Starting out as a freelance journalist can be a nail-biting time as pitch after pitch is rejected or, worse, ignored.
But if you can carve out a reputation as a specialist in a certain area, you can put yourself ahead of some of the competition.
By impressing editors with your knowledge of a niche subject, you can ensure they come knocking when the time is right. That means you could find yourself in demand when a new publication launches or when your expertise is timely, thanks to a big news story.
But, warns health writer Rachel Newcombe, you should choose your specialism carefully.
‘If it’s too much of a niche subject, it could narrow your chances of work. But if you choose a popular topic you’ll be up against more experienced journalists who are likely to have the contacts and get the most lucrative work. Find the right balance.”
For some journalists, their specialism is a natural extension of a previous career.
Former teacher Janet Murray says: ‘I had my first piece in the Times Educational Supplement when I was still on my journalism training course: a first-person piece about why I’d left teaching!”
Building and looking after the right contacts is key. Join professional associations, subscribe to relevant journals and keep an eye out for news from across the world – could a piece in a US or Australian publication spark a similar feature closer to home?
‘As I began to establish contacts – from teachers themselves to education PRs and professional bodies – I found I was inundated with story ideas so I could pitch more education editors,’says Murray.
Being known as a specialist has been a massive boost to her freelance career, she adds. ‘Once you’re established, ‘cold pitching’ becomes rare. If you concentrate on building relationships with the editors in your specialist area, often they’ll come to you with commissions as well as giving all your ideas serious consideration.”
Film writer Stephen Applebaum says he had a lucky break while finding his feet in this competitive field, but perseverance or ‘sheer bloody-mindedness’has also helped.
‘I started as a staff writer on several computer titles and when I left to go freelance – perhaps a little hastily, in hindsight – I knew that I also wanted to write about film,’ he says.
‘I looked at a bunch of magazines, wrote to one to see if I could do some reviews, and became a regular contributor. I was lucky because they were looking for a film reviewer at the time. I also wrote to a film magazine and asked the same thing. Again, I was lucky, because they needed someone to cover the video section. I told them I had lots of contacts in the business and they gave me the gig.
‘I actually had no contacts, and over the next week rang as many PR companies and video distributors as I could to get on their mailing lists. I then became the magazine’s video reviewer for the next three years or so.
A web presence is also vital. ‘Having developed your specialism, it’s important to ensure that others are aware of it and that you become known as an expert. Having a website is invaluable,’says Newcombe. Maintaining a blog on your niche subject can also add to your standing in the field.
Newcombe adds that sometimes your specialism can end up surprising you.
‘Don’t rule out having more than one focus. Sometimes there may be a topic that links well with your main subject and could broaden possibilities for you,’she says.
‘But you can also try a secondary subject in a completely different area. I’ve ended up specialising in foreign property, too, which is a complete contrast to health but just as interesting in its own way.”