The Renegade Writer

How to Develop a Lucrative Freelance Writing Niche

By Daisha Cassel

Imagine a “niche writer,” and you might think of someone who is limited. Boxed in. Pigeonholed.

Or maybe you actually envy niche writers because they obviously have years of deep experience in a particular field which they can now apply to their writing. And you don’t.

I haven’t been writing for decades, nor do I have any spectacular educational or career experience in the topic I write about most. I write for a variety of publications, from national and local mags to those entertaining booklets that grocery stores hand out before the holidays. Most importantly, I am able to make more money—and write for a much wider variety of clients—now that I have developed a niche.

Connect the Dots

Sometimes your niche is something you never would have thought about developing. This was certainly the case for me. When I started writing, I had a dream… I had an awesome dream. Lionel Richie would narrate my life through song while I wrote for the big glossies. Focus area? I didn’t need that! I could write about anything!

It went well at first. And then, I got frustrated. Each new piece required research into an area I was completely unfamiliar with. It was interesting and educational, but it was time consuming. When I broke down my hourly rate for these pieces, it wasn’t looking good.

I had written for a national food and lifestyle title when I learned about a new in-store magazine that was being developed for a big grocery store chain. I contacted the editor, flaunting my food mag experience. She immediately assigned me an article. A job had never come so easily.

Shortly after that, I was in another grocery store when I noticed this store had a much larger, very professional looking food-based booklet. I called up the publisher, introduced myself as a food writer, and stated my credentials. By the next week, I had two assignments for the publisher worth a total of $4,000. I had never had an assignment that paid so well.

Wanna know a secret? The articles I had written for the big food magazine—the one I name-dropped to get my other food assignments—weren’t even about food.

But I was familiar with the world of food writing and publication, and I connected the dots… and if you have even a few clips, you can do the same. Maybe you’ve done a round-up of hot new lunch box ideas, a review of a children’s book, and a article for the local newspaper about new policies at the elementary school. Who would be interested in all of these articles? Parents. Why not say you specialize in topics of interest to parents?

Once you’ve narrowed down your niche, it’s time to niche down your pitches.

Go long! Go wide! Go…less obvious!

Linda tells me many of her Renegade Writer students would love to write about a topic close to their hearts. This is a fantastic—having a topic you are truly passionate about is a great start to building a niche. Yet the problem is that many of these would-be niche writers think about markets where they would be preaching to the choir.

Having a niche sometimes means being an ambassador for your special topic. Give some thought to whether your piece would drive the average reader of that publication to action. Let’s say you love dogs, and want to tell the world how great they are. Do you think the readers of Dog Fancy magazine will change their thinking when they read a point-by-point analysis on why dogs are terrific pets? No. Those readers already love dogs, and except for a rare few have already acted on dog ownership.

Why not think about niche groups of people who may want to learn about a certain facet of dog ownership? For example, you could pitch a trade magazine dealing with geriatric communities on the perks of having a dog live full-time in a nursing facility. A magazine about Autism issues might want to run your article incorporating new research on why dogs are effective therapy animals for Autistic children.

Finding a Niche as Pitch-less Writer

The above ideas work if you’re trying to crack the nationals and trade mags. But one of the most powerful things about having a niche is that you’re no longer reliant on feverishly pitching new and unique ideas to editors. Custom publishers and corporate clients are excellent avenues for niche writers. I wrote dozens of pieces for food-related custom publishers last year, and they are some of my most reliable and best-paying clients. They come to me—the food writer—with jobs; I just send a quote and get to work.

Niche it Down

Ramit Sethi, author of the book I Will Teach You to be Rich, advises his students and mentees to niche down their business and product ideas. Interestingly enough, he calls out the title of a magazine devoted to women’s short hairstyles to illustrate his point: Short Hair.

“I will never buy this magazine,” Ramit writes. “But the creators of Short Hair magazine don’t care about people who aren’t going to buy like me. They deliberately engineered their product and marketing to appeal to people who will buy.”

To put Ramit’s point in writer terms, when you try to appeal to every editor you lose out on attracting the editor who is specifically looking for a writer with vast experience covering the tech market or health trends. Do you think the editor of a magazine looking for innovative lunch box ideas is going to respond better to someone introducing themselves as a “writer” or a “food writer”?

Art Thou Bored?

Once you niche yourself, you can still write about non-niche topics—you’ll probably just do it less frequently. Right now I’m working on three food pieces, as well as a profile on some cool local jewelers for a regional magazine.

What about the idea that niche writers are limited, churning out redundant work? Some of the assignments I have completed as a food writer include a piece on allergen-free foods and new label laws, a travel short that covered a cool restaurant and other food-related hot spots, a booklet on football tailgating parties (two of ‘em, actually!), and a roundup of beauty products with food ingredients. I’m not bored yet!

How about you… Do you have an area that could become a niche? Got some great ideas on how to leverage a niche so clients pay attention to your pitches—or pay more for your work? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

Daisha Cassel is a writer who splits her time between all fifty states, Montreal (the Paris of Canada), Paris (the Paris of Europe), and Mogadishu (the most dangerous city in the world). You wanna step, mofos? You can contact her at www.daishacassel.com.

Jun 17, 2012 Advice, Magazines, Marketing

20 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    This was great advice, and I loved the entertaining, energetic tone of voice and mouthy author description. Thanks!

  2. Kayleen Reusser says:

    During my 20 years as a writer, I have learned the importance of working in niches. I am currently passionate about developing a new one—interviewing WWII vets. It is a big learning curve as I know very little about the war and with so many dying daily at some point my sources will be gone. But it’s worth the effort because I want to record their stories to show the significance of their contributions to our nation’s history. Last week I interviewed 3 and was so fascinated by how courageous and sacrificial the soldiers were!

