Find your niche!
It’s one of the hottest pieces of advice in freelance writing these days.
“Trying to do everything for everybody leaves you doing nothing for nobody,” say the freelance gurus. “If you don’t niche down, don’t bother starting up!”
This growing emphasis on specializing is a function of the increasing competitiveness of the freelance landscape; it’s more and more difficult to stand out in a crowded field if you don’t have a clearly defined sense of what you do (or want to do) and whom you do (or want to do) it for.
But is choosing a niche really a prerequisite of freelancing these days?
Niche: red carpet or obstacle?
It’s undoubtedly true that coming out strong covering a niche in which you are uniquely qualified to work can be like rolling out a red carpet to success.
Let’s imagine Nina, a former airline exec who becomes a freelance writer specializing in writing content for airplane manufacturers, airports, and industry associations.
She has an extremely easy time networking her way into new clients and finding an ongoing stream of work. Soon enough she’s doing a six-figure business and turning away inquiries.
Seeing the ease with which Nina launched a freelance career can inspire a sense that identifying a niche is the best strategy when starting out. And it is the best strategy… for her.
That’s because Nina has experience, knowledge, and connections in that niche. Of course she should choose that niche and barrel forward, capitalizing on the useful expertise and network she’s spent years building.
But beware: Deciding to choose a niche before getting started isn’t nearly so strategic for a newbie without that kind of obvious path to follow, especially if the project of settling on the right one leaves you hamstrung.
Many fledgling freelancers, hearing the calls of “Niche! Niche! Niche! Niche!” from the freelance peanut gallery, become paralyzed with doubt and indecision.
Some are under the impression they can’t choose a niche until they know everything about a subject, so they become defeated. Some try to choose a niche out of thin air, deciding based on an interest in or passing familiarity with a certain subject. Others decide to focus in an industry they’ve worked in previously in hopes of getting better traction, even if they aren’t really interested in the subject.
Here are the type of comments I hear all the time from new or aspiring freelancers:
“I feel like I HAVE to choose a niche and become an expert on it before I can freelance.”
“I don’t have much work experience and don’t know which niche to choose. Maybe tech since that’s popular? Or food since I once worked in a restaurant? Once I figure it out, I’ll start.”
“I used to work in an accounting firm, so I guess I can choose that as a niche. The whole point of freelancing for me is to move into a different industry. But I guess I’m just stuck.”
These poor freelancers are being stymied by imaginary limitations.
Here’s the truth: You don’t have to choose a niche.
In fact, unless you’ve got that red carpet scenario, you’re probably better off if you don’t choose one before getting started freelancing.
Let the niche choose you instead.
Letting the niche choose you
As I’ve said elsewhere, you just need one person to hire you for one thing to start as a freelancer. Follow your nose to get one gig that seems interesting or, hey, is simply available. Then do another gig and another, each time looking for things that interest you or that can be strategic stepping stones to other things that do.
As you go along pursuing the opportunities that seem like the best fit for you, reaching out to companies that you want to write for, or pitching ideas to publications, you’ll find yourself gravitating toward certain topic areas.
At some point, once you are getting a lot of work in a particular area and eagerly pursuing more of it, you might declare you’ve found your niche. Or you might find multiple niches, even totally unrelated ones, that you can pursue simultaneously. This is perfectly acceptable and frequently (if not usually) what successful freelance writers do.
Quite honestly, I find that staying within a given industry niche is actually fairly hard. You may end up feeling like you have to work at that harder than you do at kind of sprawling out and collecting niches like so many stray puppies.
Niche as umbrella
Another key idea that’s often missing from the niching-related advice that’s making the rounds these days is that a niche doesn’t have to be an industry or category — it can be an approach or sensibility.
It may be helpful to think of it as “positioning” instead of “niche.” For instance, say Nina the aerospace writer decides that she’s also interested in writing about driverless cars and space tourism. She can pull all of these topics together under a “transportation of the future” niche. Or an “innovation in motion” niche.
In cases like this the niche becomes like an umbrella. Say Nina wants to move farther afield and start writing about travel and telecommunications. Along with aerospace, these may seem like disparate niches, but Nina can position herself as a writer who explores the forces that are making the world seem smaller.
Is there an expert in the house?
Just as the advice about finding a niche rarely gives any leeway for going forward without one or for defining niches differently, it also usually stops short of addressing the question of whether covering a niche means having to be an expert of some kind.
I’m here to tell you it does not.
Of course there are definitely freelancers out there who are extremely knowledgeable in the niches they cover.
Often they’ve worked in the industry previously, like Nina. Or they have specific education in the area. Or they just learned about the niche little by little as they dug into it as a freelancer.
As I’ve said, for those people, pursuing a niche is obviously a good idea.
For the rest of us, it’s okay just to stay away from the term “expert” altogether. Or rather, to become an expert in writing in certain ways and for certain types of people, but not necessarily to become an expert in their subject matter.
I am a great example of this “expert at my task, not your subject” approach. I am basically an expert in researching fairly technical or complex topics I don’t know about (including asking true experts obvious questions) and then turning what I learn into engaging, readable pieces of writing.
Since I think of that as my expert skill, I am confident in taking on assignments in topics I am unfamiliar with. To wit, subjects I’ve written about in the last couple years include M&A compliance issues, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s new rules on leasing transactions, legislation to address the opioid epidemic, artificial intelligence for customer experience, healthcare pathway management, sexism in the solar industry, next-gen technology for swimming pools, and regulations governing the functioning of federal websites.
Over time, as you write more in a given niche you’ll become increasingly familiar with the concepts, technicalities, language, acronyms, pain points, and sensitive issues in that field, so you’ll become a species of expert.
But even then it’s unlikely you’ll ever become a subject-matter expert. And frankly, you shouldn’t. That’s what interviews are for. And writing done by those who aren’t in the weeds of a given subject is usually clearer and more engaging.
That’s why they pay us the big bucks.
Perfect vs. good
It’s too bad that so much of the advice about niches out there is making the perfect into the enemy of the good.
Many new freelancers seem to feel like they can’t get started until they identify the “right” niche.
And I get it: If I had felt like I had to identify a niche before beginning I would never have started. I’d still be working at an office and hating my life.
If indecision about your niche is causing you to delay, then start first and niche down later.
Or don’t niche down later!
It’s your choice, since you’ll be acting as the CEO of your own business.
Just start by getting that one gig in anything that interests you. See how it feels. Then take your next step based on the info and insight that experience has given you.
Then get the next gig.
And the next.
And soon you’ll find yourself on some kind of path.
A path of your own.