How To Find Your Niche as a Writer

The Writing Nag, whose blog I adore because she nags, in an oh-so-sweet-way, writers to keep working, suggested this topic for a post:  How do you find your niche as a writer?

Good question.

Short answer: I don’t know.

No, that’s not really true.  But I do sometimes bill myself as a "Renaissance writer in a niche world," so you might now want to trust anything I say on this topic.  I got that whole Renaissance writer thing from my on-again, off-again (its currently off unless one of you wants to hire me) career as a copywriter.   The topics I covered in writing copy varied wildly, from roof racks to Voodoo to kitchen remodeling to spiritual leaders. 

So it seems to me that a copywriter needs to become a quick study and have the ability to learn about a topic rapidly.  However, I am also keenly aware that most marketing experts recommend niching (is that a word?) ourselves.  That, though it seems counter-intuitive, making yourself an expert in one small area will gain you more credibility and sales than being a generalist.

I have a bit of a specialty in art writing.  I’ve written catalog copy for a private art college, copy for internet sites, and tons of features on art and artists.  However, if I relied solely on my art writing to make a living, I’d starve.  (Not that just the wee-est bit of starving would hurt me, mind you.)

I do think the essence of being a writer is curiosity, and it seems to me that any good writer worth her salt should have enough basic curiosity about most topics to be able to learn enough to write about it.  And while you may want to specialize in a certain niche, don’t be afraid to cast your net farther if need be.

Now, what about the different genres of writing?  Should you specialize in non-fiction, or fiction, or screenwriting, or what?

Here’s the deal: though it pains me to say this, it is very hard to make a living at writing fiction.  So most of us whose reason for getting up in the morning is working on a novel also master non-fiction.   The truth is, with few exceptions, I’d rather be writing than doing anything else for pay, so it has behooved (I love that word) me to find non-fiction markets for my work.  I would love nothing more than to be able to write novels and blog for a living, and I do hope that the day I can do that is not far off.  But it is not quite here yet.

So, if you are looking to find a niche in a subject area, start by making lists.  What are you passionate about?  What do you obsess about?  What do you spend most of your time discussing with friends?  What are your secret desires?  What and who do you hate?  What scares you? Make these lists fast and don’t think about them, just write.  Then go back over them and see if anything pops up more than once.  If so, there’s your subject.  If not, choose five things from the lists and write as fast as you can, ten topics you could write about under each one.  That ought to give you an idea which subject is fertile ground for you.  You can repeat this as often as necessary.  Its also a great idea generator for stories and characters.

If you are looking for a niche in genre, my advice is simple: what do you read?  Do you love novels?  Do you inhale literary non-fiction?  Are you one of the few and blessed people who buy and read poetry? Or would you much prefer to go see a movie than read a book?  Do you read your daily newspaper and the Sunday Times cover to cover? 

Odds are good that you’ll find your genre niche as close as your reading pile.  The movie-goer clearly needs to be writing screenplays, and the newspaper reader might want to consider becoming a stringer (which is pretty easy to do and can lead big places–for instance, Mary Roach, author of Stiff, started out stringing for "shoppers" the advertorial sections that often accompany your daily paper).  The novel reader should write novels and so forth.

Please, if anyone has any comments on this topic, chime in.  I’d love to hear how others have niched themselves and how it is working for you.  And thank you, Nag, for the topic.

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