When I first began freelancing, I was paralyzed by the debate over “keeping my options open” versus specializing in certain areas of science writing. There’s enough advice out there on the Internet to write a self-help book or three on the specialist versus generalist debate. A lot of it treats the question as if it is a big Decision you make at the outset: that old fork in the road right there at the starting line with lasting implications for your future.
In truth, most of us start our science writing careers as generalists by default. When it comes to paying gigs, all subjects are on the table. Besides, we became science writers because the one thing we’re good at is telling people all about stuff we find fascinating (which is just about everything).
I recently grabbed a drink with my friend and fellow freelancer, Cassandra Willyard, who, like me, was wrapping her head around the idea of working a more defined freelance “beat.”
“I don’t just want to be ‘cancer girl,’ or ‘infectious disease girl,'” she lamented, sure that writing about the same subject over and over would lead to a fate worse than rejection – boredom.
But here’s the thing – I don’t currently have the time and Cassie is losing the energy to keep starting from scratch on new assignments. A generalist is often walking into a previously foreign field of science, making the process of learning enough to write about it so much more labor intensive. I once took on a few assignments for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and, foolishly, assumed that the learning curve in rudimentary economics and political science would be no big deal. Of course I ended up slogging through what would’ve been easy assignments to someone familiar with the science.
Expertise in a field also comes in handy with the time-consuming task of crafting a pitch. “I so often feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about,” Cassie later wrote me about the generalist’s dilemma. “My hope is that specializing will give me a confidence boost, and the ability to come up with better pitches. After all, if you don’t know much about a field, it can be really hard to spot the gold nuggets in a sea of pyrite. It all looks shiny. (Geology is not my specialty.)”
Cassie once wrote an excellent post on an excellent blog about this lack of confidence and what she calls her “Hubble moments” that vividly illustrate this facet of the life of a generalist. And she’s right about specializing – when you start focusing on writing about just a few specific areas of science, you build not only a solid working knowledge of the field, but also relationships with sources you can use to tell future stories about those topics. You’re much closer to actually writing instead of just getting started with the reporting.
Michelle Nijhuis (bio) suggests that specialization is part of a natural progression for science writers. And it’s entirely possible I’m just leaning this way because that’s the route my professional life took as well. I’ve spent the last seven years helping organize and conduct professional development programs for journalists based on environment, energy and resource issues in the Great Lakes. I also work part time for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology, which studies lakes, rivers, and streams. As a result, I’m pretty comfortable writing about anything in the realm of aquatic ecology, hydrology or freshwater fisheries.
And those fields are now where most of my story ideas come from. I’m familiar with the latest science, trust my working knowledge on the subjects and have contacts with a lot of the people involved in the field. Obviously, my communications gig at the UW means certain stories (and sources) are off limits when I’m wearing my journalism hat, but a little background never hurt anyone, right? Besides, I haven’t gotten bored yet!
Image Credit: dcosand on Flickr.