Freelance: Specializing Works

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on projects that all relate to sailing—my chosen sport. Yes, I’m lucky—but I’ve also consciously set myself up as a specialist in a tiny niche. And this, I believe, is the true secret to my current success as a freelancer.

masts at Newport boat show 2012Anyone need a writer… anyone?

When I first started as a freelance writer thirty years ago, I already knew a lot more about sailboats than about anything else. But limiting myself to working only within such a tiny industry seemed like a bad idea, so my approach in those days was “I can write for anyone.” While that was true in theory, I eventually learned something that should have been obvious all along: I will do my best work on a project that excites me. And the projects that excite me involve boats—preferably those powered by sail. This could be considered the non-fiction equivalent of “write what you know,” I suppose, and it definitely helps me gain the insight needed to write for Seahorse Magazine.

Institutional knowledge

Over several decades of writing projects, I’ve picked up information about many aspects of the sport just by being interested and paying attention: from coastal cruising to the Olympics, from large boats to small—if I don’t know the answer, I know someone who will. That institutional knowledge means more dots connected for my clients—as long as I’m working on a project where that knowledge is relevant.

So what if some wise older human had said to me when I first started, “Stick to boats” rather than “cast your net as wide as possible”?

Even if I’d listened, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. I’ve only worked on one project that didn’t have anything to do with boats, and that was a long time ago—though I still remember how much I dreaded sitting down at my desk each morning. Anyway it was a much different world then; today, our interconnected lives makes it a lot easier to succeed as a freelancer in a small industry like sailing.

Projects that excite us are likely to lead to our best work. Being uniquely qualified for something makes us happy. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.