I have a friend, Kim Moynahan, whom I’ve only met in person once way back in 2013. We communicate on email and Slack, we work on a lot of Science Borealis stuff together, and we’ve developed a relationship over the years that allows us to talk about freelancing, volunteering, nature, and more.
Over those five years, I’ve watched as Kim has become an expert in writing museum panels. Yup, there are people out there who specialize in writing them – and Kim’s one of them. In fact, she wrote panels for the revamp of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology – and was there at the grand opening when Science Minister Kristy Duncan was reading said panels. She’s also written panels for an Alice Munro museum, a pot museum, and is working on the Illusuak Inuit Cultural Centre for the Labrador Inuit.
Kim has found her niche. She is in demand as a writer of interpretive panels, and her work is excellent.
Finding your niche is important not just in the freelance world, but wherever/however you make your living. Superstar scientist Dr. Jeff McDonnell (now at the University of Saskatchewan) wrote about how scientists can find their own niche (although it was a bit over the top in some sections). He wrote:
“I realized from observing others that it was critical to find one’s focus and voice and have it heard—quickly…A research brand identity, in the best scientific sense, is your central mission: the particular branch of research you’d like to be truly excellent in and known for.”
Yes. This makes sense. Having a “research brand identity” helps focus your research and helps you know what projects to say ‘no’ to – if they don’t fit the particular research area in which you want to develop expertise.
Same with Kim – she often gets requests for her services, and knowing her niche likely (I haven’t asked her) helps her decide what jobs are worth taking on or not in the context of that niche.
It’s kind of like what I wrote last week, where I mentioned I need to focus my ambition on things that mean something to me. In that case I was thinking of how I live my life: focusing on getting enough exercise, getting enough mental rest, not taking on new projects, and only taking on projects that fit exactly what I want to do.
“Exactly what I want to do” is another phrase for my “niche.”
In the time since I left academia, I’ve poked around in a few different areas. Science communication and social media, reported writing for places like Hakai Magazine and Water Canada. Essays for places like LitHub and the LA Review of Books. Thoughts on science and academia for outlets like Canadian Science Publishing. Interviews with women in science for Nature.
I’ve decided my niche is book reviews and essays – some book-related. I don’t enjoy doing reported pieces as I find the interviewing is very stressful. But I do like interviewing people for Q&A’s because I can have an interesting conversation with them, and I’m not trying to get a quote (or two) that will fit into my reported piece. As another friend recently lamented about a reported article she’s struggling with,
“it’s possible to talk to someone for an hour and have practically no quotable material because the person has an odd, scattered way of explaining things that you didn’t catch quickly enough.”
I feel like all my poking around in different areas of science writing and science communication has actually brought me right back to where I started when I was in high school: surrounded by stacks of book and writing about them. Writing about different ideas that are popping up across the internet but that represent a coherent web of thought that leads to a key outcome that other people haven’t quite seen yet.
I wrote an essay for the Terrain.org CNF contest and, even if they don’t like it, I felt it was a real accomplishment. I managed to combine my interest and knowledge in wildfire, post-apocalyptic novels, climate change, storytelling, language, science communication, and community-building into one epic piece. It tied together many of the things I think about – and blog about here – into a single 3,500-word piece. After I submitted it I felt I’d finally written the type of piece I was meant to write.
And I’d like to keep that feeling, because it’s empowering. Especially when you don’t have much else in your life that’s empowering (swimming is empowering, but it leaves me absolutely exhausted the next day).
Part of finding your niche is finding your people – others who are in a similar niche (i.e., they may be book reviewers, but they review different genres of books than you do). I’ve joined a group of book reviewers on Facebook and find I really enjoy the articles they share and the writing they do.
So, because I’ve discovered my niche, my upcoming projects fit into that niche.
Over the next few months, I’ll be writing a book review essay/blog post on Abigail Stewart & Virginia Valian’s new book, An Inclusive Academy, which will also refer to Kate Manne’s Down Girl and Mary Beard’s Women & Power. I’m also writing a book review/essay on post-apocalyptic fiction and how it can help us problem-solve for our potential future, that will feature eight post-apocalyptic novels. And I hope to write a book review/essay on trees, how much we love them, about the global epidemic of tree deaths, and the books people write in homage to trees.
I’m also writing a book (which right now is just a bunch of outlines and scribbled notes in my notebook): a memoir of academic science, mental illness, and writing.
Maybe you’ve noticed that the essays I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph are linked to my memoir topic. Which is the whole point. I’m trying to create a writing ecosystem that feeds itself, that keeps me enervated and moving in the right direction. My book is the ultimate expression of my writing niche. My essays will feed into that book.
That’s the plan, anyway. It’s taken me five years to figure this out. Mostly because I had to define a new way of living after leaving academia with mental health issues. Even though I can manage only a fraction of what I used to do, I want that fraction to represent what I *want* to do. Not what I think I *should* do.
So what’s your niche? How will you feed and care for it? How will it make your life easier – and help you head in the direction that’s right for you?