As a freelancer, the subject of specialist vs. generalist comes up fairly often, especially when people are looking to start freelancing. A little research into the subject brings up some prescriptive answers in favour of one or the other. Either niching is the only way to go—or not the way to go at all. Likewise, people often ask which the best niches are to freelance in. So consider this your guide to specialist vs. generalist freelancing.
What does generalist or specialist mean?
In freelancing, there’s generalist skills and specialist skills. For example, ghost-writing celebrity memoirs (specialist) vs. writing basic blogs (generalist). There’s also generalist freelancing platforms, where you can find a range of freelancers and jobs in every field (such as PeoplePerHour and Upwork), and specialist freelancing sites that are specific to one industry or area (such as Reedsy and 99Designs).
What is a freelance niche?
A freelance niche is a specialist area that requires specific skills, knowledge, or experience; is not too saturated with other freelancers; and pays better than a more general skill. However, “niche” means a special area of demand, so clients must want the service or skill. It can’t just be something that you’re amazing at, and nobody else is, but that no client wants or is willing to pay for (for example, being able to balance a banana on your nose).
What’s good about specialist areas?
Generally, niches mean less competition, because less freelancers have those specific skills. The earnings are better, because clients are willing to pay more for specialist skills that less freelancers have. However, by its nature, a specialist area often means that less buyers are looking for that skill, so your earnings can be less reliable. So specialist can mean less work available, but less competition to get it and higher earnings.
What’s good about generalist areas?
On the other hand, generalist areas are always abundant in work, because there’s high demand for the service or skill. However, they require less specialist skills so there’s more freelancers competing for the work, which pushes the earnings down and means you need to find a way to stand out against the crowd. So generalist can mean more work available, but more competition to get it and lower earnings.
If there is a “best niche”, what is it?
I get asked this fairly often. The simple answer is: there’s no one-size-fits-all “best niche”. A niche by definition is a situation or activity specially suited to a person’s interests, abilities, or nature. The operative word being “a person’s”—not “everybody’s”. Niches are a personal thing. The best niche for one person won’t be the best for someone else, because it won’t suit their skills, interests, and experience.
What’s the least saturated or best-paying niche?
Sometimes, I get asked what the most lucrative or the least competitive freelancing area is. The assumption is that this means a greater chance of success. Although there are more and less saturated, higher- and lower-paying areas right now—this is a very short-term way to look at niches. Even if there is a best-paying or least competitive niche right now, it doesn’t mean it won’t become saturated or obsolete in the future.
So, how do you find your niche?
There are many suggestions on how to find your niche. Some say choose a passion area, others say go where the money is, or look at what’s in demand right now. But following just passion or just money doesn’t lead to lasting success. And just choosing what you’re best at or love doing is pointless if there’s no demand for the skill. I believe that if you want a long-term freelance career, the important thing is choosing something that you’re both interested in and great at—but that there is also demand for. The trio of success.
When do you choose a niche?
Some say you need to choose from the start, others say it’s better to wait. Again, it’s a personal choice. You might start by choosing a generalist area that you’re already skilled in, then spot niches or develop specialist interests within that area over time. Or you might find and focus on a niche from the start and build your expertise in that area.
Which route did I take?
I started out as a generalist proofreader and writer. Then I moved into the specialist areas of nonfiction book editing in certain genres such as self-help/improvement, business, philosophy, and leadership/management. Although most of my work is in the specialist areas, I still have regular clients who I do generalist work for. As such, I work through one generalist freelancing site, one specialist proofreading site, and personal recommendations. You can read my story here.
Why did I take this route?
For me, there were clear benefits of being a generalist first. Primarily, it seemed like the more abundant path. Starting as a specialist would have limited the field of potential clients, meaning I wouldn’t earn much. By the time I’d chosen my niche, I’d built up enough of a freelance reputation that I wasn’t entering a specialist field with zero experience, meaning I’d struggle to compete against the specialists. I also wasn’t sure which niche I was interested in, so being a generalist gave me the opportunity to try a few niches before committing to one.
So, is it better to be a generalist or specialist?
Ultimately, there’s no clear answer to this question. Personally, I find a balance works best. You can work in a specialist area where there are less clients but the earnings are higher, though the work isn’t as regular. And you can supplement this with more generalist work because it provides a reliable income, although it doesn’t pay as well. This may provide the best of both worlds, and means you can spot new niches and develop new skills along the way. But the freelance life is always about what works best for you