Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are You a Specialist or Generalist?

When new writers ask me how to find success, I often advise them to sit down and think about their goals. While I do still believe this is sound advice, some writers may benefit from taking even one more step back to ask themselves: Am I a specialist or a generalist? Knowing the answer to this question may help many writers set the right goals.

Am I a generalist?
Are you the type of person who wants to know everything about everything? Do you get bored in the middle of long projects? Do you seek out new challenges?

If so, then you're likely more of a generalist than a specialist. Generalists are well equipped for shorter projects, because they have the ability to shift gears constantly. While they can write books too, generalists are usually ready to move on to the next assignment (and the assignment after that).

Great markets for generalists include articles for online and print publications, copywriting, short-term professional and technical writing, poetry, short fiction, and blogging.

Am I a specialist?
Are you the type of person who really likes to know everything about one subject? Do you get tunnel vision when you're researching that subject? Are you sometimes accused of being obsessed?

Then, my friend, you may be a specialist. Some specialists have formal training on their subject; others find it through personal experience or investigation. Specialists usually have what it takes to dig deep into a subject and to keep digging. The hurdle for specialists is often learning how to share that deep information with your audience, especially if you're writing for a more general audience.

Great markets for specialists include columns for online and print publications, big professional and technical writing projects, novels, nonfiction books, and blogging (on a specific subject, of course).

Which is better?
Most people have a little generalist and specialist in them, so making a decision about which path to take isn't always easy. Plus, I feel that even generalists should try to pick niches for their work--just to help them develop long-lasting professional relationships and opportunities. That said, I don't think one is better than the other.

Specialists can often demand more money on a project, but the direct competition with other specialists can make the stakes of landing a project higher than for a generalist. It's also worth noting that specialists put all their eggs in one basket. If something happens to the basket, there ain't no eggs.

Meanwhile, generalists have a more diversified approach, but they run the risk of continually chasing the next assignment or job. It can be tough work without the recognition that specialists may receive in their fields. Generalists often can struggle with maintaining a steady revenue stream.

So which one are you?

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10 comments:

Editor said...

This should be required reading for all new writers.

JeannetteLS said...

I have always thought of being a generalist as the butterfly approach to knowledge, where I lite only long enough to learn a little more than I need, then I move on. You are so right. We ARE always chasing the next flower, aren't we.

Satia said...

I honestly don't know how to answer this. I have several novel manuscripts on file, at least three chapbooks, and a collection of short stories I've been building over time. I also edit a monthly newsletter for which I write some of the content, have maintained a blog (in various locations) since 1999.

I think when I need to specialize, I do so and for those projects that require being a generalist, I can do that as well. I'm glad you said that most of us have a little of both because I honestly don't think I fall solidly on one side nor the other.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

If I had to answer this question myself, I'd say that I'm a specialist (on business of writing) with some general interests.

Stephanie Hoover said...

I am a "specialist" in the main. Although I've been selling my writing since 1984, I also work as a genealogical and historical researcher. Much of my writing (now) involves topics requiring deep, historical research -- so I get to combine two passions into one career.

I strongly recommend specialization to all new researchers and writers who ask me how to get into the business. For young writers, the intimate knowledge of one topic might help outweigh the lack of published clips.

Cheryl Wright said...

Say specialist, and you'll see my hand shoot up. Still, there is a bit of "generalist" in me and it shows itself in the varied topics nestled under my specialty, which I like to call "Lifestyle Choices".

Life is an accumulation changes, situations and events that call us to make choices that impact our lives, positively or negatively. There are tons of topics under that heading: authenticity, setting goals, finding and pursuing dreams, work/life balance, self- improvement, motivation/inspiration....

As a self-confessed specialist, I see myself in your description. Although I write feature articles, I thrive best with a column. So, when I send a query to an editor/publication, I usually indicate that I am willing to write a column.

A specialist tinged with generalist tendencies - that's me.

Bethany D. Ricks said...

Wow I find this very intriguing. It is true, that everyone that will ever want to write or writes now should read this, it gives much insight into yourself. I think I am mostly a specialist right now, but yet again I am still technically a 'new writer' and I have no solid professional experience in the field.

HeatherLambie said...

This was really helpful. I've never labeled myself this way, but when I look back at my professional life and CV... and see that I've changed jobs (by choice) every 2-4 years. Thus it would appear, sir, that I am a generalist.

That said, all my jobs have been in the journalism/communications/publications fields. So does that make me a General Specialist? Or just someone who gets bored easily and needs a challenge?

Either way, the common thread I've had through all my professional life is sideline freelance work. That satisfies my writing wanderlust.

Fran said...

I've been totally stalled on jumping headlong into my late-in-life writing career because of self doubt: Will I be able to stay focused for lengthy writing expectations? Shouldn't every author write a novel? I know myself too well to say Yes to long commitments. I have a very short attention span, let's say...So, that makes me a Generalist for sure. NOW I see.
I've been casting my nets too far, and should not think of myself as less talented simply because I prefer to write articles and short stories instead of tomes.
This added a little sparkle to my writer's self confidence. Thanks, I needed that!

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Sometimes knowing your natural strengths and weaknesses can really liberate you to do amazing things.