Journalism Advice

How Do I Become a Topic Expert?

Turn yourself into every editor's go-to writer with these 9 tips

So here’s a question we’ve been hearing a lot: “I’m a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers, and my friends tell me I should develop an expertise. Does this make good business sense?”

Listen to your friends.

Becoming an expert is one of the smartest moves a freelance writer can make. It means that editors think of you first when they’re doling out assignments on a particular topic. And everyone wins in this scenario—editors get quality work (from you) and you get plum assignments (from them).

And how do you become a topic expert? Here are 9 tips:

1. Choose a specialty.

Pick a subject about which you feel passionately. If you’re not genuinely interested, skip it. You don’t want to settle into an area that will ultimately bore you.

20 years ago, writer Linda Marsa went in search of her specialty by covering a variety of subjects. “You have to try all kinds of things,” says Marsa, who writes about health and science for national magazines and newspapers. “Health suited me because I am detail-oriented. You have to triple-check everything for accuracy. I also have an activist bent. I can do stories that take a hard look at shenanigans in the medical field, and I give consumers useful information. This satisfies one of the reasons I became a journalist.”

2. Move laterally.

If you have a clip on one topic, use it to make a lateral move.

Try this trick from Marsa: “My original specialty was personal finance and I wanted to shift over to health, so I wrote a story about taking care of your parents during their sunset years. It was a finance piece but I used it as a health clip too.” That article helped her land an assignment on genetics for OMNI magazine. More projects with the magazine followed, including a contributing editor position writing about health.

3. Go through open doors.

Search for a toe-hold wherever you can find it. You only need one.

Writer Jodi Bryson found her start in covering the teen market from an independently published magazine called Girls’ Life. “I happened to see their very first issue on the newsstand, and I sent them a letter,” she says. She was asked to be a stringer and started churning out stories. Ten years later, she is an established go-to girl on teen topics.

4. Study your specialty.

Learn anything and everything about your specialty.

“You have to immerse yourself in the topic,” advises Bryson. “I want to know everything about teens and children. I tune in to Noggin and The WB. I know their music, their movies, their books and magazines and fashion. I need those cultural references when I’m writing. I also know the stuff like stats on teen pregnancy and other serious issues. I’m interested in all of it.”

5. Target specific publications.

Focus your efforts on getting printed in the recognized publications of your category.

An expertise in parenting, for example, would include titles such as Parenting, Parents, Child, Working Mother, American Baby, Parent & Child and Family Fun. For men’s fitness and body building, target titles like Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Flex, Monster Muscle, Ironman and Muscle & Fitness.

6. Just say yes.

Don’t be an assignment size snob.

Take every opportunity to write about your specialty and run with it. “Sometimes you take on projects that are not cost effective, but they become portfolio pieces you can use to sell yourself again and again,” says Marsa. “You have nothing to sell but your skills. Do short pieces and long pieces. You name it, do it.”

7. Become a columnist.

It’s hard to nail one of these, but writing a recurring column is a fast-track trick.

Even if it pays a pittance, it’s worth your time for other benefits: You build a library of clips (fast), and it demonstrates to editors at other publications that you know your stuff and can be trusted not to flake out. Pitch column ideas to small-circulation magazines, local newspapers, ‘zines and websites, all of which are often more open to starting new columns and taking chances with new writers.

8. Write a book.

Easier said than done, of course, but there’s nothing like a book to cement your credibility and distinguish you as an expert.

Since Marsa’s book Prescriptions for Profit was published in 1999, she has been known as the authority on drug development. The book took 2 and a half years to complete, but it led to TV and radio spots, magazine interviews and a part-time writing gig at the Los Angeles Times.

9. Market yourself.

“There’s a lot of PR work involved,” says Bryson, who regularly sends letters to editors she knows—and a few she doesn’t. “I’m not always soliciting work. Sometimes I write to introduce myself as an expert.”

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