Resources for Writers

Articles Newsletters Links

Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? Some comments on the article by Chet Dembeck, which argued that writers need to become specialists in order to get the best jobs 

Is Chet right? Does Chet's advice apply in New Zealand? Can specialists thrive, or even survive, in a small market? Well, here's some of the answers we got from readers: 

On 11 April 2000, Clive Court wrote:

Just to respond to your recent article about specialization for freelance writers. This was just about the first thing I learned after "be sure to read the publication you're going to pitch to." This was in my magazine article writing class. The instructor also left a major impression on me from the first day..."To pass this course, you must show me a cheque from a publisher...the higher the sum, the higher the grade!" Our text book was the latest Writer's Market. Well, I managed to get an A (85%) out of that course because I sold three features, two to New Zealand and one to World Sports published in the UK. When my daughter left high school three years ago she won four journalism prizes and her teachers had been encouraging her to be a writer. I suggested that Canada did not pay its writers well. She should really study business at university because after that, she could do anything she wanted. Become a business writer, manage a newspaper, or publish a magazine. ...

Last December, with just less than a year to go before she graduates, she signed a contract with a leading international management company as a junior consultant. She's a good writer and she will be paid well for it. After a career as a magician and public relations consultant, I now teach public relations at a university college. April 7 was my last last class for this academic year and 65% of my graduating students had PR-related jobs to go to...

... PR/Marketing firms often need writers and it's not cost-effective for the key staff to spend time writing much beyond campaign proposals and evaluation reports. If they're a busy firm, they will be looking for reliable writers who can handle specific research and writing assignments. If you're a specialist in technology, business, finance, agriculture, transportation—or any other key factor of the economy, they would probably like to hear from you.

Clive Court

......And Margaret Racosky wrote:

Actually I'm also American but unlike Mr Dembeck I've been forced to be a generalist. I work in the non-profit world, and because of the limited resources inherent in that world, I am expected to write, edit, desktop publish, market, do press and corporate communications, etc.
While this gives me a fairly broad skill base, it does mean that I'm not an expert in my field...the downside of being a jack of all trades is, of course, that you are master of none. One of the dangers of being a specialist is that you can trap yourself into one skill or area of expertise and be unable to change with the market.

I find the trend in the States—despite the well-publicized labor shortage (which I have yet to experience)—is to expect generalists. Employers (or perhaps just non-profit ones?) want people with many and varied skills, and with the prevalence of home computers, user-friendly software, and the resources of the Internet, they often get what they want in much younger, cheaper candidates. What I can offer and they cannot is experience.

Perhaps the ideal is a generalist with one specialty?

Margaret Racosky
Washington, D.C.

Last updated 18 Oct 2004 NZST