One of the biggest pain points for beginner freelancers is choosing a niche. It becomes an ugly, scary word that grows and grows like one of those “hatch a dinosaur” sponge toys until you can’t see your career path anymore, you can’t get around it to keep walking down the road. I see it so often, in Facebook groups and in the comments section of this blog. All the pros tell you that you need a niche, and they’re right, but beginners get so tangled up in that step that they flounder and go belly up.
I’ve already written a post on Why Niches Matter , so today I want to focus on some tips and tricks for selecting your niche. It doesn’t have to become the big bad wolf. I also want to say upfront that it’s okay to change your niche. It’s not like you can only ever choose one. If you think you may want to make some adjustments down the road, just don’t make your website domain name too niche specific. Stick with a play on your name or something writing related. Hell, just use your full name if you want. Second, I want to debunk the rumor that you can only have one super narrow niche at a time. I have three niches, fiction book copy editing, fiction book ghostwriting (specifically, fantasy, mystery, and thriller/horror), and nonfiction book ghostwriting (specifically, how-to, self-help, and YA history). Just note that all those services have a common thread: books. They also compliment one another (ex., having a ghostwriter who’s also an editor is appealing because it means a cleaner manuscript). You don’t have to go for one super narrow niche (blog writing about laptop computers, for instance) if you don’t want to. Just make sure that your niches are connected enough that they could make some sort of package deal for your clients. You could also create different websites for multiple unrelated niches, but that’s a lot of work.
Lastly, I’m going to get this out of the way real quick. There will be no list of “top ten profitable niches” in this post because it is my humble opinion that the niche that will keep you happiest, keep you pushing forward through the hard times, and earn you a full-time income is the one that involves a topic and writing style that you love. You’ll work harder and faster, you won’t have such a steep learning curve, and you’ll enjoy doing what you do every day. If you aren’t convinced, read Screw “Profitable” Writing Niches: Why Freelancers Should Pursue Their Passions.
I had already been freelancing for about seven months before I even heard about niches. I had at last found Horkey Handbook and signed up for Gina’s free email course on how to kickstart your freelance writing career. (Sadly, that course is no longer available, but the whole thing is pretty much summed up in this great post) One of the first emails was about selecting your niche. I felt that same panic that I see echoed in Facebook group posts nowadays: “Help! I can’t for the life of me figure out my niche. I’m good at this, really like this, went to school for this, but I just don’t know if I can make any of those work. Where would I start? Which do I choose?”
Shove all those panicky questions about the future, profitability, and where/who to pitch aside for a few minutes please. Yes, you’ll definitely need to figure out your target audience, whether there is a demand for your chosen service, and your marketing strategy, but that’s for later. Right now, you need to hone in on the topics and writing styles that appeal to you the most.
Pick up a pencil or pull up a sticky note on your desktop and start writing down anything that you have past experience in or that interests you. Don’t you dare start questioning, “Can I make money off this?” while you’re writing them, either. Now is not the time. Shut that nagging voice up and write.
My list became pretty long. I suggest first writing down the types of work you have 9-5 experience with to get those out of the way. I wrote the service industry and horses on my list, as I’d worked as a waitress and as a volunteer at a riding camp. I abandoned both those pretty quickly (I hated waitressing and I didn’t see myself just writing about horses for the remainder of my freelance career, no matter how much I love them), but I think this is an important step to take. Past knowledge and experience is invaluable as a beginner freelancer, so if you can turn a past job that you liked to your advantage, awesome.
Next, write down any topic that even remotely interests you. I wrote things like books, fiction, criminology, psychology, and animals. Things that interest you are things you already have knowledge in. It’s just a given. I’m obsessed with true crime stories and the psychology behind psychopathy, sociopathy, and what makes people kill. Yeah, sort of creepy, but the human psyche and it’s capacity for both good and evil fascinates me. I’m well-versed on the subject just because I like it. Think in those terms as you make this list. Honestly, books and fiction were just a given for me, but I worried that they weren’t narrow enough. Yet, that’s what I chose in the end. So, again, quit nagging yourself while you’re making your list.
Lastly, write down some “writing type” options. Do you want to write blog posts, books, magazine articles, web content, business newsletters, etc.? If I had taken this last step, I would have settled on my niche a bit faster than I did. I would have realized that, though blog posts and articles sounded pretty fun, I really wanted to write books.
Identify Audience and Need
Once you’ve made your list, those annoying thoughts are going to come back. “Who would I write for? Is this even something people are willing to pay for?” Those are important questions. Don’t get that confused just because I keep talking about picking a niche you love over traditionally profitable ones. This is a business, and a business must make money. My point is that you should start by selecting topics you enjoy and then focus on marketability.
So, you have your topics/interests. Now, start at the top of your list and ask yourself these questions for all of them:
- What type of people are interested in this? Is it a wide audience?
- Are there companies out there that deal in this as a niche?
- What kind of material is already written on this? What do those people and companies want out of it? What do they search for?
- Could I write instructional, how-to pieces on this topic? Would people pay for that, in addition to the service/topic itself?
