How I Chose My Freelance Writing Niches

by John Soares on February 24, 2014

I’m a strong advocate of freelance writers specializing in one or more niches that pay good rates. (That’s why I created a quick and effective course about how to do it.)

Why Specialize?

Because you’ll get a higher rate of return on the total investment of the time you spend marketing your services and completing your projects.

Most freelance writing specialties fall in the $50-$100 per hour range, with some ranging up to $200 per hour and beyond to $300 per hour and more. The upper figures apply to people who excel in a field where clients pay premium rates for the highest-quality work.

Most writers begin as generalists; however, I’m one of the writers who actually started out as a specialist. Here’s my story. 

My First Niche: Outdoors Writing

I’ve always been an avid hiker who loved to spend as much time outside as possible, so I started my freelance career in outdoors writing. 

John Soares and Stephanie Hoffman at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. A big thunderstorm hit about 20 minutes later.

At Delicate Arch in Arches National Park with my partner Stephanie.

I leapfrogged straight into writing books by landing a contract with The Mountaineers Books in Seattle for my first title, Best Short Hikes in and around the North Sacramento Valley. It was published in 1992 and finally went out of print in 2009.

I leveraged that first book into two more books I wrote in the 1990s for the same publisher: 100 Classic Hikes in Northern California, (now in its third edition), and 75 Hikes in California’s Mount Shasta and Lassen Volcanic National Park Regions, (revised edition). These two are still in print, and my hiking books have sold a combined total of about 70,000 copies.

My status as a book author with one of the top publishers in the field greatly boosted my ability to market myself. I initially focused on the periodical market by writing over 100 articles about hiking, backpacking, and other outdoors activities for magazines such as Sunset and VIA, and also for a half-dozen newspapers. I was still a part-time freelancer at this point; much of my income came from teaching college-level political science courses.

And college teaching quickly led to my main niche, the one that’s made me nearly all of my income since the mid-1990s…

My Second and Main Niche: Freelancing for Higher Education Companies

Even as I started my freelance career in outdoors writing, I was also developing my second and by far more lucrative niche: freelance writing for higher education companies.

As a college instructor, I was frequently approached by textbook sales people. These reps sought to convince me to adopt their books for my classes, and during a conversation with one, I asked who wrote the instructor’s manuals, lecture outlines, and test questions that the publishers provided to the profs who adopt their books. She said, “People like you. Interested?”

I was! She connected me with an editor at her company. I sent in my résumé and some test questions I’d written for one of my own classes. That summer I landed a $4000 project to write multiple-choice, true-false, and essay questions for a new American government textbook. I loved it, it paid well, and I was launched into my main niche.

I got more and more assignments from her company and from others I contacted. By 1994 I was ready to leave teaching and launch into freelancing full-time. Writing for higher education companies has provided my main income ever since, augmented by book royalties and a few outdoors and travel articles.

What I Make in My Main Niche

My per-hour pay for creating supplements for college textbooks ranges from $50-$100 for most projects, although I’ve had some assignments that paid $150 per hour. Other niches pay more, but I love what I do because I love learning and helping students learn. (Details on how to succeed in this particular niche are in my ebook Writing College Textbook Supplements.)

Ready to Step Up?

Then get my course Find Your Freelance Writing Niches: Make More Money for Less Work. It’s only 20 bucks, and it contains several exercises that guide you to the niches most likely to boost your earnings.

Your Take

Do you specialize in one or more areas? Which ones? Any other thoughts?

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    { 29 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Anne Wayman February 24, 2014 at 9:34 AM

    Twitter: @annewayman

    John, I’ve had two niches – drug and alcoholism recovery and freelance writing. Along the way I discovered I was a pretty good ghostwriter and have had my hand in many books, including some of my own.

    As I’ve become more and more committed to zen Buddhism I’ve been wanting to write in that arena, and sure enough, a couple of opportunities have shown up… I may be working on my next niche.
    Anne Wayman recently posted…How Freelance Writers Can Ask For Referrals And Get Them

    Reply

    2 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 9:45 AM

    Anne, I hope writing about Zen works out for you. It’s so important to write about what really interests us.
    John Soares recently posted…How Content Shock Hurts Freelance Writers

    Reply

    3 Anne Wayman February 24, 2014 at 9:35 AM

    Twitter: @annewayman

    BTW, it feels like the niches picked me and I merely said ‘yes’
    Anne Wayman recently posted…How Freelance Writers Can Ask For Referrals And Get Them

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    4 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 9:46 AM

