In the world of content writing, there are two kinds of writers. There are specialists, and there are generalists.
Consider medical professionals. A general practitioner or a nurse has a broad skill set with experience in many areas. They might not know how to perform surgery, diagnose an autoimmune disorder, or develop a treatment plan for cancer. They're a generalist. On the other hand, you have specialists; the surgeon, the rheumatologist, the oncologist. These doctors started as generalists and pursued an interest in a specialty to become a leader in their field.
Writers are the same, just with lower stakes. A generalist has a broad, often surface-level knowledge of many subjects and can write on nearly anything with at least some small degree of authority. A specialist picks a topic or two – maybe IT, maybe Health, maybe Finance – and pursues it in greater detail. They usually become more of an authority and can write with more nuance and depth.
When you're trying to find a writer for your blog, eBook, or other needs, you have to decide: do you want to hire a generalist or a specialist?
Generalists are the most common kind of writer, just like they're the most common in any career. Any career will have generalists because building a generalist education is the first stage to becoming a specialist. Mechanics who can work on any car on a fundamental level are more common than mechanics who know BMWs inside and out or mechanics who can work on airplanes.
There are a few tangible benefits to hiring a generalist writer. Let's take a look.
The most significant benefit of hiring a generalist is that they tend to be pretty good at researching anything.
Many specialist writers don't start as generalist writers, unlike other careers. They aren't necessarily capable of writing authoritatively on non-medical topics. Specialist writers might have careers in different fields, and transition to writing about their topic of interest when working in that job is no longer enticing or possible. A specialist doctor might retire from practicing but still maintain a blog or write textbooks.
Generalist writers tend to be excellent at researching, discerning the difference between sound sources and poor sources, and adapting their content and style to any situation. They write for so many different clients on various topics that they specialize in adaptability. You may be able to hire a single writer who can produce excellent content on health topics, IT topics, finance topics, and more, all in the same week.
One of the best parts of hiring a generalist is that they're not just capable of, but great at, learning over time.
If you have a regular project for a writer and hire them regularly for weekly posts, that writer will learn about your business and write expertly:
Essentially, you can hire a generalist and turn them into a specialist in your array of topics through consistent work and an ongoing relationship.
However, unlike hiring a specialist, you know they can adapt if your business needs to adapt. If your topic drifts over time, so too can the writer's focus; a specialist might decide you've moved too far outside of their scope and will move on.
You're a business owner, but that doesn't mean you want to be tied to your business forever. What if you decide you want to start a second business in a different industry? What if you're going to dramatically expand what your company does and take on an entirely new topic?
With a specialist writer, you will often need to go out and find another specialist in the new topic. That specialist might take time to adapt to your style and voice, or they might not be able to do so. On the other hand, your generalist already knows everything they need to except for the basics of the recently-added industry, and they can research that just fine.
Sooner or later, the topic of money has to come up.
The truth is, generalists are often lower-paid, much like they are in any industry. Specialists command higher prices because they bring with them authority.
Specialists might also have additional requirements, like a byline on your blog, whereas generalists are more likely to be happy ghostwriting. Hiring a generalist gives you a lower price point for entry into blogging. A generalist will be more than happy to stick with you over time if you increase their compensation as they prove themselves and your business grows.
Generalists are often viewed as novices in industries, and in some cases, they are. In writing, however, generalists aren't necessarily newcomers or inexperienced. Some like the challenge of writing about new topics every week. However, that's not to say that generalists are universally better; there are drawbacks to hiring one over a specialist.
As with any subject, it can take time to learn it - this holds doubly true if you're in an industry with a lot of detail and complexity or in a position where they must follow special rules.
Learning takes time. Generalists may be experts in researching new topics, but they often start with either a surface-level understanding of a subject or less. It can take a while for them to get up to speed.
Two types of people become generalist writers.
The first is the people who can't research topics on more than a superficial level or don't care to do so. With a surface-level understanding of many things, a generalist can thrive on freelance hubs like Upwork or on content mills, where the topic they write about each day can change dramatically. Moreover, since clients' standards for the writing they get from those networks tend to be lower, the generalists don't need to put as much effort into it.
To put it simply, generalists that create surface-level writing tend to be easier to produce and faster, and while it doesn't pay as well as specialist writing, the stakes are low. Hundreds of thousands of potential clients are willing to pay for surface-level content to round out a blog, so if one or two drops the writer, it's no skin off their back.
The other set of generalists is the perpetually bored people. These are the people who yearn for the challenge of writing about new subjects on a constant, ever-changing basis. They're perfectly capable of writing in-depth, nuanced content on a given topic, and they will. But, by the time they're writing their tenth post on the benefits of some health supplement or the mechanics of Node.JS, they'll get bored of it.
The most significant risk to you is that they may decide to move on. They're tired of the same old subjects, and unless they're maintaining other client relationships, they might seek out further work with a different client.
Generalist writers are often very good at producing base-level content. It looks great and sounds good, is free from errors, and passes plagiarism tests.
The trouble comes if you want them to write on a deeper level or with more authority. Some of them can't swing it. It takes longer and longer to research, they get things wrong, and it all starts to fall apart.
How can you tell in advance? Well, you really can't. You have to give them a task to write something profound and nuanced and see how they do. There's no way around it; a practical test is necessary.
Above, we mentioned that many specialist writers had careers in their fields before taking to writing to supplement their income, give them something to do in retirement, or change careers while leveraging experience and education.
That's not all specialist writers, however.
A writer might be able to write competently about specific topics, but both prefer (and are more of an expert on) a single subject or a couple of related issues. Many specialists are, themselves, generalists.
Finding and hiring a T-shaped writer is often the best bet for a company looking for a long-term relationship with a single writer. Alternatively, when you hire a generalist and build their skills and knowledge over time, you shape them into a T-shaped expert.
Generalists are not necessarily difficult to hire, but you may go through several of them before you find one who fits your style and needs and who will stick with you.
Here's what the process looks like:
Read through the content you receive, and perform your due diligence.
You can also judge the writer based on whether or not they ask for clarification (and what they ask about; someone asking a fundamental question might not be the right one for the job), how quickly they turn in their content, etc.
Are you looking for a writing generalist, and what made you decide on a generalist? When tracking them down, are you having trouble finding one, and what have been your most significant successes and failures? We'd love to hear from you, and your comments will help others! Let's get a discussion started in the comments section down below.