- What does the target audience for this type of material want? What are their pain points?
- Why would someone need this service/need something written about this?
After thinking about this and probably doing a bit of research to find solid answers, you’ll come to see which of your interests has the most potential. You want something that has plenty of folks who are interested in it, both at the broad and narrow levels. For instance, books are popular the world over, but my focus is on people who write/publish books and want to write/publish books but don’t have the time or skill to do so themselves. There are plenty of those. There are also plenty of folks who want to do those things within my specialty topics.
If there are companies that specialize in your area of interest, there’s a good bet you can make money from it, too. Books, for instance, are a multi-million (even billion) dollar industry. Publishers, packagers, printers, and distributors all make money from them.
To narrow what type of writing you’d want/need to do within that industry, you’d need to think about what formats are used to cover this topic. For me, it’s pretty obvious what format I’m going to go for. However, there is also a demand for blog posts and articles on my chosen niche. People want to learn how to write and edit books. I could also write business material for publishers if I wanted to. However, those different formats all have different clients, so you use that info to further narrow your ideal client.
A good way to diversify your income and stay within your chosen niche is to make money instructing others on how to do what you do, so if there is a large market for that in your area of interest, that’s a great sign.
To narrow your topics of interest down to a marketable service, you need to take that target client and decide what he or she wants. My target clients are authors or people who want to be authors. The authors want to make sure their book is polished and will make a good impression with readers and agents. They need someone who knows how to follow the Chicago Manual of Style to a tee, who can find the little errors their brain skipped over each time they read the manuscript, and who can tell them when the language is falling short. My ghostwriting clients need me because a book will further their career and establish them as an expert or because they think they have a highly profitable idea that will put a lot of cash in their pocket. They want someone who has the time and skill to write that book for them. They want someone who can make that book sound like them. Lastly, they want someone who can give them some guidance on the publishing process and how to reach their own target audience. Thus, my services take shape, as well as the key points I use to lure clients to them.
If any of your brainstormed topics can get you to a place where you know who your audience is, what your service(s) are, why your audience would pay for that service, and the strategies you’ll use on your website/social media profiles to bring them your way, you’ve got a viable niche. If more than one topic gets you there, great! You’ve got options. Make your pick based on which has the largest audience, which one you have the most knowledge and/or experience in, and which one pays better. Yes, now you can start thinking about money. You enjoy both the topics, right? So thinking about money now is helpful, not restrictive.
Narrow as You Go
If you know the exact topic you want to cover and the specific writing type you want to cover it with, and that combination will still open you up to a good-sized audience, you’re a rockstar. For instance, if you decided right now that you want to write blog posts for tech companies on how to use WordPress or other software, cool! But if getting that specific at this moment in your career makes you hyperventilate … breathe. You don’t have to go that narrow right away, or ever, really, if you don’t want to. There are so many topics, so many ways to cover them, and so many different audiences to reach out there that going super narrow isn’t a necessity. You’ll still stand out as an expert and show up in searches, leading clients to you.
But, if you start sort of broad, as I did with ghostwriting and editing books, you should work on narrowing as you go on and gain experience. For instance, at first, I took on any book job that came my way. Those jobs gave me samples in specific genres and helped me uncover the genres I love most and that I excel at. Now I have specialties that make me more attractive to the types of clients I enjoy working with most.
If you aren’t even really sure of one topic of interest that you want to niche down in, but you know that you rock at writing blog posts, make your niche blog writing for businesses. That’s broad, but it’s still a niche. Why? Well, your clients and mine will not overlap. That means there’s some major difference between us, right? That’s a niche. Then, as you gain more clients and realize what types of businesses you enjoy writing for most, you can get more specific with your niche. You can be a blog writer for fashion companies, electronics companies, small publishers, etc. Take your pick.
I hope this has given you some food for thought and a tangible strategy for finding your niche. I also hope the whole idea is a little less daunting. Remember, you are not bound to your niche. If you discover the one you’ve chosen isn’t your cup of tea after all, don’t sweat it. Do the process again or go with your number two choice and test the waters. Just remember that this freelancing thing takes some time, and you shouldn’t get discouraged if you don’t make a full-time income in the first few months.
(If you’re having trouble getting any sort of idea of the hundreds of possible niches out there, you may also want to check out Gina’s free list of over 200 writing niches and sub-niches. Just realize that you have to subscribe to her newsletter to get it. It’s easy to unsubscribe, though, if you don’t end up liking it.)
Don’t let selecting a niche allow you to tread water. Don’t let it become an excuse not to get started. It’s a flexible thing; you don’t have to choose just one, and you can mix it up whenever you want. In freelancing, you’re the boss. So act like it. Take charge, pick something that holds your interest, and get going. It’ll be clumsy at first, but just having some sort of niche in mind keeps you from getting pulled in too many directions at once. As you gain clients and experience, you’ll settle into your rhythm and discover what you excel at. Every month or so, when you’re first getting moving, take some time to look over your samples and your pitching trends to see if you can narrow a little bit. Eventually, you’ll find that sweet spot where you can position yourself as an expert and making a living doing only what you love.