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Capitalizing On Specialized Knowledge
by Terrie I. Murray

Ten years ago I didn't consider myself a writer. Five years ago I never thought I'd have anything published. Two years ago I wrote my first poem. Since then I have had multiple articles published in both regional and national magazines. I'm convinced that what led me to profitability was careful cross-marketing, networking, and the use of specialized knowledge. If you've got something you're passionate about, and knowledgeable about, use that knowledge to land you paying writing assignments.

My shtick is birds. Specifically, I know a lot about birds, birdwatching and bird watchers. When I started writing seriously, I joined several writing-related e-mail groups, where I shared a couple of articles I had written about birding. As a result, someone sent me a message that she had heard that the editor of WildBird magazine was looking for new writers. I contacted the editor with a query for a short news-release piece about the unusual occurrence of snowy owls in the Pacific Northwest that winter. The editor bought my article for $50. I queried again with ideas for two feature articles. The editor bought them both, paying $500 for one and $600 for the second. I was able to use the field research I did for one of those articles to write a spin-off article which I sold to Oregon Coast magazine. As a result of another article I posted to the e-mail critique group, one of the writers in the group wrote to me and said that a magazine she was writing for, the National Homeschool Journal, might be interested in a birdwatching for children series. I queried the magazine and landed a column for them, and now I have over a year's worth of articles which I intend to repackage in book form as a science and nature lesson unit for children.

In the meantime, back in Oregon I was working on networking both within the birding and the writing communities. I joined the Willamette Writers and started attending their annual meeting, so I could exchange stories with other writers, attend seminars and meet with editors and agents. At those seminars I started learning more about memoir and personal essay techniques and began honing my personal style of writing, a combination of technical "how to" birding and first-person narrative. I also increased my involvement in the local birding community, writing occasional articles for the Audubon newsletter and a regular column on backyard birdwatching for a local birdwatching magazine.

About that time, I designed my own website, where I posted a couple of essays. I added the website URL to my standardized e-mail signature. A month or two later I got an e-mail from someone on one of my birdwatching e-mail lists saying something like "I just visited your website and read your essays. I like your style and I have a writing project I think you'd be good for. Are you interested?"

I nearly crawled through the computer screen in my haste to respond that I was, indeed, interested. He wrote back, forwarding a copy of a book proposal he was currently marketing, which was in the final stages of being negotiated for a contract with HarperCollins, and which was being sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He was looking for a writer with knowledge of birding to work with him. He suggested that I read through the proposal, and we made plans to speak by phone a few days later. At that point he explained that he was the editor/book packager for All the Birds of North America, the latest national field guide to birds. I'd seen his book, and there was no question that I was in the big league.

I read his proposal and we talked. We agreed that it would be good if he reviewed a more focused sample of my writing, to make sure I was a good match for the project, and then we would talk again. I wrote my sample, sent it off, he liked it, and we verbally agreed to terms. Once he reached a final contract with the publisher, he sent a formal contract to me.

Fast forward nine months later. I had now read six books of background information and I interviewed about 150 birdwatchers all across the country, all while maintaining my full-time office job. On New Year's Eve I mailed the finished draft of my research text. The book, A FeederWatchers' Guide to Backyard Bird Feeding, is being published by HarperCollins this fall.

Use the feedback you receive about your writing to help you more closely identify your market. For example, I've gotten many more enthusiastic comments from readers about articles I've written about the people-focused activity of birdwatching than I have about the more scientifically-focused articles about birds themselves. Birdwatchers are a quirky lot, and they like reading about other people as quirky as they are. I have a friend who has gotten more enthusiastic comments about his scientifically-focused bird articles and books. He is one of the most knowledgeable birders in Oregon. Because he has that knowledge, and is well known for it, people turn to him for that kind of information. On the other hand, when the editorial staff of Oregon Birds wanted to recruit someone with knowledge and understanding about the less scientific and more social aspects of birdwatching, they contacted me. I remember driving, twice, from Portland to the coast to try to find a Dusky-Capped Flycatcher that had been reported in a Newport neighborhood. It was January. It was cold. Twenty birders stood in a driving rain, soaking wet, binoculars pointed at a bedraggled bush in someone's back yard, where the bird had been seen yesterday. My friend wrote about the bird. I wrote about the birders. THAT'S my market. THAT'S my audience.

Write about what you know. Write about what brings you joy. If you can do that successfully, it will show in your writing and people will pay you for it. It really is that simple.

© Copyright 2000, Terrie I. Murray

Terrie Murray is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in WildBird Magazine, The Northwest Birdwatcher, The National Homeschool Journal, Oregon Coast Magazine, The Warbler and the Oregon Birds Journal.

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