If you’re relatively new to freelancing, you’ve probably come across the term “niche” a few times while scouring the internet for tips and tricks. So what the heck does it mean exactly, and why should you care?
A niche is an area of expertise. Your niche determines your marketing strategy and the sorts of jobs you land. Your niche is what you like doing best. If you’re a writer, it’s the subject or writing format you’re most knowledgeable about. Your niche could be health, personal finance, or crafting. It could be blogging for businesses, writing book proposals, or creating press releases. The best niche combines both a subject and writing format. For instance, a blogger for health and fitness companies or a book proposal writer for fiction authors. This ensures that your niche is narrow, aka specific.
You don’t necessarily have to choose just one niche, but each niche should be narrow and they should all relate. As part of my 2017 business goals, I’ve narrowed down my niches further than I ever have before, and I’m pleased with the outcome.
But before I get into my niches, let me answer your burning question. “Why do I need a niche?”
Generality Kills Careers
When you’re just trying to get your foot in the door and make actual money off your writing, it’s tempting to grab at anything and everything. Applying to a lot of different jobs types in the very beginning isn’t inherently a bad thing. You may not know what you want your niche to be. I didn’t. The difference is not to grab at anything that pays, but to only apply to the jobs that grab your attention. By doing that, I gravitated toward book projects. True, I snatched up any job that was related to writing, formatting, or editing books of any kind, but I wasn’t applying to, say, blogging jobs. This realization gave me the basis of my niche.
When you make your website and business cards, your title should not be “Freelance Writer.” Do you know how many people have that phrase somewhere in their title? It’s insane. Even people with clearly defined niches probably have those two words close together somewhere on their sites. How are you ever going to stand out from the crowd? How are you ever going to appear on the first page of Google?
I don’t know about you, but when I do a Google search, I click through three pages of results, tops. When you’re first starting and Google hardly knows who you are, how is anyone going to find you? In all likelihood, they’re not, unless they’ve found a direct link to your site through your social media. But if you’ve made your title “Freelance Writer” on your social media profile, fewer people are going to find you there, too.
When a client needs a writer, they need them for a specific purpose. In all likelihood, they will insert that purpose into their search bar along with “freelance writer.” Guess who’s going to pop up? People who have both the purpose and “writer” in their title. Not you.
If no one can find you, you’re dead in the water already. You’re going to have to pitch twice as often as a niched writer just to stay in the running.
Expert vs. Amateur
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a stay-at-home mom who has found financial success as a blogger. You want to write a book to help other mothers earn a steady income from home. You obviously know how to write, you’re a blogger, but you’ve never written anything over 2,000 words. You don’t really know where to begin when it comes to a book. You decide to hire a ghostwriter to help you out. We’ve already discussed the search engine problem, so let’s instead imagine that you, the mommy blogger, advertise your need on a job board.
You get two responses in your inbox the very next day. One is from Jerry General. He tells you he has seven years of experience as a freelance writer. That gets your attention. He lists a few credentials like a masters degree in English and a certification course in fiction writing. Hmm, well the first is nice, but how does the second really help you? He sends you a link to a few samples. You click on them to find an article for Rolling Stone, a blog post on fitness that got lots of traffic, and an ebook on how to get out of debt that has great ratings on Amazon. Those are all pretty impressive, especially that Rolling Stone article, but you wonder whether he will be an adequate ghost for you. Sure, he’s written a book before, but it’s not really on your topic. Can he capture your voice?
The second is from Sally Specific. She only has two years of experience, but she calls herself a how-to book ghostwriter. Wow, that’s exactly what you need, right? She doesn’t have a college degree, but she’s taken certification courses on manuscript writing, book proposals, and publishing. You look at her samples. She hasn’t written anything from the perspective of a mommy blogger, but her three samples are all books on how to work from home. You click on the excerpts she’s provided from each, and you notice she’s very good at capturing different voices.
Who are you going to choose? Unless you just have an unhealthy obsession with Rolling Stone, you’re going to pick Sally, even though she has fewer years experience and lacks that pretty masters degree of Jerry’s. Sally wins the job because she has marketed herself as an expert in a field that’s related to what the mommy blogger needed. Of course, if Sally only ghostwrote how-to books on how mothers can make money blogging, that would be even more impressive to that one client, but Sally’s job pool would be a little too small. There must be a balance.
Now, you can’t exactly call Jerry General an amateur; he’s done some pretty impressive things. But as a beginner, you probably don’t have super impressive bylines, and you can’t wear your years of experience on your chest like a medal. If you don’t market yourself as an expert in something from the beginning, you will be seen as an amateur. You can still land jobs, sure, but it’s going to take way more time and effort, and you’re more likely to have to haggle with prices. The people who actively seek amateurs want cheap labor.
