Should You Be a Specialist or a Generalist?

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Some people in the publishing community will tell you that the only way to be a successful writer is to specialize. If you are a poet, you need to focus on poetry. If you are an essayist, do not tinker with novel writing! Write essays. Picture book writers should write picture books and so on. 

The benefit of this is that focusing can help you build a platform. You will be known for doing that one thing and doing it well. And it is easier to hone a skill when it is well-defined. 

The drawback is that by focusing on one and only one type of writing, you miss opportunities. Call yourself a picture book author and you may pass up the opportunity to write for magazines or young adult nonfiction. 

Other publishing professionals will recommend that you generalize, creating more than one type of work. One writer I knew early in my career would research some topic and then write both a historical fiction novel and a nonfiction book on the same topic. 

I write nonfiction books for the school library market as well as blog posts. I have also reviewed, written magazine articles and written for various publishing publications. 

The benefit of a generalist approach is that you can take advantage of a wide variety of opportunities. I started out as a picture book author. I still don’t have a picture book, and maybe if I specialized I would have one by now. But I wouldn’t have my reviews, articles and nonfiction books for teens. 

Another benefit is staying sharp. I’ll be the first to admit that I bore easily. By writing several different types of material, I am more completely engaged. Yes, I have to put more thought into what I’m doing but that’s okay. It helps me focus.

But the drawback is that you can spread yourself too thin. One day you’re working on your novel. The next you do a bit of research for an article. But you don’t return to your novel on day 3 because you’ve had a great idea for a how-to. The possibilities are endless! 

So which is best for you? It depends. If you are a tightly focused author who is working on a novel but hasn’t made any progress in months, try something new. It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. Try writing something short like a guest post for the Muffin or a how-to or a poem. 

 If you are, like me, a writer who works on many different things, but you aren’t getting anything done, narrow your focus. It doesn’t have to be forever, but for the next week, focus on one project and only one project. See how much you can get done in a week and build some momentum. 

You don’t have to be a specialist. No one is forcing you to be a generalist. There is no one way to be a successful writer. The key is to find what works for you right now and do it. What works may change, but when it does you’ll have made some progress on one thing or many. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 30 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on January 2, 2022).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins January 2, 2022) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins January 2, 2022). 


Renee Roberson said...

Sue--I don't think I knew you haven't had a picture book published! That blows my mind because I know you've written many. But you've made a great career out of writing non-fiction books for children and teens so that was obviously meant to be a better path for you. I used to think being a specialist was the way to go but I also bore easily and would not have made the connections I have in the magazine industry if I had only stuck to writing about parenting. That was my focus in the beginning and now, I'm too stressed to write about parenting teens, ha ha! Then there's novels, true crime, business profiles, human-interest stories, ghostwriting. Boredom is not an option if you open yourself to possibilities, right?

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Two pieces of fiction. Zero picture books. I suspect that, also like me, you are seldome actually bored because you frequently shift gears. I'm glad you've done such a wide variety of things because so much of your experience has fed into your podcast!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I love the idea of narrowing your focus when you want to get something done, and it doesn't have to be forever! I hadn't thought of that and it's a smart idea. :)

I think many of us here at WOW are generalists. I focus on creative nonfiction and memoir, but also love to write fictional short stories, hybrid, flash, blog posts, articles, etc. I even started writing poetry this year. I remember years ago when an agency contacted me and said they'd pay me to write articles about whatever I wanted to write in my specialty, to be posted on other sites. I asked them, "Just curious, what's my specialty?" LOL! I had no idea. They told me I specialized in giving writers advice on how to make money. I guess that's what I was writing about at the time. I haven't written about that in a long time since I stopped focusing solely on freelancing. But this year I discovered that I'm really into writing neo-noir hybrid creative nonfiction. That's my current focus. I don't know if there's a market for that, but I love to write it!

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