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The Writer’s Life, Part 4

The Writer’s Life, Part 4

Do you find it easier to get your writings published if you focus on one niche topic? I understand the need to have a diverse portfolio, which showcases your skills. But I am wondering if it would be wise to strictly write for publications that focus heavily on your particular interests (e.g. music, art, film) or to go to a more general publication.
[question courtesy of Timothy]

Good question, Timothy.

My immediate answer — without thinking too much about it — is that you’ll find it easier to get your writing published if you’re willing to write about anything. If you’re thinking I am only willing to write about music, art or film from a Christian perspective, then you’re limiting the places your writing can get published. That might get you published in RELEVANT or Christian Books & Culture or, to a lesser extent, Paste. But it’s not gonna open up any doors at Popular Mechanics. Or Cat Fancy, for that matter. (And believe me, one of my goals as a writer is to get my foot in the door at Cat Fancy.)

When I first started trying to write for publication, one of the earliest regular gigs I got was writing profiles for the in-house corporate magazine of a regional supermarket chain. And while I wasn’t too excited about 500-word articles about, for instance, Hector the Dairy Manager — sample interview question: “So, Hector, what part of your job do you like most?” — doing it several times a year for three years was great practice as a writer. The pay wasn’t too bad. I got to talk to interesting people and learn how to interview busy employees who were never comfortable being interviewed. (Hector’s answer to the above question: “Um, I like milk?”)

The real key to getting published, in the beginning, is less about how great a writer you are and more about the relationships you can establish with editors. Offer to write anything for them — book reviews, profiles, front-of-the-mag blurbs, product comparisons, first-person essays, whatever they’ll give you — and then do it well. Cultivate the relationship. Turn in assignments early. Follow all the rules. Make the editors’ jobs as easy as possible. They’ll begin to see you as a great writer to work with, as someone who will write about anything or everything, because editors love writers like that. Work with them long enough, and eventually they’ll realize that perhaps you’re a stronger (or more passionate) writer when it comes to certain subjects, and they’ll begin assigning those specific stories to you. So you start broad, you get work, then you work your way into a niche.

That’s my advice, anyway. But it should be said that, at this point in my career, I still don’t really have a niche. Book-wise, I’ve written an advice book for teenage guys and an advice book for twentysomethings. I’ve written snarky historical and/or religious books. I’ve contributed to books about world-changers and how to do things cheaply. Recent magazine assignments have included interviews with musicians and thoughts about living with less. Maybe that makes me a hack writer, but if my goal was to become a published writer or see my name in print, then I’ve accomplished it — specialization or not. If I have a niche, maybe it’s that I’ll write just about anything you ask me to write. And for someone trying to get his or her feet wet as a published writer, that’s not a bad way to start.

Do you agree or disagree? Do you have other writing-related questions? Fire away.

Read more: The Writer’s Life…Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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