Choose passion: A new take on the generalist vs. specialist debate

Have a specialist’s command of a topic while thinking like a generalist.

The specialist versus generalist debate has lasted forever, probably because it ignores what makes writers happy.

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Freelance writing at its best is all about working on projects you want to do, not that you have to do. That’s why I disdain the concept of a specialist. I consider myself the Gay Talese of advertorials, but that is not a craft I want to spend eight hours a day honing. There are only so many cosmetic dentists and divorce attorneys I can interview before law school applications look alluring. 

We need to explore how to make money from our passions. That involves having a specialist’s command of the topic while thinking like a generalist. You take what you know and spread it as far as you can.

After almost 12 years of freelancing, I pass on my strategy to you.

To repeat: A specialty is not always a passion. 

I’ve been writing about natural products – i.e. supplements, functional foods, etc. – since 2003. Do I love that subject? Not really, but I edited three trade magazines covering that world for nearly four years. I became a specialist by circumstance and necessity. When I started freelancing, that gave me a leg up. Editors at competing publications knew my work; sources knew I didn’t botch facts and craved clarity. Both parties knew me. Both parties sent work my way.  

The best part about a specialty: It provides an income base to fund your passion

Your passion may cause you pain. 

I’ve written about this before, but I will repeat it, because I want someone to learn a lesson I ignored far too long. 

My dream job, starting at age 12, was to review movies. I started in my spare time after I graduated college in 2000. For nearly 15 years, I reviewed about a film a week. I wrote for any place that would have me. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words on movies obscure and popular; good and execrable.

By fall 2014, after eight years of freelancing full time, I had managed to write a bi-weekly film review for a daily newspaper’s weekend arts supplement. I had two review columns for a Philadelphia-area arts and entertainment magazine.

I should have been thrilled. I was not. It stinks having to upend your weekends with your friends and family to endure whatever Gerard Butler is flailing his way through. Turns out it’s a financial drain too. When I did some quick math, I made about $2.15 an hour reviewing Playing for Keeps and other films that are now ignored at garage sales from Fort Lee to Fresno. 

It was hard to admit, but after a decade and a half of writing movie reviews, I should have accomplished more.

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I had to rearrange my priorities.

Have more than one passion. 

Yes, watching movies is fun. It’s not fun driving to a press screening in rush hour traffic during a thunderstorm. Or heading to a matinee on a gorgeous Saturday morning to make a deadline on a gray Monday morning. And it’s not fun making an hourly rate where buying a pack of gum becomes a sacrifice. 

You have more than one hobby, right? The same scope applies to writing. If you get burnt out writing about one subject, you have an option to revive yourself. I love sports and sports history, especially the NBA, so I decided to write more about that. 

Avoid what everyone else is doing. 

One reason why I focused more on heavily reported sports features: the lack of competition. Millions want to break down the new Avengers spectacle, many for exposure (the time-share condo of the writing world). Fewer care to dig deeper, even if the pay is better or more markets want that kind of work.  

Find other paths for your passion. 

I couldn’t write movie reviews for fun and profit. But I could take my interest in other directions that paid a living wage. I interviewed directors and actors for the A.V. Club, Broadway.com, and VICE Sports; I profiled Hollywood types for a college alumni magazine, because my editor knew that’s what interested me. (The lesson: Never hesitate to tell an editor what you’d like to cover. Hey, if you have any stories on computer science coming down the pike, I’d love to take a crack at that!) When I reviewed sports books for trade publications, I would receive advance reader copies. That provided ample time to pitch interviews with the books’ authors to other publications. Earlier this year, I sold an interview for $1,800.

Including an element of what you love in your writing does more than feed your soul. Diversification widens your revenue stream while adding another skill to your resume.  

Make it worth the publication’s while. 

Don’t just tell an editor you want to write about knitting or food trucks or smooth jazz. Give the editor something they need. Here’s a good example. I write for HOOP, an NBA official publication. During the summer, the basketball season slows down. Seeing an opportunity, I pitched a movie review column of old basketball movies to my editor. He got original material, I combined two of my loves, and everyone walked away happy. 

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Get paid in actual money. 

Anyone who claims you should get paid in tickets or DVDs or whatever is an opportunist masquerading as an ally. Passion never means comp work. Ever. You’re a businessperson. Act like one. Get your money. 

Your passion can lead to even greater opportunities. After five years of delving into the nooks and crannies of NBA history, I wrote a book proposal. In March, I signed a publishing contract. I’m reporting on and researching the book right now. 

My passion had finally become a specialty. Generally, I was thrilled. 

 

Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.