Specialist or Factotum: Picking Your Approach as a Freelance Writer

Picking the right approach for your writing job

There are writers who focus only on one single subject. They might spend every working hour writing about the furniture found in a Victorian dolls’ house. There are other writers who spend every day working on something different. Sports one day, marketing the next. Those in the former category will likely know their subject inside out, while those in the latter category might spend more time on research. Deciding which category you fit into can be tough.

In this blog, we’ll discuss whether you should be a specialist or a factotum.

Let’s think about the internet. Have you seen how big it is? It’s huge. It already contains pretty much everything you could ever imagine. Even before you decided to be a writer, someone else has probably already written exactly what you had in mind. If you’re going to succeed, you’re going to need a plan.

Broadly speaking, this plan will come down to a choice. Will you pick one subject and be a specialist writer? Or will you apply yourself to all sorts of subjects and go where you’re needed, becoming a factotum?


Specialising in your Subject

For those who want to specialise, picking out a niche might seem easy. It could be one of your hobbies or a subject you studied in school or in a previous job. Essentially, for those who specialise, you’re going to need to be incredibly familiar with the subject matter. An interest alone might not be enough; you’re going to have to be an expert. This can function as something of a balancing act. The more niche your subject matter becomes, the more of an expert you’ll have to appear to be.

In certain subjects – for example, finance – being a credible expert pays very well. Writing a 500-word article can bring in anything from $250 to $1,000, depending on the publication in question. Being an expert pays.

But this isn’t true for every subject. For those subjects which are more popular – for example, video games – there’s going to be more competition and less demand for incredibly specific expertise. Thus, the rates will likely be lower. Picking a specialist subject can be profitable, as long as it’s the right specialist subject.

But being a specialist isn’t all sunshine and easy money. Often, becoming a specialist will be described as being a niche writer. And being a niche writer is exactly as it sounds: niche. That means that there are fewer websites, magazines, and outlets which can potentially pay you for your work. By specialising, you’re limiting your potential audience and your potential paymasters. If one place shuts down, you might find yourself in trouble.

What’s more, there’s the human element to consider. For some people, writing about the same subject every single day can be wearisome. It can grow tedious. If you’ve picked your hobby as a specialist subject, you can walk a dangerous tightrope. You begin to view your previously enjoyable pastime in a new light. It becomes too much like work. If you’re planning on becoming a specialist writer, be wary of growing bored of your specialist subject. Burnout can be very real.


Becoming a Factotum

So, what about the other side of the coin? There’s plenty of names for those who don’t specialise. Jack of all trades might not sound great. Factotum does sound a bit better (at least it’s a bit more Latin-based). For some people, becoming a freelance writer means they need to find a writing job. For many people, this means starting off at a content mill.

For the unaware, a content mill is the name given to those websites which offer writers a broad range of generally low paying work. It’s a good introduction into the world of the non-specialised writer. The content mill speaks to clients, offering them blogs and content for their site. They pass these orders along to a team of writers and take a cut while doing so. Generally, this means that content mills offer a large amount of low-paying jobs on a regular basis. Very rarely will they require specialist knowledge. With many freelance first-timers looking to make money, the content mills seem like an easy option.

And, typically, they are. There’s dozens of mills out there. They might offer twenty or thirty assignments a day. One minute you’re writing a list of the top five pool cleaning products, the next you need to discuss the merits of a certain fantasy football strategy. Cursory research is required, but most of these blogs are about packing the page with selected keywords and SEO practices. It’s often boring, uninspiring, and a decent way to pay the bills.

But content mills don’t hold many people’s attention for too long. After a while, you might seek out higher rates or more rewarding work. And this is where being a factotum can be challenging. Essentially, you’re now one of many thousands of writers who are competing for every single position. In those roles in which specialising is not required, jobs are often awarded to the lowest bidder. For many writers, this is an untenable position.

It’s not unassailable, however. Taking a factotum approach may require a bit more perseverance. For example, our daily writing updates offer plenty of different listings from around the world which don’t depend on specialisation. Picking up a few clients can provide a very good bedrock for your business. You might find yourself writing a lot of marketing blogs or B2B webpages but these rarely require elusive specialist knowledge. Your body of work grows, you develop as a writer, and you’re able to charge better and more rewarding rates.

See, the upside of the factotum approach is flexibility. You can take jobs in many different subject areas. You can keep your work varied and interesting. You can maintain a roster of clients, ensuring that you’re always being paid by a variety of sources and minimising the risk of the work drying up. You might have to spend more time seeking out clients, do more research, and command slightly lower rates than your specialist equivalent, but the rewards are evident. A greater pool of more varied work, the chance to learn something new, and a minimised degree of risk.


A Balanced Way to Find a Writing Job

If you are new to the freelance writing industry, deciding to be a specialist or a factotum is one of the first decisions you make. You might not even make it consciously, simply picking it up as you go along. But it’s a question that every writer finds themselves asking at one point or another: what do I want to write?

As ever with these binary questions, the best answer can often be found in the middle ground. There are those specialist writers who occasionally take work outside their field to pay the bills. There are factotum style writers who will grow steadily more specialised simply due to the amount of work they do for a single client. It’ll always be a personal decision.

However, it can help to be aware of the various advantages and disadvantages of each style and there’s nothing to say that you can’t switch. When you want to find a writing job, the most important factor is often getting paid. You can figure out the details as you go along.

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