Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
In this occasional series, I share questions of Cuaderno Inedito readers, as well as my answers.
How do I expand my subject expertise as a writer? (or: How do I start getting bylines about topics for which I don’t have an existing portfolio?)
Starting to get bylines for topics about which you don’t have an existing portfolio seems like a chicken-egg problem, doesn’t it? And one that’s particularly frustrating for established writers, who feel like they’re suddenly back at square one of their careers, trying to build up a publication history.
Let’s say you’re a travel writer and you decide you want to start expanding your subject expertise. You’re interested in writing about food or science or art or business… or whatever. How do you do it?
I spent 2012 expanding my portfolio beyond travel publications and intend to grow into even more subjects in 2013, so I have a few tried and true tips for those of you trying to do the same.
1. Read a lot.
If you want to start writing about fashion, then you need to be reading about fashion. Magazines, blogs, and key publications like WWD will give you a sense of what editors are looking for in terms of angles and style and what topics are being covered.
Though most print magazines have the same basic structure (front-of-book, feature well, back-of-book), their departments differ considerably, and your initial pitches will likely be more successful if you show that you know what the relevant departments are and how your story ideas might fit within them.
Also, who’s writing about the topic? Which names consistently pop up in mastheads and bylines? What can you learn about them and their body of work, and what can you learn from their trajectory? Who are considered the “go-to” writers on the subject that interests you, and why do you think they’re considered THE experts on said subject?
2. Identify what’s missing and determine how you can fill the void.
As you’re reading, make notes. What topics aren’t being covered? How might you fill the void? What subjects are being covered poorly? What do you have to offer that could be a more compelling alternative?
3. Put yourself in situations where you can connect with colleagues and sources.
If you want to expand your portfolio to include tech writing, you need to know the players in that subject area. Start following folks on twitter who have expertise in the field. Attend events where you can meet colleagues and sources and begin to establish your own credibility in the topic.
4. Begin by blogging.
Use your blog as a place to show off your writing style on the subject into which you want to expand. When you’re ready to pitch editors, you can intersperse these with your print clips on other topics to give editors a sense of how you treat the topic.
5. Pick the low-hanging fruit.
When you’re trying to establish yourself as a writer with subject matter expertise, it can be tough to land meaty assignments, as you haven’t yet proven yourself. Your base of contacts and the scope of your story ideas may not yet be developed enough to propose a feature-length piece that requires depth. Also, you may not yet have total confidence in yourself to pull off a particular topic without having your bona fides questioned.
In these cases, pick the low-hanging fruit. Write a profile piece or file an interview rather than a trends or predictive piece.
Also: don’t pretend to be what you aren’t.
I’ll give you two examples.
In 2011, I had a couple article ideas that were place-based but not travel-related; they fit better within science publications. One of the articles was about scientific research at Guantanamo Bay, which I had visited in 2008. I was fascinated by the number and variety of scientists who had conducted or were conducting research studies at Guantanamo Bay, as well as the reasons why they were attracted to work at the controversial US military base.
Though I love science, I don’t have a degree in any scientific discipline. I wanted to be clear with myself, my editor, and readers: I wasn’t interpreting or evaluating results of scientists’ studies. I was simply reporting on a phenomenon that had been overlooked in mainstream science media. I relied heavily upon my sources, letting them do the talking about their work. That piece was published by DISCOVER and that clip probably helped me land a subsequent assignment with Scientific American about environmental advocacy in Puerto Rico.
I’ve long wanted to publish a piece with Outside, but I’d be hard-pressed to pass myself off as an outdoorsy person. I love the outdoors but gravitate towards cities and I don’t do any of the outdoor sports that Outside tends to write about. There’s no way to fake that kind of interest and expertise, and I wouldn’t want to, anyway. There are plenty of other places in the magazine and within Outside’s online division where I felt I had something to offer.
I felt that one thing missing from Outside was coverage of athletes outside the US (especially in Latin America) who aren’t household names but who have amazing achievements, and while I didn’t have sports cred in my publication history, I certainly had plenty of depth and breadth with respect to Latin American subjects. The perfect opportunity lined up to write about Mexican kayaker Rafa Ortiz; the piece will be published soon on Outside’s website. When it is, I’ll do a post detailing the full backstory of the piece.
Are you trying to break into a new area of writing? What challenges are you experiencing? Have any tips based on your own work? Share them in the comments.
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