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Pursue your passion – succeeding at specialty writing
Friday, December 6, 2013 (All day)
Speakers Ann Douglas, Valerie Howes and Virginia Heffernan share their insights on specialty writing

For Ann Douglas, it started with a colicky baby. For Valerie Howes, it was an editorial assignment that opened the window. And for Virginia Heffernan, it was already her chosen career — but approached with a different set of skills.

All three of these professionals have successfully merged their writing skills with a specific market — Ann Douglas as a parenting writer and author, Valerie Howes as a food writer, and Virginia Heffernan as a mining writer. They addressed a rapt crowd at PWAC’s most recent professional development seminar on Thursday, Nov. 28, and filled us in on their not-so-secret steps to success.

The evening was set up in a unique panel discussion format, with co-organizer and education writer Sharon Aschaiek making the introductions. Then, co-organizer and automotive writer Krystyna Lagowski moderated the conversation. The speakers answered a number of questions, which occasionally meandered into a dialogue on different aspects of key issues.

For example, one big advantage of specializing is less of a need for self-promotion and pitching. All the speakers agreed that organizations and publications are aware of who you are, and your abilities. It also means you can charge a higher fee, since you can deliver expert insight.

And like everything else in our business, relationships play an important role. That includes building up contacts and networks, being able to turn around a story quickly, and getting word of mouth referrals. Editors and colleagues move around the industry, so it’s good to keep on top of where they are.

The discussion became lively when conflict of interest and ethics came up. Virginia noted that she tries to avoid working with unethical mining companies, and Ann talked about turning down promotional opportunities that conflicted with her beliefs, such as for baby formula makers.

Public relations was another area of discussion — being well versed in a subject makes it easy to spot self-serving or fatuous press releases. Valerie said that at first, she attended every event to which she was invited, until she realized it wasn’t necessary.

All three have “cross pollinated” into sub-specialties within their field. Virginia has contributed to investment periodicals, and Valerie has delved into travel. Ann has also been involved in health and education. All three have diverse clients, writing for corporations, non-profits, magazines, and books. Maintaining flexibility is good for business, and provides balance.

However, there can be disadvantages to specializing. Ann used the example of Seinfeld, where the actors became indelibly associated with their characters. She worried about needing to use a pseudonym if she decided to write something else, like fiction.

And of course, the panelists agreed that you should never give your work away, and be sure to charge a fair rate.

But for each of the panelists, there are still mountains to climb. Virginia offered that she’d like to become more involved in aboriginal affairs, which has come up in her mining work. Valerie is writing her first book about Newfoundland cooking, and may branch out into other areas of food and travel. Ann has her sights set on publishing a piece of short fiction, which has been a lifelong dream.

In the end, it was unanimous that the ability to specialize offers more “pros” than “cons,” and the three panelists were living proof that you can pursue your passion — and succeed.

Krystyna Lagowski is a Toronto-based automotive writer and blogger who has been covering cars and transportation for the past 20 years.

- Krystyna Lagowski

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