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Breaking free of the specialisation straitjacket

In my career, I have often come up against the issue of specialisation. “You have to specialise,” I’ve been told on countless occasions, “nobody trusts or wants a Jack of all trades.”

When you put it that way, it sounds like an insult – but probably an understandable one. It sounds like someone doesn’t specialise because they don’t have the technical capabilities, the knowledge or the brainpower to do so. In some cases that may be so.

But I tell the doubters that my specialisation is not specialising. It is taking whatever subject you want to throw at me and turning it into copy that is not only readable but is appreciated by clients, editors and end-users alike.

I have been the PR account manager for literally hundreds of clients and not too many of them have operated in the same industry sector. I have written thousands of press releases, articles, blogs, website pieces and even radio ads on such subjects as bar code scanners, fork lift trucks, floorcoverings, special needs equipment, politics, electronics components, laboratory equipment, train batteries, employment law, government skills schemes, cabling manufacturers, breast implants, machine tools, smart cards, computer aided design and software of all types.

I cannot possibly be an expert in all those subjects (and believe me, that’s just a handful). If I specialised in any one of those areas – say floorcoverings – the client who made smart cards might question my ability to write about and promote their product, since they are so far apart. In fact, no client has ever complained about the depth or quality of work I have produced and nobody has ever made anything other than the slightest changes to my copy. That’s quite a claim that some may not believe, but it just happens to be true.

I have been lucky enough in recent months to be asked to work on some pretty eclectic editorial pieces. One was about minimising downtime and maximising productivity, another about Formula 1 racing, another about an X Factor winner, another about morbidity in children, another on machinable castings, another on cross-platform software and various pieces about comedians, tribute acts, magicians and clairvoyants!

Everyone who asked for these pieces was delighted with the copy I produced. Yet, according to those who say you have to specialise, that shouldn’t be possible.

So how is it? Well, put simply, a decent writer-journalist-PR person needs to have an enquiring mind; an ability to absorb technical information, process it and turn it into something comprehensible (and interesting); an ability to dig down to the core of any story and build a piece around that; an appreciation of what the client, the editor and the end-user are looking for all at the same time; and an ability to write in different ‘voices’ – chatty, educational, personal opinion, deadpan and factual, lively and informative, hyperbolic and even funny.

The skills of writers who can achieve all of the above are often overlooked and undervalued and writing per se just gets mixed up and lost in the general practice of typing on a keyboard.

So I suppose writers like myself do have a specialisation – they can turn their hand to producing just about anything on any topic. And no, that shouldn’t be dismissed by a phrase like “Jack of all trades”, it should be lauded and recognised as a genuine skill.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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