The Definitive Guide to Choosing Your Freelance Writing Niche
Choose a writing niche.
That’ll sort your freelance problems and before long you’ll have clients knocking down your doors.
That’s how it works, right?
You choose a niche and within three months you’re a freelance success. Well, that’s how it’s often portrayed. But this shit ain’t as easy as saying “I want to write about [insert your topic here]”.
No. That approach is one of the worst you can adopt.
Why? Because you don’t decide what writing niches are going to be lucrative.
It’s the same as launching a product or trying to grow a business (which is exactly what you’re doing). You have to find an established market that has a problem you can solve.
In writing terms that problem is often helping brands save time and gain interesting opinions on a topic through expertly crafted content. But, if there’s no audience to read your work, then no one is going to pay you to write.
I repeat — there has to be a market.
And so many writers don’t understand this. They sit and ponder their freelance niche selection and imagine inspiration is going to run up and punch them square in the face.
Yet even if it does, that niche is likely going to be shit. When you devise your own niche you get too attached to it. You become blinded to what a bad idea it is and pursue it even to your own detriment.
Case in point, the below video. Watch from 3:40 and you’ll hear the guy admit that the person who would approve this idea nationwide doesn’t like the idea.
What does he do? Does he change the concept so it solves a legitimate problem and would be a desirable investment? Or does he continue to act like a fucking muppet and walk down a path leading nowhere because he likes the idea?
He stayed on that path and you know what it’s got him? Sweet FA. Even after extensive searching I can find no good news about the brand or product, all I can find is a poorly optimised website.
Ask any smart businessman or woman and they’ll tell you that before you start developing a product you have to ascertain if there is a need.
No need means no customers. No customers means a stagnant freelance career.
The market is an unforgiving, but just, judge.
Choosing the right niche is one of the best steps you can take with your freelance business. It’ll help you:
- Quickly gain a reputation as an expert
- Build up a targeted prospective client base to pursue
- Makes marketing yourself so much easier
But those benefits only manifest if you choose wisely.
In this guide I’ll run through the steps you need to take to find a profitable niche that you enjoy working in.
Step One — General Niche Selection
We’re gonna start with some easy wins here. The goal is to give you a starting point for your marketing in as short time as possible.
To do that, we’re going to need to figure out the topics in which you’re knowledgeable. And by knowledgeable I don’t mean world authority, I mean that you know more than the average Joe. That you have a decent enough command of the topic to provide value to a general readership.
“I’ve often said that all it takes to become an expert relative to the general population is to read two books on a topic. And that’s technically true, assuming you retain and internalize the information contained in the books and build from there.”
So that’s where we’re beginning. The areas in which you have internalised at least 2 books worth of experienced.
What Are You Experienced In?
One of my first clients was a startup real estate website. I managed to land the gig because I’d spent a number of years working in property in London. The editor knew they wouldn’t have to teach me anything about the industry, the only chance they were taking was on my ability as a writer. Something I’d negated by sending through relevant samples.
So here’s where you start. You look through your past and create a list of at least ten items detailing the areas where you have experience. Don’t just focus on your professional experience either. You might be a Scout leader knowledgable in survival tactics or a former competitive gymnast who’s competed at the national level.
Survival and gymnastics are two areas which have publications people like to read. They’d be viable niches for you to explore.
If you’re not sure where to start, ask yourself the below questions:
- What hobbies have I had for a long period of time
- What topics do my friends defer to me for advice
- What do I enjoy learning about
- What am I educated in
- What have I covered in my work history
Once that list is complete, we’re going to create another 10+ item list of the topics you want to write about.
What do You Want to Write About?
List 10 areas you would like to write about. This can be anything. Perhaps you’re interested in a very narrow niche like straight razors (yes, there is a magazine for that!), or maybe you’d rather cover something more mainstream like entrepreneurial advice.
Write whatever you want to write about on this list, no matter how ridiculous it may seem.
Compare the Lists
Put your two lists next to one another and look for any overlap.
Then combine the details from each list putting the areas that overlap at the top. When I say overlap, I’m not talking about a direct overlap. You don’t need to have the two same entries on both lists to constitute an overlap.
For example, on your experience list you could have gymnastics. One your passions list you could have fitness.
Not a direct overlap, but it’s pretty significant. You could target fitness magazines with gymnastic conditioning advice.
Look for any sort of overlap between any of the subsets of skills between each list.
You should now have a list which lists the items you have experience and want to write about take up the first few rows.
The next job is to see if there is actually a market out there.
Is There a Market?
A lot of those ideas on that list won’t have a market that’s worth pursuing. There’ll be a lack of market or the pay rates will be so low it’s just not worth it.