You don’t have to have a huge portfolio or years of experience to be perceived as an expert. Experts have specialties. All you have to do is choose your specialty. Your specialty is something you already have knowledge in. It’s something you are interested in learning more about. Write up your own samples if you have absolutely no job experience. Show your voice and your skill in your chosen area, and you will automatically be the better choice for the jobs you want over another beginner who hasn’t chosen a niche. True, you can’t apply for the premium jobs where niched writers with more samples are battling it out, but you can quickly climb the ranks and get relevant samples by flaunting a niche from the starting line. Do what you’ve got to do to get those first few paid samples, and then you’re in serious business.
More Rewarding Jobs
My final piece of advice is, Don’t choose a niche just because you’re pretty sure it can make you a boatload of money. If you’re anything like me, you decided to freelance because you wanted a fulfilling career doing what you love and only what you love. Choose a niche that interests you. Choose a niche that brings you joy.
Sure, there’s big money in writing B2B white papers, but I never even considered those. First off, there would have been a HUGE learning curve. Second, and more important, I would have hated it. I don’t want to write a long report full of business jargon. Now if white papers fascinate you, power to you; you will do very well as a freelancer. However, if I had chosen that niche just to make money, I would have either quit or been totally miserable.
If you choose a niche that holds your interest, freelancing becomes that rewarding career everyone is after—the one where work doesn’t feel like work. Sure, some days I trudge, but on the days when I hit that sweet spot where the words are flowing faster than I can type them, I know I’ve made the right choice. If you choose a niche you love, you’ll have way more good days than bad. You’ll also make more money because you’ll get relevant samples more easily, you’ll work faster and harder, and your enthusiasm will earn you repeat clients.
Breakdown of My Niche
Still a little confused on how narrow a niche can go or how on earth you choose one? Let me use mine as an example.
As I’ve already said, books are my “big picture” niche, if you will. I love both reading and writing books, so I decided to work as a manuscript ghostwriter and editor. But that’s still pretty broad. Plus, I’ve introduced two branches.
I prefer to read fiction books, so I’m a fiction editor. More specifically, I’m a copy editor and proofreader. I help people polish their manuscript after they’ve already got the big picture (plot, character development, etc.) to their liking. I’ve recently narrowed that further by listing my favorite genres on my website. Now I appeal to fiction authors in a set list of genres who are getting close to self-publishing or submitting for publication.
When I first started out, I earned paid ghostwriting samples in two different categories: how-to and fiction. I enjoyed both, so I split my ghostwriting niche into those two branches. Again, I recently chose a short list of fiction genres I have experience writing and placed them on my website. I also created a list of subjects I am knowledgeable in to narrow down my specialty subjects for how-to books. So now I appeal to experts in specific fields looking to write a how-to book, and I appeal to amateur fiction authors who have an idea for a book in a specific genre but need a little help making it happen.
When I cold pitch, I identify which of my three services that potential client needs, and I identify myself as “a how-to manuscript ghostwriter with specialized knowledge in [insert relevant subject here]” or “a fiction copy editor specializing in [insert relevant genre here].” I direct them to relevant samples on my website. If they browse my site and see I have two other niches, that’s fine with me because my niches compliment each other. If a how-to ghostwriting client sees that I also copy edit, that assures him that the manuscript I deliver will be clean and polished. If a fiction copy editing client sees that I also write fiction in her genre, that’s only going to boost my credibility as an editor.
Could I make my niches even narrower? Sure. I could choose a single genre/subject to work in. I could choose just to edit or just to write. But I don’t want to choose just one. I like reading multiple genres, and I’m good at writing multiple genres. Sue me. Also, my field is a little unusual, and if I were to narrow myself down to a single subject, I would have difficulty finding work. Maybe when one of my projects becomes a bestseller, it will earn me enough clout to stay in a single genre, but even then I’m not sure I’d want to. But by narrowing my genres to a short list, I ensure I enjoy the work and that I provide the highest quality service to my clients.
Identify what you love first, and then begin to narrow your niche to the level you feel is best for your field. If in doubt about whether you’re still being too general, err on the side of going narrower. You can always make adjustments later, but identify your niche and get started portraying yourself as an expert as fast as you can. I promise it pays.
How did you choose your niche? I’d love to know. Are you struggling to choose a niche? Need some help narrowing it down? Unsure how narrow is “too narrow”? Leave your question in the comments. Maybe I or someone else can help you out.