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How to pick your writing niche … or not

You don’t need a niche. There, I said it. You really don’t need to ‘niche down’ as a freelance writer or, for that matter, anything else.

It’s a controversial opinion. Hear me out.

‘Niching down’ means to narrow your focus so you’re only producing content on a specific, well-defined topic. That’s your niche.

Niching down is often billed as the golden road to writing success.

But what if it could be limiting your creative freedom and holding you back in other ways?

There’s so much emphasis today on creating a snappy elevator pitch, an optimised Instagram profile, a captivating LinkedIn headline, or a killer email signature, that I think we’ve lost something important.

That lost something is the precious state of being complicated, messy, well-rounded people, with a multitude of interests and influences, none of which can easily be summed up in a single pithy, attention-grabbing sentence.

The benefits of niching down

There are undoubtedly benefits to niching down.

By picking a niche and sticking to it, you position yourself as an expert in that field.

The idea is that when clients are looking for someone who’s an expert in business, or ski destinations, or agriculture, or beauty, they’ll beat a path to your door first.

Specialists also command higher rates, according to influencer Catarina Mello, who points out that neurosurgeons take home bigger pay packets than general practitioners.

Mello, who’s carved out her niche in luxury travel, adds that niching down tends to attract a loyal audience and helps the (Instagram) algorithm push your content to the right people.

Those who niche down claim that a clear focus also allows you to streamline your workflow.

When you know a topic back to front, there’s no more wasted time trying to wrap your head around novel subjects. Fifty per cent (or more) of the job is already done.

As for the other fifty per cent? You already know the people to call and the right sources to seek out – all of which translates to greater efficiency in research, writing, and client communication.

Niching down allows you to tweak your marketing efforts to suit a specific audience, leading to more effective outreach and higher conversion rates.

Satisfied clients within your niche are more likely to return for future projects, leading to long-term relationships, more networking opportunities, and a steady stream of work.

The down sides of niching down

The benefits sound compelling – and, for many people, they are.

But breaking free from the shackles of a niche could be the best decision you ever make for your freelance writing career.

So many aspiring writers I speak to lately seem to agonise over how to pick a niche.

Dizzied by all the potential options, and desperate to make the right choice, they sit paralysed, often for months, obsessed with the notion of niching down, rather than just cracking on with the job and seeing what unfolds.

I’ve always believed that you should follow the thread of your curiosity, wherever it takes you.

And that thread will, necessarily, evolve over time.

In my late teens and early twenties, I wrote about sex and relationships for publications like the now-defunct Australian Women’s Forum which had its own sealed section.

(By the way, how exciting it is to see Cosmopolitan coming back to Australia, no?)

In my thirties, with an eye-watering mortgage on Sydney’s north shore, plus a new baby, I developed a rabid fascination for personal finance.

This led to me contributing (mainly) to the Money pages of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Both were good gigs while they lasted. But these two experiences also illustrate several hazards associated with writing within a niche.

First, if a significant client within your niche goes out of business (as did Australian Women’s Forum), it leaves you scrambling for new opportunities.

Second, writing about the same subject day in and day out increases the risk of burnout and, far from making the words flow more easily, might even lead to procrastination or writer’s block.

This problem is particularly acute if you picked your niche not for your passion for the topic but purely because it promised big bucks, like today’s technology and SaaS (Software-as-a-Service).

It’s also important to remember that industries evolve over time, and what may be a lucrative niche today could fall out of favour further down the track.

Even if you’re passionate about your niche initially (as I was with Money), repeatedly writing on the same topic ultimately becomes monotonous over time.

I still remember that day in my home office when I realised that if I had to write one more story about changes to Australian superannuation legislation, I would be instantly and violently sick.

Third, once you’ve established yourself in a niche, it’s easy to find yourself pigeonholed.

Stretching those pigeon wings into other topics can be a challenge when clients see you as an expert in only one field.

(I did raise some eyebrows when I went from sex to money.)

But no writer I know is a one trick pony.

So, what are the alternatives to niching down?

The most obvious alternative is to remain a generalist, writing on a diverse range of topics for many different clients.

You might find that this keeps you fresh and engaged.

Or you could adopt a multi-niche strategy (which I think is where I’m sitting currently).

This means that rather than narrowing down to a single niche, you can specialise in a few related niches, allowing for more flexibility while still capitalising on the expertise you’ve built over time.

For example, I frequently write about travel these days. But also, health. And spa culture. And food. And science.

And, with a background as a forensic psychologist, I also like to dip my toe in the waters of true crime, historical crime, and law enforcement.

Having multiple areas of interest allows you to hone in on that sweet spot where multiple interests converge.

For example, one of my favourite writers is Tony Perrottet, who has hammered out a difficult-to-pin-down niche encompassing a wide range of topics.

His work often appears in top tier travel publications such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure as well as natural history publications (like the Smithsonian). He’s also released several books about history (Napoleon’s Privates, The Naked Olympics, Pagan Holiday).

Perrottet is particularly adept at writing at the intersection of history and travel, bringing captivating stories from the past to life through his thumping narrative.

He’s not a ‘travel writer’ as such, nor a ‘history writer’ or a ‘natural history writer’, nor even a ‘generalist’. He’s in a space that’s entirely his. He’s in a league of his own.

Which brings me to the final recommended strategy to escape the confines of a niche.

Like Perrottet, you could set out to occupy your own territory. You become your own niche.

I first heard the words ‘you are your niche’ only recently – but it produced an epiphany.

Instead of narrowing down to a specific topic or industry, you can position yourself as the brand, making your voice, style, and unique take on the world the focal point of your writing services.

By emphasising your personality, values, and experiences, you attract clients who resonate with your quirky sense of humour, or deep knowledge of history, or appreciation for natural spaces (or whatever).

This approach potentially paves the way towards a more authentic and fulfilling freelance career.

It allows you to remain flexible in the topics you write about while still building a loyal client base which values your individual perspective and expertise.

In industries where clients are seeking not just content, but also a connection with the writer behind it, it’s especially effective.

And as AI becomes more and more a part of daily life, I’m banking on more and more clients (and readers) seeking out authentic connections with real people.

Ultimately, this will give writers greater opportunities for growth, creativity, and success.

Do you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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