Freelance Writing Jobs

What is a Content Writing Generalist? (And How to Hire One)

By:
Shaun Connell
Updated
April 1, 2022

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?

What Are The Benefits of Hiring a Generalist?

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.

Benefits of Hiring a Generalist

There are a few tangible benefits to hiring a generalist writer. Let's take a look.

1. Generalists know how to research pretty much anything.

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.

Researching Paper

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.

2. Generalists can learn and grow with you.

One of the best parts of hiring a generalist is that they're not just capable of, but great at, learning over time.

Learn and Growing With You

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:

  • They grow familiar with your style, voice, tone, and requirements for your writing.
  • They grow more intimately familiar with your topic - these writers can reference older posts, build upon ideas they've written elsewhere, and even synthesize new ideas.
  • They learn more, follow industry sources, and gradually become more of an authority.

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.

3. Generalists can adapt to changing circumstances.

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?

Adapting Circumstances

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.

4. Generalists are often less expensive to hire than specialists.

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.

What Are The Drawbacks of Hiring a Generalist?

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.

1. Generalists take time to learn a new niche.

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 a New Niche

For example:

  • A finance writer might have to be very careful about recommendations due to the inherent risk of financial advice.
  • A writer in particular legal fields may need to comply with regulations to avoid getting their client in trouble.
  • A writer in a complex technological or scientific topic needs to spend time learning it so they can get it right and make sure they don't look foolish in front of experts.

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.

2. Generalists may get bored quickly and move on.

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.
Bored Generalist Writer

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.

3. Generalists can be harder to vet.

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.

Vetting a Writer

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.

What is a T-Shaped Writer?

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.

T Shaped Writer

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.

Solution They are what is known as a T-shaped expert. The horizontal bar on the T represents the wide variety of basic, surface-level skills and knowledge the writer has. The vertical bar on the T represents the specializations they have.

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.

How Do You Hire a Content Writing Generalist?

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.

How to HIre a Generalist

Here's what the process looks like:

  1. The first thing to recognize is that many freelance writers who build their brands and are easily visible via personal websites will be specialists. Instead, you're more likely to need to look at content mills, freelance hubs, and job boards.
  2. Develop a brief for your overall company, your blogging needs, and your niche - this will be the overview so a writer can determine if they can tolerate writing for you. Some writers might not want to tackle medical, finance, or specific other topics, either for personal or legal reasons. They want to know ahead of time what they're getting into.
  3. Post a job listing on job boards. You're likely to get hundreds or thousands of applications; remember that any content submitted as a portfolio piece represents the best the writer can do, not their average work. It can be not easy to find and pick good candidates but do your best.
  4. Once you have a shortlist of candidates in mind, present them with a writing test. This test should be an actual, practical project, identical to what you typically have your writers do. We recommend picking an intermediate topic in complexity, which can challenge their research skills but won't require specialist knowledge off the bat. Make sure to pay for the test project.

Read through the content you receive, and perform your due diligence.

  • Is it spun or plagiarized?
  • Does it meet your content brief?
  • Does it match tone and style if you wanted it matched?
  • Does it cover the topic accurately, or is it off-target?
  • Is it sufficiently deep for your needs?

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.

Solution Finding the right kind of generalist writer can be tricky, but it's far from impossible. Every company is different, and your needs will be particular to you. All you need is time, clarity, and the willingness to filter through applications.

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.

Written By:
Shaun Connell
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.
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