What Shade of Gray Are You?

What’s on the iPod: Old, Old Fashioned by Frightened Rabbit

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It’s a slow time of year, so I’m able to get to some of my emails. I noticed a few from new writers with a common theme: How do I get started and where should I find work?

The first half of that question has a million answers (besides not being a real question and hinting at “I’m a little too lazy to do the initial legwork”). The second half, nearly as many. The second part of the question is almost impossible to answer. Why? Because I don’t know you.

I could start out by saying “Take a course in grammar and sentence structure” but what if you already have a good grasp on writing? Or I could say “Well, pick a specialty and start looking in that area.” But what if you don’t know where to look? And what if you’d rather not specialize? Careers are not black and white. They’re gray. And my gray probably doesn’t look anything like your gray.

A word about specialties: At some point in our careers we do develop specialty areas whether by accident or on purpose. We may not advertise as such, but many of us are known for one area or another. I specialize because I’m trying to attract a particular type of client. Also, I do plenty of generalized writing. Right now I have a large retainer client who is very much a consumer retail client. And it was that specialty that helped me open that and many other doors. Do I think you need that? No, not really. Here’s what I think:

You need exactly what you’ll find on your own. No one can tell you what client is going to be your ideal client, and when you’re first starting out, you won’t know that, either. You learn by taking on different types of clients and seeing which one has the work you love doing.

Specializing is a personal decision. If you find you love specializing, go for it. Will it make your business planning easier? In some ways yes. You’ll be able to focus in on your ideal client a little easier, and you’ll be able to better target your advertising to capture that audience’s attention. But I don’t think specializing at the start of your career works — unless you have a wealth of experience in an industry and you’re looking to transition from corporate into freelance. I’d rather see new writers try out many areas and keep that client pool wide open. Likewise, I think if you want to specialize, you shouldn’t let anyone talk you in to doing generalized work. Including me.

What fits me isn’t always going to fit you. I could beat that drum all day about how the only great career is one in copywriting/blogging/fiction/magazines/etc. (I wouldn’t because it’s nonsense). What works for me or for any other writer may not for you. You’d no sooner take on medical writing if consumer writing is your thing than I’d take on describing celebrity sightings when I loathe celebrity. 

You get started by reading and learning. Before asking “how” to get started, how about starting yourself? There’s a wealth of information on blogs such as this one, in books, in webinars, etc. Find out the basics — what you need, how to contact clients, what marketing methods to try, how to market in social media, how to create a business, and what a simple query letter or letter of introduction looks like. Then use that information to formulate a better question — one that gets you more targeted information that you can actually use.

You find work by actively seeking it, not answering ads. I’m not one for absolute statements, but this is one I believe firmly to be true. If you find clients solely through ads and job boards, you’re passively seeking employment and competing with thousands. And you’re letting a stranger dictate your hourly rate (a BIG no-no). Instead, do a little research into what clients you might try, how you’d approach them (a letter of introduction) and how frequently you’ll market (ahem — every day, right?). Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with the low wages and one-time projects that are common to job boards. And your career will flounder.

So, what shade of gray are you? Do you specialize or generalize? 
Who is your ideal client? What have you discovered as your career was developing?

About the author




  • Devon Ellington December 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    As you know, I generalize. I can write about almost anything, and I will, as long as I don't find it ethically unpalatable. I move between all kinds of writing.

    I'm still trying to find my ideal client — I would say, good communicator, interesting work, pays on time.

    This past year, as I was disentagling myself from a long term client, I took a huge financial hit — part of why I had to cut off that client. I am in the process of doing a new brochure and going after new clients.

    I've always been a big believer of finding a company you think is amazing and then creating a position for yourself in it, convincing them they can't live without you.

    I prefer to work for nonprofits, in spite of the lower pay. However, I can't work for a company if I don't respect them, and, if I can really get excited about their mission, my writing is much better than if I'm lukewarm.

    I have never found pleasure or success in taking a gig "just for the money." There needs to be more to it than that.

  • Joseph Hayes December 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    My shade of gray is very evident in my hair. I think I do more editorial writing than a lot of the folks who gather at your feet, Lori, so my pitch is a bit different. But food and travel are my mainstays (I know, poor baby) and 90% of my business it from my own efforts, the rest coming from referrals and the small amount of clients who find me online – yes, it does happen.
    Anyway … happy holidays!

  • Paula December 20, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I specialize and generalize. In other words, the bulk of my work comes from one area, but I don't limit myself to that one industry. I'd die of boredom if I did.

    My goal for 2013 is to expand some sub-specialties and continue seeking new markets.

    Merry Christmas, Lori. Happy Holidays to all. And to everyone here in the Midwest: good luck shoveling!

  • Cathy Miller December 20, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    While most of my business is healthcare/insurance industry-related, I colored outside the lines when I started writing for a global logistics management company. I've also dabbled in bios and resumes.

    I hope everyone has a happy, healthy & prosperous 2013 – no matter how you color. 🙂