10 steps to becoming a niche writer

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  1. Make a list of your favorite topics to read, write, and learn about. Include everything you habitually find yourself interested in, even if at first thought it sounds unprofessional or silly. Give this task the time it deserves, by settling down with pen and paper for an hour.
  2. Pick one that’s broad enough to make a career out of. You’ll know it’s the one when you can come up with ten different article ideas about that topic in ten minutes or less. Decide to become a writer that specializes in this topic.
  3. Start telling people that this is your job. Build a blog that introduces you as Your Name, Writer and indicates your specialty. Use your social media accounts to share helpful links on this topic. To keep yourself accountable, begin telling everyone you know that this is your job.
  4. Begin pitching editors and other people in positions to hire you. Introduce yourself with your new job title, and pitch some of the article ideas you generated in step two.
  5. Paying work may not come right away. Write all the time anyway. Assign yourself articles to write, and publish them regularly on your blog. Your identity as a niche writer is valid as soon as you begin putting effort into it, not as soon as you begin getting paid.
  6. Begin to get acquainted with the people in your niche. Get to know community leaders. Find out where other people who are interested in this topic spend their time—both online and off. Introduce yourself to the other writers covering this topic. When you publish an article on your topic, make sure to let these people know.
  7. You may not have been very good at journalism at first. You may not have been a trained writer or experienced with web publishing. Keep learning and pushing yourself. Read books, tutorials, and the articles of writers you admire. As you continue to practice by posting on your blog, you will get better.
  8. As you continue to share your work and that work keeps improving, people will start to notice. Some of these people will be able to hire you. Take the opportunities that feel right to you, and celebrate your victories.
  9. As the opportunities continue to accumulate, consider quitting your day job. If you can make enough on your writing alone, and it feels right to you, quit. If you prefer to keep your niche writing as a side gig, don’t. In both cases, stay choosy about your job opportunities, picking places to write that treat you and your topic well.
  10. You are becoming a known writer in your field. This is only the beginning. Continue to improve by taking on larger and more ambitious projects. Write books or teach courses alongside writing articles. Begin thinking about what you want to be remembered for as a writer. Do work you can be proud of that reflects that.

P.S. If you’re wondering how I know this works, I lived it. Still living it, in fact. And I look forward to letting you know what steps 11 through 20 are, someday.

Photo credit: David Joyce

Otaku Links: Gunpla, Lolita fashion, and how Anitwitter can all just get along

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  • I spent my weekend shopping for, building, and photographing Gundam models. My latest post on my other blog, Gunpla 101, is just the first of many to come out of it. If you’re scratching your head, here’s a link for the uninitiated.
  • Meet the Hijabi Lolita. I’ve always been fascinated with Lolita culture and it’s just as impressive to see how Alyssa Salazar blends it seamlessly with her lifestyle.
  • @iblessall wrote an open letter to Anitwitter reminding us that we “create the worst community that [we] allow.” I don’t think this is hard. Just treat everyone on Anitwitter like somebody you will (probably) run into in person at a con one of these days.
  • Another review of my Niche Journalism Workbook, this time by Apricotsushi! I’m so grateful to everyone who has bought it so far. I really want it to be an invitation to ask me further questions so I can eventually improve the workbook based on your feedback.

The Biggest Mistake Geek Writers Make

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If you’re a geek writing about geeky things, I’m already inclined to love your writing. I don’t think anyone makes a better guide into a community than somebody who is already a member of it.

For instance, I’d rather read a guide to fanfiction written by a fanfiction reader or writer than an article by somebody who has just Googled the definition of “fanfiction” for the first time. That sounds like an exaggeration, but oh, it exists, it’s on a sports site of all things, and it’s not pretty.

Being a geek writer will help you avoid the major pitfalls that come with writing about fandom. You won’t belittle your subject or your readers. You’ll be less likely to flub major parts of the community’s lexicon or mythos. And you’ll actually know what you’re talking about!

It’s that last advantage, however, that can be as much of a curse as a blessing.

Which brings me to my premise: the number one mistake that geek writers make is assuming that everyone knows as much about their fandom as they do.

We geeks have some pretty obscure knowledge, and that can lead to some unfortunately obtuse reporting if we don’t rein it in. It’s the written equivalent of when I’m sharing my love of Gundam modeling with somebody at a party and their eyes glaze over. “So I’m building a model of the RX-78-2 that’s 144th scale when my Tamiya cutters… oh you have to leave? Already?”

My Forbes editor, Helen Popkin, she of the ConAir method of reporting for clicks, has a theory for niche journalism, too. Not surprisingly, it has a name that’s just as pop-culture relevant as the first one. It’s the Dursley Method of Writing For Muggles.

