Should freelance writers specialise? Absolutely, says film journalist Sophie Kaufman 

In part one of our series looking at whether or not freelance writers should specialise, we heard from journalist Mark Brown, who made the case that adaptability can pay off.

You can read the full piece here.

Now we turn to Sophie Kaufman, a film journalist and writer/director who believes that finding a niche can be a truly powerful thing. 

Below, Sophie explores this topic through the lens of an interview with her like-minded peer Christina Newland – a freelance film journalist with a distinct set of specialisms:

Sophie Monks Kaufman: The vitality of cultivating a specialism

“There was a point where I was, like, ‘Instead of writing the same things as other people, let me go out on a limb and see if anyone else is interested in the things I’m interested in.’” Christina Newland is a freelance film journalist specialising in boxing movies, 60s/70s counter-cultural Americana and Old Hollywood. 

We first met in 2015 when I was staff writer at an indie film magazine. I covered anything I was assigned, from tentpole superhero movies to low-budget schlock. I went freelance in 2016 and didn’t think to finesse my beat – my beat was movies in all their gloriously varied forms! Fast-forward four years I have realised this line from The Great Gatsby: “Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window.” 

Cementing this window is helped by direct communication with would-be employers, once a working relationship has been established. “Sometimes, after I’d worked for them a few times, I literally told editors, ‘If this comes across your door, I’m really into it’” says Christina, whose bold self-branding is apparent on Twitter where she has an engaged 10K following, partly as a strategic way to bridge literal distance through digital signposting, and partly as an expression of pure interest. 

“Because I’m in Nottingham, geographically separate from the centre of the film industry in London, I feel it’s important to keep up a social media presence. It doesn’t always have to be, ‘Look what I’ve done.’ Sometimes it can be a piece of information that you came across while reading, or a picture that you really liked related to your interest areas, just to keep yourself visible in people’s minds and connected to a particular set of things.”

Christina’s savviness exists in contrast to my own bumbling social media use. Over the years, my affiliation with a name publication meant I built a 5K following. But because I didn’t have a specific professional focus (nor an entertaining exhibitionist persona), I developed such anxiety around every single tweet that I deleted my account beyond retrieval and had to start anew from 0. Genius. 

Wielding a particular passion goes beyond marking your industrial territory to serve as an amulet against performance anxiety. In 2020, Christina was interviewed for two documentaries on two actors: Steve McQueen and Marilyn Monroe. “Ever since school, if I was interested in something, the motivation always would increase,” she says. “That was definitely the case with these documentaries. When you get really passionate about a topic, you tend to lose some of the nerves.”

Then there is the broader matter of the integrity that comes from knowing where your authority lies. As Christina says, “There’s so much noise. Everybody is talking about everything all the time and everybody has to weigh in on everything, often regardless of how much they do or don’t know on that particular topic. So, it feels like an antidote to that to only talk about the thing that you know that you can and should talk about.”

Sophie’s cultural criticism is to be collated on a yet-to-materialise personal website that she’s been thinking about for three years. In the meantime, please consider buying her pink pocket book on Wes Anderson and/or watch her short film I Do Not Sleep

Thanks to our contributing writers, who’ve helped to illuminate this much-debated corner of the pro-writing world with their own experiences and musings. 

From hearing what Mark and Sophie have to say on the topic, it seems the matter of whether or not to specialise is as nuanced and personal as the act of writing itself. Kind of makes sense, when you think about it like that – doesn’t it?