To Specialise or not to Specialise

Time to stand out from the crowd?


It’s been a tough few weeks. You get them every now and again, but you just ride on through and wait till you get to the other side. There will be times when client schedules slide and collide and there is nothing you can do about it, and there will be times when schedules stall and you are left with gaps. It’s the nature of the business. As a freelance you will have weeks that knock your confidence, and you will have some that leave you feeling on top of the world. You need to accept what you can’t change and try to make changes where you can, to make your life easier.  You want more of the ‘top of the world’ feeling in your life.

Now I know that the latest blip is just a blip, but it did get me thinking (as these things usually do), would it be better if I specialised?

I enjoy being eclectic because every commission is different. For example, in the past year I’ve worked on: a large poetry collection, some student thesis work, some business proofreading, some self-publishing commissions, a travel guide, and some ESL material. I’ve compiled, edited, and helped write a cookery book (for real chefs, not a book of my own attempts in the kitchen) and carried out some family history research, as well as completed work for traditional publishers. I’ve proofread, edited, indexed, compiled, sorted, project-managed, designed, researched and written. You see, every new job brought new and interesting things.

But at the heart of it all I specialise in historical subjects, I have just never really advertised the fact. I am an editor and genealogist. Give me an historical subject and I am happy, and quite a number of my commissions do have an historical flavour. See, I’m so old I even use ancient modes of speech (that’s my style, yours may be different).

Should I advertise myself as a specialist? Should you advertise yourself as a specialist? Is it better to restrict yourself to one subject rather than taking on other, equally interesting, areas? I would have hated to have missed out on some of the lovely books I’ve worked on (especially the lovely art books).


So, let’s look at some of the pros and cons for specialisation:

Pros for specialising

  • You become seen as a specialist in your chosen field.
  • Arguably you can command a higher fee.
  • You can still branch out, but in your chosen field rather than in a general direction.
  • You don’t have to specialise in a subject, you can specialise in a format. Or you can do both.
  • You just have to keep up with advances in one specialist area rather than in many.

Cons against specialising

  • Boredom may creep in. One of the reasons that freelance work is so rewarding is the variety of work that comes your way.
  • What happens if your speciality becomes obsolete or over-subscribed?
  • If you are not already a specialist in your chosen field you may have to re-train … and that’s going to be expensive.
  • If you are a specialist you have less opportunity for continued learning in other fields, as you will want to stick to your chosen specialism.
  • You are competing against other specialists, some of whom may have more qualifications than you.

Personally, I think the fear of missing out has stopped me openly specialising so far, and I bet I’m not the only one. Am I daft to admit that? Perhaps. Luckily though, many of my commissions have had a historical bent so perhaps I’ve just been lucky.

Perhaps it’s time I took the plunge?

Are you a specialist or a generalist? What are your views on specialising?

8 Comments on “To Specialise or not to Specialise

  1. Great post, Sara! As you know, I’m a specialist and focus only on fiction. For me, the breadth of genres in fiction is so large, and every novel so individual, I get a really diverse range of things to work on, even though they are all ‘fiction’. I’m also not very good at things like referencing or working with academic work, so for me it’s also about playing to my strengths. It means, too, that I can really streamline my learning and tailor my development towards fiction. Maybe in future I’ll want a break and branch out, though!

    • That’s another way of doing it! You specialise, but it’s not so narrow a specialism that it’s restrictive … you’re specialising in a form rather than a subject. Coming from an academic background I tend have specialised in the past in subject rather than fiction or non-fiction. I love fiction but don’t know if I could drag myself away from the factual stuff. Having said that I’m leaning more towards fiction these days, especially since I’m writing fiction again 🙂

  2. Hi Sara – it’s an interesting question. I think it might depend how you describe your specialisms – the descriptions don’t have to be restrictive. I used to think of myself as a generalist, and might have described myself as such, but I now think of/describe myself as a specialist in trade non-fiction and educational resources. Both of these are specific but also very broad areas, and ones I know very well, so I can still have my cake (like you, I enjoy working on a wide range of subjects, although I have some that I gravitate towards, like architecture, art, design, fashion and cookery) and eat it, too (I have more of a specific way to market myself). I suppose what I am saying is that even if you do say you specialise, there is no reason why it has to be in just one thing, or in a very small area.

    • Hi Liz. That’s very true, I think sometimes it all comes down to description. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees and, if you’ve worked on such a diverse range of subjects and formats, you need to rein yourself in just enough to specialise in *something* but not so narrow as to put yourself in a straitjacket.

  3. I specialise in my field (cooking) and yes, sometimes boredom sets in but practice also makes perfect. And because the field is narrower, I get more work. Then I let experimetation go crazy in my own kitchen.

  4. As Liz mentioned, I think it depends on how you define specializing. I’m a specialist proofreader, and I specialize in the social sciences and fiction. That encompasses quite a broad range of subject matter!

    I think that it serves new starters well to advertise the fact that they have specialist experience in particular subject areas or genres, perhaps based on prior career or academic experience. In particular, I don’t think that the message ‘I’ll proofread/edit anything’ sends a positive signal to a potential client because it doesn’t tell the person enough about what differentiates me. For me, specialization has less to do with what I will consider proofreading, and more to do with how I communicate what I can do for potential clients. Those two things aren’t always the same!

    • That’s very true Louise, and I think we have to look at how potential customers see us. In the past I’ve thought of specialisms as being restrictive, I think I’m changing my mind!

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