything this year is that there are so many publications and organisations out there that are hungry for content. Whether you want to write for magazines and newspapers or produce content marketing materials for corporates, or a mix of both, there is plenty of well-paying work out there. And you don’t need a niche to do so. 

The advantages of not having a niche

Not having a niche means that you don’t get into any (or many) difficulties writing for competing agencies or publications. Even if you are a writer who specialises in B2B content for technology companies and are in high demand, you may have to be careful that the companies you are writing for are not in direct competition. 

I write for two of Australia’s newspapers. Usually this would be a no-no, but because I write distinctly different content for each publication (for one I write food articles and for the other I write predominantly lifestyle and health pieces), I can get away with it.

I see way too many writers, especially in the early stages of their career, worry about picking niche. I was one of them. But it’s not like turning on a light switch. 

Not having a niche doesn’t mean you are a jack-of-all-trades with your attention split in a hundred different directions. It means that you are curious, adaptable writer. And being a generalist can be lucrative. Kevin Casey, is a copywriter who is a generalist and is pretty much living the dream. He only works two-thirds of the year and travels to exotic and remote locations for the rest of the year. 

For me, what has worked is focusing on building relationships with editors, content managers and other clients. That is what has been lucrative.

Rather than asking what your niche is, it’s time to start asking:

What work do I want more of?

What work do I want less of?

What kind of people do I want to work with and write for?

The answers to those questions may offer you much more than a niche ever would.

What do you think? Have you felt that you need to ‘niche-down’ in order to be a successful freelancer?

15 Comments

  • Dave Fagg says:

    Great advice Lindy. I’m only dipping my toe into the freelance world, and my ‘niche’ (such as it is) has mattered, and it has not. My education and nonprofit niche has helped me convince one local government client that I would be a fit, but then my most lucrative job has been writing corporate documents for a medical entrepreneur….definitely not my niche :).

    In my limited experience, I reckon good communication, flexibility, and the ability to deliver are more important to most clients than a niche.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I think you’re right on the money there Dave with the importance of communication, flexibility and doing what you say you will when you say you will.

      It’s great that you have written some documents for a medical entrepreneur – it’s always great to work outside your wheelhouse because it means if you like that kind of work you can always use it to show other potential (similar) clients that you have some understanding of their industry and what they are after.

  • Claire says:

    Oh thank god, you’ve no idea how much this post has cheered me up. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours agonising over what my niche should be over the past couple of years. Writing lists, crossing things out. Should it be law (I used to be a lawyer), but then again I don’t really want to right just about law, should it be x, y or z? Honestly, I’ve been over and over it all. And if a niche appears, I’ll be happy to have it. But it’s REALLY cheering to know that it’s not essential. Thank you for your words of wisdom, I shall carry on as I am, only with more confidence.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I’m so glad Claire! You sound very similar to me with regards to trying to find a niche. I now think it’s something you can’t choose, but it’ll probably choose you. Leveraging your skills in law is different from that being your niche, especially if that’s not all you want to write about. Keep following what interests you (and what pays well!) and the niche question will drop away.

  • Michaela Fox says:

    "Niching-down", I love it!

    I am sure this post will reassure many freelancers out there. I wrote a blog post once about why I chose to ignore the advice about being niche-focussed. Ultimately, I just wanted to write about multiple topics. Perhaps I am too much of a scatter-brain to "niche-down", though broadly speaking I guess parenting/lifestyle is my niche 🙂

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Oh I’d like to read that post Michaela – can you link to it? You are far ahead of me, who has only just realised that I don’t need a niche to be successful.
      I don’t think it’s about being scatter-brained, more that you are curious, vibrant and adaptable. There. How’s that for a reframe?!

  • Great article, Lindy. There’s actually a danger in niching down: that you’ll succeed. Then you can spend the next 1 or 2 or 5 years writing about your chosen subject until you’re so bored you want to open a vein.

    I write indexes for books—the shy cousin of writing articles—and have never found or needed a niche. I wrote an article on generalizing vs. specializing: http://tiny.cc/czphpy

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks Carol, I’d be interested to hear if people who have niched down do get bored after a certain amount of time. Thanks for your comment!

  • Rashida says:

    Like you I thought long and hard about picking niches. I came to the conclusion quite early on that I’d rather write what I want than being forced to live in a box. I thrive on variety and prefer being a generalist. I think nich-ing works when you’re knowledgeable and passionate about one subject/area and know you want to position yourself there.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I think you’re right Rashida. Sounds like you made the right decision for you. It’s great having so much variety in your working life!

  • Camille says:

    I never had the experience of stressing out over a niche. I knew right away that I wanted to write about natural health and wellness and conscious living, giving me a broad range of topics to write about. I’m just getting started in freelance writing and was offered to write for a business that has nothing to do with my niche and the topic seemed dreadful to me. But I want to make money right now too. So I googled what others had to say about sticking to their interests or taking anything that comes your way and I found this post. It helped me make the decision to decline the offer and to stick with keep trying to work with the people and topics I want more of. Thanks!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Hi Camille, thanks for your comment. I’m so glad this post came along at the right time for you! Yes, I think if a topic doesn’t excite or interest you in the slightest, it’s best to steer clear!

  • Chloé Braithwaite says:

    Another fantastic post! I wondered about niche-ing down, as so many of us do, but I realised rather than writing about a certain topic, I wanted to focus on my technique, rather than topic. I find that when I market myself as someone who writes "data-driven posts from fun, new angles," I get a lot of bites from clients without having to do too much pitching. That way, it emphasises that I’m good at, and can understand, data/scientific research (this is put into context on my website/LinkedIn profile), but doesn’t limit me to a specific area.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks Chloe! I think you’ve hit on what so many writers struggle with – we often think a niche has to be a topic rather than the speciality of what we actually provide.
      I love yours – it’s instantly understandable and appealing.

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