    If anyone knows of a WWII vet who is alert and could talk well over the phone, please let me know. I do have a couple of military publications that use these stories, but could use more places to publish. Thanks!

    • Daisha says:

      Getting first-hand accounts of history from a shrinking pool of sources sounds like a challenge, but the stories they share must make the search worth it!

  3. Jo says:

    Thanks, Daisha, for this useful and entertaining post.

    I notice that website presents you as a writer who covers business, lifestyle, and food, as well as doing corporate/ghostwriting. Does that versatility hurt or help when marketing your food writing specialty?

    • Daisha says:

      Great question, Jo. I think it helps. A lot of my corporate writing has been food related (i.e. grocery brands) and nearly everything I have ghostwritten is the same, such as an “Ask the Chef” or “Ask the Nutritionist” column. My business cards and website are a little more general, but when I market myself to food clients I stress the food-related aspects of my experience in the LOI or pitch. I can’t be sure if an editor or account exec has ever decided against contacting me because of I’m not completely food-specific, but those who I have worked with seem to appreciate it. The best example I can give is grocery store booklets: they are 75% food content and 25% lifestyle type content, so my experience works well there. One client told me they used to use their staff recipe developer as well as a freelancer to tag-team a booklet, now they just give the whole project to me (at a higher rate–hooray!). I think unless the client is looking for a full-on recipe developer only, most food writing inherently has some lifestyle (or business or essay) elements woven in.

      • Jo says:

        Wow! Thanks so much, Daisha.

        I’ve been writing about business, but want to expand into lifestyle and food, so I’m all over this.

        I love that your website is so simple, and noticed you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, Twitter feed, writing blog, etc. Is that because your LOI and pitches work well, without the online promos?

        Do you find that food writing pays as well as business or corporate writing? (Lots of writers like lifestyle/food topics, driving down the going rate?)

        I’ve started writing business service pieces for food-related trades, like Pizza Today and Fresh Cup. Any suggestions for how else I might branch out into the types of writing you’re doing?

        Thank you for sharing your experiences, Daisha!

        • Daisha says:

          Hi, Jo! I think it’s really hard to say a that a certain genre/subject pays better or worse than any other. In my experience, seeking out the right type of client–not a particular subject matter–is the key to getting a rate you are comfortable with. I could write about graduation party tips for a local magazine, and probably get paid cents per word–but that’s just the nature of local mags. On the other hand, I can get an assignment from a grocery store writing a graduation party booklet, and get a pretty good hourly rate. So it’s still “corporate writing” in a sense, just writing about food for a corporation.

          I am really not a believer in the idea that people wanting to write about a particular subject drives down the rates for that subject matter. It’s not a zero-sum game. In fact, I think the popularity of a topic means there can be more opportunities for writers. Take veganism or red velvet cake–as these things become super mainstream, there is a thirst for information on them, and hence more opportunities to write on those subjects.

          The lack of social media presence on my website actually stems from personal preference. I’m just not into using those things in my personal life, so it never really became a consideration for work either. I’m sure there are people who attribute their success to networking in that way, it’s just not “me.” Maybe someone else who uses social media for their business can chime in here with the counterpoint!

          • Jo says:

            Good stuff, Daisha! I appreciate your willingness to share your niche-crafting and marketing viewpoint. Your approach is what feels most comfortable for me, too.

            Thanks for answering, and then answering some more!

      • Melissa says:

        This is a bit off-topic, but still entertaining (I hope) for writers. When my kids were young, I did a lot of ghostwriting. When their friends asked them what their mom did, a discussion about Halloween ensued. Now I still keep “ghostwriting” on my biz card, just because it’s a good conversation starter!

  4. Very interesting post. I’m working on developing a niche at the moment so I’m bookmarking this for some helpful suggestions.

    • Daisha says:

      Glad to hear it! Do you have a niche in mind?

      • I’m hoping to make my way in the parenting/child development niche, although I guess it could be quite a competitive market.

        I specialized in early childhood and education for two years as a journalist and currently write for a website covering early childhood education. I’m also a parent myself so I have plenty of first hand experience!

        I am trying to decide at the moment whether just aiming to get established as a parenting writer is too general and whether I should specialize more, but I thought the more general niche might give me more options.

        • Daisha says:

          I agree with you that keeping your niche general is a good thing because it gives you options. A general kids/parenting niche leaves you wide open to do anything of interest to parents or about kids. Then, for example, you can pitch a travel mag on ideas for vacations that both kids and adults will love; pitch a food magazine on healthy easter basket ideas that kids will enjoy as much as “bad” candy (maybe tested on your own kids?); and research behavioral issues (with child psychologists as your sources) for a parenting or family magazine. These are all very different articles and markets, but with a common thread.

          I am a big fan of spinning your own life experiences into a niche, so your experience with writing about child development and actually raising your own children is key here!

  5. Thanks for the replies Daisha.

    Your comments and Linda’s advice have encouraged me to develop my niche some more and start thinking about some pitches for magazines. So far I have just been taking on jobs for clients rather than pitching my own ideas, but I am excited about taking the next step now.

  6. Nancy Worley says:

    Thinking seriously about doing some niche writing focusing on senior dating. I’m currently on three sites. On one site alone I have 174 messages the last time I checked. I
    notice that participants often have difficulty composing an interesting profile.
    Have also had to sniff out the scammers. And of course I carefully word my “dear johns” when I can see clearly there are few compatibilities. Seems to me that many seniors need advice. Excited about this possibility!

  7. […] writers to increase their earnings. Jennifer Mattern in her blog also encourages freelance writers to find their niche. These are just two freelance experts who advocate that freelance writers find their […]

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