Should freelance writers specialise? Not necessarily, says journalist Mark Brown
To specialise, or not to specialise? It is, in a sense, the holy grail of “should I/shouldn’t I” career decisions for professional writers. Will it be more fruitful, long-term, to throw caution to the wind and dive head-first into a niche? Or is it more sensible – fulfilling even – to nimbly dart from one subject to another, proving that adaptability is a specialism in itself?
Here at Finmo, we’re invested in the world of self-employment and freelancing, and are always looking for ways to dig deeper into the topics that matter to our clients. In this two-part series, we’ve enlisted the help of two experienced freelance writers – both with their own unique take on the subject of specialising.
Having an area of expertise while simultaneously keeping your fingers in a few (metaphorical) pies can help keep income consistent, says journalist Mark Brown, who’s first up to give us his take on the subject:
Mark Brown: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”
As a writer, I tend not to be very keen on clichés. However, 26 years in freelance journalism has given me a certain respect for those time-worn words of advice: “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
I began my writing career as a theatre critic for the Scottish arts and events magazine The List. Over the following few years I moved on to newspapers such as The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.
While I considered theatre criticism to be my vocation (and I still do), my time at The Scotsman required me to diversify, writing reviews and features across the arts. In fact, after a two-year period in which I’d reviewed veteran rockers Status Quo, the Rhinestone Cowboy himself Glen Campbell, and acclaimed American comedian Rich Hall, I started to refer to myself as “The Scotsman’s utility man”.
I’m sure that quip reflected a youthful frustration that, while I wanted to prove my brilliance as a drama critic, I was having to spend wet Tuesday nights reviewing the likes of Irish crooner Daniel O’Donnell. But as my career has progressed, it’s become clear that those years of reviewing everything and anything in the world of the arts stood me in very good stead.
My experience at The Scotsman taught me that my ability to communicate, not only in the written language but also in the spoken word, is a transferable skill. It wasn’t long before I was diversifying both within journalism and from it.
By the early years of the new millennium I was writing on current affairs for the Scottish Daily Mirror and combining global news and culture in pieces for the New Statesman magazine. However, at no point did I give up on my passion for theatre, which I’ve continued to pursue.
I’ve been the theatre and performing arts critic for the Scottish newspaper the Sunday Herald and, its successors, The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National, since 2003. I’ve also written on the performing arts for the Daily Telegraph for the past 15 years.
My journalistic work on theatre has, since 2005, been combined with part-time and guest lecturing in theatre studies at an array of higher education institutions, ranging from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to the University of St Andrews and Lisbon University. The diversity of my work has never felt like, or indeed become, a distraction from my specialism in theatre criticism.
Like most freelancers, I have often found that, even when I have a healthy mix of regular gigs and occasional or one-off commissions, the income doesn’t necessarily keep the proverbial wolf from the door. In that context, my journalistic skills have proved indispensable in my sideline in sub-editing and proofreading.
After a quarter century in the writing business, I don’t feel particularly equipped to give much in the way of advice. However, I can say with certainty that, paradoxical though it may seem, one can both diversify and stay true to one’s specialism.
Mark Brown is a freelance journalist, author, teacher and editor. Based in Glasgow, he writes regularly for the Scottish newspaper the Sunday National and the UK title The Daily Telegraph. You can find Mark’s work at: scottishstage.wordpress.com.
Next up, we hear from film journalist and writer/director Sophie Monks Kaufman. Taking a slightly different view in part two of our series, she explores the power of harnessing a niche and turning it into a sole area of focus. Read her take on the subject here.