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Starting out: Finding a specialism

When you're taking your first steps as a freelancer, the lack of a clear direction can feel a bit daunting. But you can look at it another way: for many, the freedom to shape your own career and pursue your interests is one of the most appealing aspects of freelancing. So how do you decide what you want to specialise in, and how do you go about specialising? Here are some ideas.

Why specialise?

Pursuing a specialism gives you the chance to concentrate on projects that you find interesting and rewarding. Ultimately, by becoming experienced in a particular area, you can carve out a niche for your business and charge more for your expertise.

People usually think of a specialism in terms of a specialist subject - languages or law, for example. But a specialism can also be related to a certain skill or service, such as using a certain type of software or providing project management services.

How do I specialise?

Step 1: take stock

Rather than getting overwhelmed by the endless options available to you, it is helpful to review your experience and skills with a view to identifying your areas of interest. Take the world of work and past projects as a starting point, but don't be afraid to draw on other experiences. Did you take any courses at university that you found particularly interesting? What about a year abroad or work experience?

Hopefully, in answering these questions, you'll have pinpointed some areas that you may want to focus on as you begin looking for clients. Of course, this is just looking at the question from one angle. It's worth remembering that some specialist fields are better paid than others, and some fields may be easier to break into as a newbie.

Step 2: research

Once you've identified some fields you'd like to focus on, you need to investigate the opportunities in that area and identify potential clients. A good way to do this is to look back at your findings from step 1. Let's say you took a psychology module as part of your degree and often find yourself browsing the psychology section of your local bookshop. What kind of work could that lead to? You jot down the following notes:

And this is where the research comes in! Brew yourself a large coffee, with plenty of snacks to hand, and launch your Google offensive. What are the largest publishers of psychology textbooks or journals? Which universities specialise in psychology (and do you have contacts from your own course)?

At this point, LinkedIn and professional directories can be useful tools. What kind of clients do editors (or translators) specialising in psychology work with? What's their background? Have they written blog posts about finding work in that sector? Find entries of editors or translators who are working on your dream project or with your ideal client, and deduce from their profile how they got to that point in their career.

You might find it useful to compile a list of potential clients, noting any leads to contact, their application requirements and their specialist areas.

Step 3: get out there!

Once you've identified one or two areas you want to focus on, it's time to look for work. When you start out, it can be a numbers game. Work your way through the list you created, noting down the date you got in touch with each potential client and whether you have followed up. You can refer back to this list later on when your inbox is quiet and you're on the hunt for a new project.

Specialisms in practice

Although these exercises can be useful in giving you some direction and focus as you start out, it's worth noting that in practice, your freelance career is likely to take a few unexpected detours that will help you to specialise, even if you hadn't planned on going down a particular route. There is a huge amount of learning on the job, and, provided you are comfortable enough with the material and are confident of doing a good job, don't be afraid to try new things and explore different avenues.

For example, at one point I found myself doing a lot of German to English patent translations. These jobs paid well and the area seemed to be in high demand. However, I decided that patent translation wasn't where my heart lay, and a few years later I mainly work with educational publishers, international organisations and small businesses, which suits me a lot better.

As you start out, you will likely take on a wide range of jobs; don't feel limited by your chosen specialism. Once you have more experience, you will get a feel for the kind of work you enjoy and it will become easier to pursue the projects you're interested in, partly because you will have a clearer idea of what that looks like for you, and partly because you'll have grown as a business owner and editor. Over the years, courses and CPD will enable you to diversify your business, if you want to; whether that's adding another language or learning a new skill, such as picture research or copywriting.

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas and helped you to identify specialisms to explore. Specialising is a continuous process; long-term goals and plans can help, but don't put too much pressure on yourself to find your dream projects straight away. Good luck!

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