Editors Advise: Generalist or Specialist

In this series, editors share their experiences, insights, and tips on the practical aspects of working as an editor or writer. For this edition, five editors share their thoughts on whether focusing on a niche is a good idea when starting out.

A woman working at a desk, studying a notebook.
Photo by Deddy Yoga Pratama on Unsplash

Should someone relatively new to editing focus on a niche or be a generalist (or both)?

Photo of Pamela Capraru

Pamela Capraru, copy and line editor

I fell into copy editing magazines 40 years ago, thanks to secretarial work, typing speed, and an aptitude for English and art. I didn’t attend university or journalism school, and I joke that I earned my PhD at UotJ—University on the Job. To add value, I looked around for tasks that others let fall by the wayside: filing, taking minutes, organizing workflow, and shadowing the copy chief. 

These days, such entry-level opportunities, with mentorship and technical training, no longer exist, and it’s difficult to break in to traditional book and magazine publishing. Over the past several decades, both industries have undergone intensive downsizing and transformation. 

As seen in “Editor for Life” posts, editing often chooses us. When attending Editors Canada seminars, as a magazine editor I found myself in the minority. Most attendees came from the corporate world, marketing, financial services, government, and non-profits. They had an aptitude for editing, so they attracted extra responsibilities in their full-time positions as well as freelance referrals (I got many well-paying side gigs from executives who noticed me working late on deadline). So many organizations don’t have staff editors, which means you can fill a need and gain valuable experience.

For newer editors, I recommend that they seek opportunities in their current jobs and build their portfolios; pursue professional development, training, and mentorship; network at conferences and events and on social media; create a presence on LinkedIn and ask for client testimonials (you don’t necessarily need a website); develop a library of recognized style manuals, software, and other resources; market their abilities; and see where that takes them. For some, that will be a niche they’re passionate about. For others, a generalist approach could enable them to cast a wider net. I’ve freelanced for more than 20 years, and I’ve built my business through repeat clients and referrals. Avoid imposter syndrome (the syndrome is the imposter). Remember: when it comes to editing, you are the expert.

Photo of Katherine Morton

Katherine Morton (she/her), Certified Copy Editor

Sometimes new editors don’t know what their niche might be or should be. When starting, they know they love words, language, and editing but perhaps not the type of editing they would like to do. It’s ok to start as a generalist. Then, as a new editor gets more experience and takes some editing courses, they’ll learn what they’re good at and what they like, which are often the same.

Other times, like me, new editors come from other careers, where they have expertise, for example, in law, healthcare, or fiction. These new editors may focus on a niche from the beginning, offering expertise in a genre, while building editing experience.

Photo of Jennifer D. Foster

Jennifer D. Foster, freelance editor, writer, mentor, and owner of Planet Word

To me, it’s a personal decision and depends on one’s skill set(s), personality, and work experience. As a long-time freelance editor, writer, and mentor, I’m a generalist. I started as an in-house editor at a national women’s magazine (after getting an undergrad degree in sociology and mass communications and then a journalism degree), then moved to copy editing content for a website for financial advisers, then moved to editor/writer at the AGO. Then, after six months of mat leave, I launched my freelance editorial business, Planet Word. And I knew at that point I wanted to offer many services to many different clients. Luckily, I had several contacts from my previous jobs by then, so those helped me tremendously in getting work right away.

I wear many hats in a workday, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I can be writing a book review, then copy editing magazine features, then proofreading an annual report for an art gallery or blog copy for a bank or a picture book for a self-publishing author, then mentoring a novice editor—sometimes all within the same day! I love the variety and challenges that each project provides, as well as the mental stimulation and satisfaction. And I think that offering myriad skills and services helps to simultaneously fine-tune each one of them. 

To me, the key is knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and playing to them. Self-awareness is vital for career satisfaction. And being open to possibilities and trusting your gut instincts are also imperative. Knowing whether you want to be a generalist or focus on a niche may be something you know intuitively (which is partly why I launched my business as a generalist) or something you figure out after working in different jobs, both in-house and/or via freelancing, over many years. 

Finally, if you have specialist skills in an area (say, law) and you’re making a transition from that career to editing, you may want to focus in your niche area first, then branch out afterward. If you go the freelance route, you may have professional contacts who can offer you freelance work immediately, and then, if it suits you, you can reach out to prospective clients and offer more editorial services in more genres.

Photo of Alicja Minda

Alicja Minda (she), editor at the Senate of Canada

I think beginning editors who have expertise or a strong interest in a particular field should definitely use that to their advantage. The same goes for those who already know they want to work in a particular niche: It makes sense to pursue projects or jobs in that niche right from the start. Otherwise, my pragmatic answer would be to take whatever comes your way because it’s important to accumulate experience. Another thing to keep in mind is that projects you work on can help inform your future choices, so some variety can be valuable. One can start out as a generalist and specialize over time, or enjoy the variety and remain a generalist.

Photo of Samantha Hoffman

Samantha Hoffman, proofreader and Quality Assurance (QA) specialist

I believe that is a personal decision. There are opportunities that can provide experience in the niche that you want, and there are those that provide general experience. You may need to be prepared to have your initial experience come from volunteer roles in order to start getting your name out there.

This article was copy edited by Margaux Yiu, a documentary photographer and multi-passionate freelance editor.

[If you’re looking for information about working within a specific niche, check out these past BoldFace articles that cover scholarly publishing, environmental communication, or the pet niche.]

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