Developing an Expertise as a Freelancer

By Paula Pant, who writes the personal finance blog AffordAnything.org.

Congratulations, you’ve just entered the world of freelancing. If you’re like me (and I know many of you are!), you ventured into the Freelance Jungle hot off the heels of working at a daily newspaper, where you never had to worry about finding clients, negotiating contracts, or following up with editors about your long-overdue paycheck.

Hundreds of topics have been posted about how to do all of the above things, but I’ve seen very little written about one of the biggest hurdles I faced when I became a freelancer: what should I write about?

At the newspaper I was assigned to the “education” beat, although the paper was small enough that all the beat reporters felt like we were general assignment. If there was an education story, I wrote it. But if there wasn’t, I covered murder, fires, and celebrities who came to town.

Furthermore, I never really WANTED to be on the education beat. I had no particular interest in educational issues. I was assigned that beat, and I ran with it. But I lacked the passion to continue writing about that same topic as a freelancer.

In short: I had no expertise.

Do I Need an Expertise?

At first, I didn’t see the need to develop an expertise. “I’ll just write about whatever!,” I thought, just like I had in my general-assignment days.

For a very brief second, it looked like that strategy would work. I had a regular stream of work for a local magazine, writing about a wide variety of local stories: store openings, profiles of local business leaders, stories about upcoming charity runs.

But there was nowhere to grow. My method wasn’t scalable.

Choosing an Expertise

After that I tried to mold my expertise to fit the magazines for which I was currently freelancing. I happened to be writing for a smattering of food magazines, so I figured, “Alright, I’ll be a food writer!”

Problem: actually trying to do that, without the requisite background or passion, proved to be much more difficult than I thought. I was competing against a pool of talented food writers with genuine passion and years of experience. Unless I was willing to put the work into rising to their level, there was no way I was going to scale up to the bigger and better-paying publications.

You Are What You Read

Years ago I heard advice that’s carried me through my career: write what you read.

In college, I devoured nonfiction: newspapers, magazines, books. I quickly realized I should write for the same mediums that I read. I forged into journalism shortly after making that realization.

When I became a freelancer, I applied this same advice one level deeper: what topic do I read most often? What’s my favorite magazine? What’s on my bookshelves?

The answer was astonishingly easy. My favorite magazine is Money Magazine. My bookshelves are stocked with Trent Hamm and Philip Fischer. As soon as I became conscious of this, I wondered why the idea hadn’t seemed obvious from the beginning: I should write about money.

But I Don’t Have a Degree in It!

Once you recognize the topic in which you want to cultivate an expertise, you may face the same follow-up concern that I did: “But I’m not an expert in it! I don’t even have a degree in that field!”

I don’t have a finance degree. I’m not a certified financial planner, certified public accountant, or certified anything else. How could I gain credibility? If this is your situation — how can you gain credibility?

The answer is simple: just do it. If you read about your preferred topic, chances are you’re already well-versed in its fundamentals. You already have a long list of innovative thoughts on that subject matter percolating in the back of your mind.

Keep reading books and magazines on that topic (this is the fun part of our jobs!). If you love it, then is exactly what you’d be doing in your spare time anyway. The more you read, the more ideas you’ll generate.

Get those thoughts down on paper. Pitch them as story ideas. Launch a blog. Tweet about it. The more you publish about that topic, the more credibility you gain.

Soon you’ll be able to say with confidence, “Hi, I’m John, and I write about cars,” or “I’m Jane, and I’m a landscaping and gardening writer.”

Hi, I’m Paula Pant and I write the personal finance blog AffordAnything.org. Check out my popular recent post, If I had a Million Dollars, I’d Go Into Debt. Follow me on Twitter @AffordAnything


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