We’re going to cut the list down to three options that have the best potential. Three is the magic number here as three niches offers a better level of security and reduces the likelihood of you burning out.
So, for each entry you’re going to head to different search engines and search for variations of the below. For examples sake let’s say one of the options is real estate writing. If that’s what you’re pursuing, then you’ll search for variants similar to the below.
- Real estate writer
- Real estate writing jobs
- Real estate copywriter
- Real estate publications
- Real estate “write for us”
When searching, I’d recommend heading to the below three sites:
Things to look for in Google:
- Is there advice on how to become a writer in that niche
- Are there lots of other writers/articles/publications within that niche?
- What are people asking for advice on / giving advice on (are they writing topics)?
What to look for on LinkedIn:
- Are there lots of othe writers in that niche?
- Check the quality of the jobs advertised. Are there lots of jobs from reputable brands?
- Go to groups and see if people are looking for help/advice with writing in that niche
What to look for on BoardReader:
Here your main focus is to find what aspects of that niche people are looking for help with or are offering advice on. For example, there’s someone asking for advice on cover letters so you might want to check out how many people who want to break into the industry would pay to have their resumé written for them.
Add a couple of columns to your list ( or just download the template I created for you ) so you can include the below information:
- Include a column where you list the key questions people ask
- Include a second column listing the kind of writing other writers provide
- Is there a market? (Are there other people earning a good living in this niche and with that discipline of writing)
Add in the information from the research stages above so you have all the information you need to compare, contrast and analyse each potential option.
Later, we’re going to assign a score to these overlap options based on the market and viability. But for now, I want to expand a little on the kind of writing work you could be doing.
Finding Your Niche is Only Half the Battle
Specialising in a small handful of industries makes it easier for you to build credibility, establish connections and earn lucrative referrals we all want.
But choosing a niche is only half the battle when it comes to adding specificity and focus to your freelance career.
Let’s continue with the real estate example. What exactly does a real estate writer do? Take a look at the below job descriptions and tell me which one best describes the duties of a real estate writer.
- Creating sales copy to help realtors sell houses
- Cover real estate industry developments in trade magazines
- Writing newsletters for a large real estate developer
- Handling content marketing duties for a property management firm
All of the above could technically be described as a real estate writer.
Choosing a niche is an important step, but it’s only half the equation. It takes you from being a small fish in a big pond, to a medium fish in a medium pond.
If you want to become the go-to expert in an industry, command higher rates and drastically reduce the time you spend researching and prospecting, you want to be the big fish in a small pond.
How do you do this?
By also specialising in a specific type of writing.
Most of the advice on niche selection completely overlooks this crucial step. Real estate writing is a huge niche. Standing out in that crowd is going to be very difficult so you’re going to have to choose what service it is you offer to your prospects.
This is why I told you to include another column listing the kind of work other freelancers are doing. To give you an idea of the jobs you could undertake.
To help give a better insight, I’ve collated 15 of the most common freelance writing specialities for you below.
The list is separated into the generic term (content writer, copywriter etc) followed by the specific jobs encompassed by that term.
Don’t spend to much time worrying about choosing the perfect writing service to offer. There’s huge overlaps between the skills required for many of these jobs.
Good content marketers understand and utilise the fundamentals of great copywriting and journalists will find the research required for copywriting a familiar duty.
With the right spin on your experience you could easily transition, meaning you’re never boxed into one area for life.
View service specialisation as a way to make marketing yourself, finding the perfect contact to pitch and building a solid reputation easier.
Content Writer is without doubt the most generic of all titles out there.
Most dictionaries define content as information. By that definition any one who uses words to convey a message or information is a content writer.
It’s the overly generic description that often leads content writers to mistakenly market themselves as copywriters. This isn’t a major issue as content writing and copywriting share many complementary points.
They’re kind of like the bacon and eggs of the writing world.
Whilst it’s not a huge problem, you want to know the difference for clarity’s sake. To help differentiate between the two, here’s my own personal definition of content writers:
Content writers Create text that informs or entertains an audience with engaging copy. For companies selling a service, a content writer’s job is to build reputation and authority whilst instilling trust. For websites and publications not selling a service (think Buzzfeed style sites and interest publications) a content writer’s goal is to entertain.
So with that little explanation out of the way, what types of writing can we class as content writers?
Most assume that a blogger runs their own site and creates content either for their own financial benefit or to use as a sample for potential clients.
Both can be true, but the truth is blogging can encompass everything from B2B content marketing to celebrity gossip.