    I’ve heard from other writers about the same thing. They started as generalists, and over time some combination of fate or luck guided them to certain niches.
    John Soares recently posted…8 Time Management Techniques for Successful Writers

    Reply

    5 Deevra Norling February 24, 2014 at 9:57 AM

    Twitter: @deevranorling

    Thanks for sharing this John. You just seemed to find your niche and hit your stride early on, which is great. You’re right, many freelancers start out as generalists – that’s where I find myself right now.
    I am still trying to figure out which niches I want to focus on. I figured it will organically develop. I do know for sure that travel writing is one. Animals is another, although I have not pursued this one yet.
    Deevra Norling recently posted…10 Rules for Writing First Drafts

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    6 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    Deevra, just be open to finding the 2-3 niches that are both interesting and remunerative.

    If you love animals, consider writing for the many animal-based businesses: pet foods, veterinarians, pet medicines, etc.
    John Soares recently posted…The 8 Top Ways to Legally Lower Your 2013 Freelance Writer Tax Bill

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    7 Cathy Miller February 24, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    Twitter: @millercathy

    After 30+years in healthcare/employee benefits, my niche was pretty much a no-brainer. :-)

    I am just beginning to move on to a niche based on the passion I developed from over a decade of participating in the 3-Day, 60-Mile Walk for the Cure. I’m looking forward to it. :-)
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Laboring Over Your Marketing Message

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    8 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 11:21 AM

    Cathy, you are a very talented writer, so I’m sure you can succeed in yet another niche. I’ll be following your progress!
    John Soares recently posted…8 Time Management Techniques for Successful Writers

    Reply

    9 Craig Martin February 24, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Twitter: @cmbizwriting

    John,

    Thanks for reading my mind today! I needed this boost.

    My first niche was travel writing, but it’s so flooded and difficult, depending on who is involved with the publication. I’d rather save my cash, enjoy the trip and not worry about documenting it all.

    Now I have the motivation to work on my next (hopefully, main) niche that – like Deevra said – will soon develop organically.

    –Craig
    Craig Martin recently posted…Newbie freelancer tip #24: Start looking for gigs with a sensible eye

    Reply

    10 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    Craig, travel is a very crowded field. Almost everyone travels, which means a lot of competition. As I told Deevra above, also look at writing copy for the various businesses involved in travel: go beyond the blogs and magazines.
    John Soares recently posted…Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination With My Kindle Ebook

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    11 Sharon Hurley Hall February 24, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    Twitter: @shurleyhall

    Always fun to hear how other writers got started on their niches. :) Most of what I write about now comes out of my love of playing with new web tools – and of course my background in journalism has led me to write on aspects of writing, too!
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted…Why I’m a Prolific Writer

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    12 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    Sharon, it sounds like you really like what you do. And I suggest everyone read your CommentLuv post about why you are such a prolific writer.
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Google+ Communities for Freelance Writers

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    13 Christine February 24, 2014 at 11:21 AM

    I’m curious about the idea of writing for college textbooks. I wonder if it is something that a person can do if they’ve never been to college. Or is it more for those who have some kind of formal education with the learning that goes with it?
    Christine recently posted…What Have They DONE To G-chat (revisited)

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    14 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    Christine, writing for college textbook publishers usually does require a college degree, although it doesn’t have to necessarily be in the same subject matter as the textbook work.

    That said, there are people without college degrees who are able to do some projects for textbook publishing companies, but it’s overall a tougher sell.
    John Soares recently posted…Want to Be a Better Writer? Just Relax…

    Reply

    15 Lori Ferguson February 24, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    Twitter: @lorilferguson

    Good info here, John (as well as in your ‘Find Your Niche’ course, which I have used. :-) ) I, too, fell into one of my niches pretty easily–two degrees in art history followed by a stint in public relations for several museums and I was ready to rock on the arts. :-) I’ve also done a lot of work in the academic/nonprofit sector, which I enjoy, so I find myself in that neck of the woods quite a bit, too.

    Reply

    16 John Soares February 24, 2014 at 3:28 PM

    Thanks for plugging my niche course Lori! You are smart to take advantage of your college background. That’s one of the key areas to mine for good niches.

    I’ve done some paying work for nonprofits, but lately I’ve been donating my time to some nonprofits I strongly support.
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Google+ Communities for Freelance Writers

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    17 Alexandra February 24, 2014 at 3:52 PM

    Twitter: @alexsjaancannon

    Hey John,

    It’s always good to be reminded that specialization is important. Right now I’m more of a “generalist” because I don’t feel quite like an expert in anything!