Most Harry Potter books, Helen’s method goes, reintroduce Harry and his story for readers who may have forgotten the story so far—or even readers who are just now joining the tale. It does this by putting Harry back with the Dursleys and recanting his history to this point.

However, J.K. Rowling manages to do this without boring more knowledgeable readers to tears. Even if you just read the previous Harry Potter book yesterday, you’ll still want to read every word of the introduction. At the same time that it is filling in the backstory, it’s also sharing new information in the form of Harry’s current misadventures with the Dursleys. By putting Harry’s history as a backdrop to his story right this moment, everyone stays interested and informed.

In a niche article, this can take the form of an anecdotal introduction. You can begin instantly drawing in both geek and outsider readers alike by beginning immediately with somebody’s story. People love to read about people, so you’ll keep everyone interested by peppering in the relevant factual information in between the lines of an anecdote about somebody you’ve interviewed.

You’ll notice that this is the technique I use over and again in my Forbes stories about fandom. Forbes has the most mainstream audience of anywhere I’ve written since CNN, so it’s reasonable to believe complete newcomers are stumbling on my articles here. Even for niche sites, however, it’s better to assume that not every reader is as well versed as you are in the nuances of a particular fandom.

For example, your reader may love the Mass Effect video games but be totally ignorant of Dragon Age. Since the games share many similar elements, your article could be the difference between somebody drawing a connection and discovering her new favorite game, or remaining totally confused by your jargon. In an article about Dragon Age, I might begin with a narrative about a gamer I’ve interviewed who professes it to be her favorite game, and fill in the blanks as I go.

If your niche interests are as interesting as you think (and I think they are), then it’s worth going the extra step to keep your geeky stories inclusive. Start your article with the story of a person, instead of a concept or a thing, in order to get everybody on the same page.

Otaku Links: From quality reporting to clickbait

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  • My steamy night with a dolphin furry. An interesting confessional about one of the most unmentionable geek subcultures. It’s fascinating how the way outsiders predominantly perceive furries so deeply affects their understanding of themselves.
  • This Book Is A Dungeon is my friend Nathan Meunier’s new interactive fiction project. I don’t know what impresses me more—Nathan’s creativity or his productivity. He is constantly churning out books and projects all the time!

The skill every niche writer needs to master now

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Last week I skyped with Zac Bertschy, one of my editors at Anime News Network. As the executive editor of ANN, he pays quite a few people to write about anime.

When our business was finished, I asked Zac if he had any advice for Otaku Journalist readers looking to get a job writing about anime. He listed a few things I expected to hear about writing competency and knowledge. And then, he said something that I sometimes neglect to mention:

“You need to be easy to work with.”

It’s not just how good of a writer you are or how well you know your subject. Like any other job, writing is one where you need to be somebody your colleague doesn’t dread working with.

No, this doesn’t mean you need to be your editor’s best friend. Or somebody who has a lot in common (though in niche writing, you’ll find that you and your editors often like that same niche.) Let’s break down what editors mean when they say they want a writer who is easy to work with:

Responds to Editorial Direction

Editors want to work with a writer who listens to them. When your editor asks you to avoid passive voice or adopt a more conversational tone, they don’t want to have to see the same issues in your next assignment—that indicates you’re not listening. A good writer takes an editor’s suggestions seriously and offers their reasoning politely if they disagree.

Takes Criticism Well

A good writer knows that “this story needs work” doesn’t mean “your skill as a writer needs work.” Even the best writer can learn from an editor, and after years of professional writing, every piece I write still needs an editor’s touch. Getting your feelings hurt every time an editor makes a suggestion means you’re missing the point of what critique is for.

Flexible

A good writer is willing to adjust their writing style to the tone of the site they are working for. They are adaptable, and can tackle different types of stories. It’s less about your skill and more about having a can-do attitude toward the editor’s suggested assignments. Editors want to work with a writer who is enthusiastic, responsive, and communicative about assigned topics.

Meets Deadlines

A good writer is somebody the editor can rely on. They finish earlier assignments before pitching new ideas. They consistently deliver their assignments at the deadline the editor has instructed. If something comes up and they can’t, they communicate early and openly about why an assignment will be late instead of giving the editor an unpleasant surprise.

Notice that none of this relies on your personality. Whether you’re shy or outgoing or anything else, anybody can learn to be a good listener and communicator.

Zac said that when he’s choosing people to hire, he considers “easiness to work with” on the same level as he would consider “writing ability” or “knowledge about anime.” It’s that important.

In small niche subjects like anime, video games, or comics, there are only so many editors in the field. Give yourself a leg up by being somebody they’re thrilled to work with.