It’s a broad term and whilst a viable way to make a living, the majority of blogging jobs pay lower than many other types of writing. You can find some jobs that pay $10 for 500 words or corporate clients needing thought leadership articles that pay $1+ per word.
E-books offer in depth insight on a specific issue. They require a good deal of research which — depending on the client — may also need to be completed by the writer (if you do need to conduct extensive research be sure you charge accordingly).
The pay rates for e-books seem to be all over the place. I often include listings that pay in the low thousands in the Weekly Writing Gigs Newsletter yet also see many out there offering a few dollars per page of text. It’s a real mixed bag.
There are three main types of white papers all of which are suitable for different situations. You’ve got:
- The backgrounder (explaining new developments)
- The numbered list
- The problem solution.
You’re usually looking at producing a 5–10 page deliverable that takes an in depth look at an indvidual topic. To produce a great white paper and command higher pay rates you’re going to need to spend a good deal of time researching the subject and interviewing industry experts.
It’s all worth it though as many good white paper writers charge in the $4000 — $6000 region per deliverable.
Press Release Writing
There’s a lot of very poor press releases out there making this a market with incredible potential.
Press releases are used to communicate exciting news to the outside world. Most often you’ll find news of company expansions, top level new hires, mergers and the like.
The aim is to inform of new developments and build exposure. Good press releases are often picked up and repurposed by business journalists which drastically increases reach and exposure.
For their comparatively short length, press releases can be a good little earner. Many freelancers charge in the $200 — $500 region.
Technical writing is often very complex and needed by companies in technical industries. It’s not an ideal option for everyone as the primary aim is to take an overly complicated idea and present it in an easy to understand manner to the general public.
To make the work worthwhile you’re going to need an existing in depth knowledge of the industry yourself. Without that knowledge you’re going to waste a lot of time researching industry specific terms and complicated jargon.
There’s a wide range of pricing available with technical writing jobs. I have to admit that I’m not very experienced in this area but if I were to price my own services for this type of work, I’d go with an hourly rate of between $75 to $100.
Copywriting is the field which I most adore.
The skills of a copywriter translate well to many other types of writing, particular to the duties of a content writer. Despite their collaborative nature, there’s a definite difference between the two.
The aim of a copywriter is to persuade audience members to take a specific action. Most often that action is to purchase a product or service.
As copywriters are directly responsible for sales and profits this can be one of the most lucrative forms of freelance writing. In the B2C world it’s not uncommon for copywriters to charge an up front fee to cover the hours they work as well as asking for a small percentage (usually 3% — 5%) of all sales made as a direct result of their work.
Here’s a quick breakdown on a few copywriter specialties.
Direct response copywriting is designed to generate an immediate response from customers. Each response, whether positive or negative can be measured which enables the optimisation of future marketing efforts.
It’s one of the oldest marketing methods around and is still one of the most effective. Direct response marketing can take many forms but as a writer you’ll likely be creating emails or printed sales letters.
Crafting successful direct response materials can be incredibly difficult. You need an in depth knowledge of the product and the audience as well as an ability to craft incredibly persuasive copy.
The difficulty attributed to direct response is what also leads to it being one of the most profitable. This is the area where 3% commission of the right product could land you a very nice pay day.
Still in the realm of direct response but a specialty all their own. Landing pages are the internets version of a sales letter.
Much like direct response landing pages have a single aim (often a purchase or sign up). There’s huge demand out there for landing page writers. To find success in specialising in landing pages you’ll need to understand the basics of conversion optimisation and be unafraid of delving deep into audience and competitor research.
As landing pages are often directly related to sales you can charge a decent amount to craft some compelling copy. The price range for good landing page copy can range from $500 for beginners all the way up to tens of thousands for the real pros out there.
The majority of advertising copywriter jobs are found within an agency and require you to work closely with an art director. In contrast to the long form content direct response copywriters produce, advertising copywriters produce a lot of slogans, catchphrases and short succinct messages.
These are the guys who come up with the popular taglines you see on billboards and on full page magazine ads.
This can be a lucrative field. However, for best results as a freelancer you’re better off partnering with a freelance designer so you’re able to offer a full service to clients.
The occupation of reporting, writing, editing, and broadcasting news. In the grand scheme of things journalism is arguably a more worthwhile pursuit than the financially focused world of copy and content writers.
Journalism adds another spanner in the works as, despite being a specialisation itself, it also contains it’s own sub-genres such as sports journalism, business reporting or even world events.
There’s a lot of pressure for journalists to make no mistakes. A content writer can make a mistake in their work and easily amend it at a later date with little to no fallout. Journalists on the other hand have to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort researching and double checking facts. Any mistakes will be immediately picked up on by the audience making the journalist’s life extremely difficult.