    I think breaking into textbook supplements would be a fun field, actually. I’ve been taking college courses since I was fourteen and I’m still not finished. However, my (negative) gut feeling is that they’d rather have writers with experience as professors than writers who have simply taken classes. Maybe that’s just that awful critic in my head though!

    I see that your ebook has a sample, so I’m going to go ahead and read that. Maybe make the jump sooner rather than later!

    Thanks for your advice,

    Alex

    Reply

    18 John Soares February 25, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    Alexandra, it’s fine to start as a generalist as long as you’re also really applying yourself to finding quality niches.

    As for writing textbook supplements, it definitely helps if you’ve taught college before. However, there’s a lot of demand in the field, and that means a lot of writers get hired who haven’t taught at all.
    John Soares recently posted…How Content Shock Hurts Freelance Writers

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    19 Susan Johnston February 24, 2014 at 7:34 PM

    Twitter: @UrbanMuseWriter

    This is so interesting, John! I started out covering the things that interested me and it was only later that I realized those tended to be profiles of entrepreneurs and service pieces on personal finance. Once I’d identified those areas of interest, I started branding myself in those niches using the clips I’d already amassed. Initially, my personal finance pieces were pretty fluffy (“10 Holiday Gifts Under $10″ and things like that), but over time, I dove into meatier topics like mortgages and insurance by interviewing experts in those industries and doing my homework to get up to speed.
    Susan Johnston recently posted…Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar?

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    20 John Soares February 25, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    Textbook way to do it Susan. I’ve been following your career over the years. Quite impressive!
    John Soares recently posted…8 Time Management Techniques for Successful Writers

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    21 James Frost February 28, 2014 at 6:53 AM

    Twitter: @James Frost

    John loved the article as you always put out something new for the readers.I agree with the points you mentioned for choosing the niche for someones writing.

    Reply

    22 Mainak Halder February 28, 2014 at 2:35 PM

    Twitter: @PastMasterBlog

    Congratulation John Soares, for selling 70,000 copies of your book. It’s good to hear that you charge $50-$100 per hour. I have been also working as a freelancer for past 3 years on various freelancing platform but the rate we can charge is very limited. The clients there have very limited budget for their project and hence the pay is also too low.

    Do you have any tips to find high paying clients? :)

    Reply

    23 Connor March 2, 2014 at 1:49 PM

    Twitter: @connorbradshaw0

    Competition is very fierce nowadays. On freelancer.com, the rates are very depressing. The indian writers are willing to take up $1.00/article for general articles. How do we compete? I guess like what you said, I need to be in a specific niche and make myself an authority in that niche. Else, can go into technical writing where not a lot of people can write such articles.

    Reply

    24 James Frost March 3, 2014 at 7:35 AM

    Twitter: @James Frost

    Today gave the link of this posts to some newbies to learn before start writing.I hope they will learn reading this article.

    Reply

    25 Gary Starkman March 4, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    Free lance writing can be very tricky, especially if you don’t know what your niches are. Glad to see you found yours John.

    Reply

    26 Steven J Fromm March 5, 2014 at 6:58 AM

    Twitter: @https://twitter.com/sjfpc

    I am no where close to a free lance writer. As a tax and estates attorney I have my blog and struggle to write consistently. I found your article very informative and interesting. Learned a lot, too. So thanks.
    Steven J Fromm recently posted…Phillip Seymour Hoffman: Lessons For Us and Especially Women On The Estate Plan Left Behind

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    27 Laurie March 5, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    Twitter: @lauriemmarshall

    You mention writing for companies in our interest area, beyond magazines and journals… how does a freelancer find these jobs? I’m just starting to dig into the online freelancing job boards, are they posted there, or is there a direct contact method you’d recommend like sending a letter to their creative department? Thanks!

    I have so many interests and hobbies it’s hard to focus on one! :)

    Reply

    28 Sagar Nandwani March 18, 2014 at 7:35 AM

    Thanks for such a great advice about picking a niche (if you’re a freelancer), check out Lexi Rodrigo’s Seven Ways to Find Your Freelance Writing Niche and Carol Tice’s How to Figure Out Your Best-Paying Freelance Writing Niche.

    Reply

    29 Craig July 7, 2014 at 2:45 PM

    Twitter: @hireresultsltd

    I tend to go for the niches that jump out at me, more then the ones I need to dig and dig to find. It has worked out a bit better that way, and obviously requires less work.

    Reply

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