You’ve also got to be prepared to work irrational hours. As a freelancer you can’t afford to miss the latest developments that could be the making of your next big story.
The most straightforward of the journalism world. You find the facts and report them. The aim is not to take a side or make a stand, the aim is to relay information in its purest form.
Opinion pieces are a huge detraction from news journalism as they express the views of the people / person who authored the piece. They can generally be broken down into three areas
- Columns allow regular contributors to the publication (often staff writers) to express their personal opinion on various matters.
- Editorials represent the opinion of the editor, editorial board or publisher. The official standpoint will be agreed upon in private with a member of the editorial team being allocated as the writer. I’d imagine that this isn’t a huge market for freelancers.
- Short for opposite the editorial page, an Op-Ed represents the opinion of an individual contributor who isn’t affiliated in any way with the publication. This is a great market for freelancers.
Columns could really be produced by anyone with an ability to craft decent copy. Any views expressed are those of the author meaning columns can take on a variety of different tones.
Investigative journalism gave rise to the hard nosed, truth seeking journalist image.
The primary aim is to uncover the truth of a person, situation or event. It’s a difficult job as investigative journalists will often work with uncooperative sources making fact checking and verification extremely difficult.
It can however be a great force for good. Investigative journalists have uncovered numerous scandals that could have huge influence over the general public.
Features can be about any subject. They’re kind of the middle ground between opinion pieces and straight news reporting.
They focus on real people, situations or events yet still retain an element of individuality and personal opinion. When someone wins an award for a stand out piece of journalism, it’s more often than not for a feature article.
I kind of wish that I was a creative writer. Over the last few years I’ve grown a real appreciation for fiction writing.
Many types of freelance writing have a strong sense of storytelling at their core. Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to form a connection with an audience which makes the study of creative writing beneficial for freelance writers of all disciplines.
Creative writing isn’t easy. I find it far more difficult than any other kind of writing which only contributes to my admiration of creative writers.
For those looking at making a career as a creative writer, here’s a breakdown of a few areas for you to specialise in.
These usually are only 5000–7000 words in length and are a great way for those looking to land a book deal to gain experience and build a portfolio.
Payment ranges for this kind of work are varied. I often include a few examples in the Weekly Writing Gigs Newsletter and I’ve seen everything from $0.05 per word all the way up to $0.50 per word.
Usually ranging from 60,000 to 120,000 words they are a huge undertaking. Good novels require prior research, a solid plan and a number of hours every day working on finishing your draft. Once an initial draft is complete you’ve got to edit everything before seeking the advice of an agent, publisher or proofreader/editor.
I can’t imagine the amount of work it takes to get a good novel off the ground. From what I understand the common route to publication is to first have a number of small stories published.
Payment is very difficult to pin down as well. It really all depends on your ability, reputation and the publisher. Stephen King explained in On Writing how he received a $2500 advance for Carrie. That’s an icredibly small fee when you consider how successful Carrie has become.
Creative Non Fiction
Creative nonfiction uses the literary techniques of authors, playwrights and poets to add new dimensions to non fiction content making them more enjoyable for the reader.
There’s actually quite a wide range of work in creative non-fiction. I imagine it would be a great stopgap for novelists looking to fill a little time and earn some money from the corporate world. Below I’ve listed a few areas who use creative non fiction.
- Personal essays
- Literary journalism
- Cultural criticism
- Feature articles
- Narrative history
So that’s a quick breakdown looking at 15 types of freelance writing specialties for you to explore.
At this point you should have a shortlist of potential niches which you’re both knowledgable in and want to write about. You should also know what kind of problems people are experiencing in those niches through the questions they ask and know what kind of services other writer’s offer.
All of this will give you a good indication of whether there is a market for your potential freelance writing niches.
The final step is to analyse each and every entry on your list.
The first job is to remove any entries for which there is no market. If you can’t find information or other examples of people earning cash in one of your potential overlaps, then there’s likely a reason for that. That reason being there is no market.
When you’re left with a selection of potentials you need to assign a score out of 10.
Assign a score out of 10 based on the validity of the market and whether you can solve the type of questions your ideal clients are asking. Cross reference the above information on the types of jobs with what others are offering and whether you think you’d enjoy it to pick your final score.
The three highest scoring niche options are where you should be starting your search and marketing.
Simple as that.
To make things a little easier feel free to download the free template I created for you. And if you’re struggling, just drop a comment below to ask a question or tell me this ain’t working and I’ll get back to you.
Originally published at Have a Word.