Generalist vs Specialist Copywriters: Which Is Right for Your Project?

You may want an industry specialist to work on marketing content for your company—but despite the old expression, sometimes a jack of all trades can be just what you need.

image of jack playing card representing jack of all trades

You’ve probably heard the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” It’s a term often used to disparage people who dabble in lots of areas rather than dedicating themselves to just one. In other words, it’s an argument against working with a generalist.

But like many expressions that have been passed down through the ages, the true meaning has been lost along the way (see also: “Curiosity killed the cat” and “Blood is thicker than water”). The saying was cut short. Originally, it went “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than a master of one.”

In other words, it’s actually an argument against working with a specialist.

Of course, when it comes to choosing what kind of copywriter to work with, relying on a simple expression—misquoted or otherwise—can only take you so far. Here are a few things you may want to weigh up to help you find the right writer for your company’s marketing needs.

Speaking the language

One of the most compelling arguments for working with a specialist is their mastery of the subject matter. This can be especially true for complex or jargon-heavy industries like finance, medicine, or tech that can seem almost incomprehensible to outsiders. Whereas a newcomer might have to look up what every acronym and piece of technical terminology means, a specialist can often hit the ground running.

That can be both a blessing and a curse. While specialized knowledge of the subject matter may lead to more nuanced work, it can also make it harder for specialist copywriters to get into the mindset of someone who knows nothing about the topic. If you need to create content and copy that’s aimed at a general audience, rather than industry insiders, that could be a problem—leading to exactly the kind of incomprehension that led you to hire a specialist in the first place.

Of course, that’s not to say that specialists can’t write for a general audience. But the extra time and effort that a generalist puts into grasping the subject matter can often result in writing that better addresses the needs of a novice. When you approach a topic fresh, you often have a stronger sense of which phrases and concepts need to be more thoroughly explained.

It’s also important to note that being a generalist does not necessarily mean that your writer comes into the project blind—nor does it mean that their understanding can only scrape the surface level. The best generalists are like chameleons, rapidly adapting to their new surroundings so that they can blend in with the subject matter experts around them. What matters is their aptitude for learning, not their resume.

What’s more, some generalists may accidentally become specialists in certain areas—writing for a wide range of industries but building up a particularly impressive body of work in some. At MarketSmiths, for example, we have generalist copywriters who have developed a particular specialty for fields like finance, tech, real estate, and healthcare. Other generalists may have come from an in-house background, bringing a wealth of prior knowledge and experience to every word they write.

Thinking outside the box

John Steinbeck once wrote, “Maybe a specialist is only a coward, afraid to look out of his little cage. And think what any specialist misses—the whole world over his fence.” We wouldn’t go so far as to call specialists cowards—some of our best friends are specialists—but Steinbeck does raise a good point. There is such a thing as being too specialized, and when that happens, it can be difficult to see over the fence you’ve built for yourself to spot opportunities on the other side. (That’s one reason why companies often bring in outside writers in the first place.)

Generalists, on the other hand, have the advantage of working across many different industries and accounts, which can help them think more holistically about a topic. They may, for example, be able to share some insights from another industry that can help you appeal to a bigger audience—like marketing your project management tool as the solution to a problem you didn’t even know recruiters faced.

Of course, it’s not impossible for specialists to think outside the box, as evidenced by the many brilliant in-house copywriters throughout history who have come up with groundbreaking ideas, despite being highly focused on a singular type of work. But when you’re only looking through a narrow scope day after day, it can sometimes be trickier to adopt a broader mindset—or even recognize that you need one.

Moving with the times

Some industries move a lot faster than others. That can be both an argument for specialization—and an argument against it.

On the one hand, copywriters specializing in a particular field may be able to dedicate more time to following trends and keeping their industry knowledge up to date. On the other hand, this somewhat negates the need to work with a specialist in the first place. If they constantly need to learn and adapt, then is there much difference between working with them over a generalist? And if they can’t adapt, then they may struggle to deliver work that meets the industry’s needs.

Since generalists need to be highly adaptable in order to move between so many industries, the idea of pivoting to address a new advancement or trend shouldn’t phase them. Their built-in adaptability also allows them to work cross-departmentally when necessary. This is especially important when hiring an in-house copywriter. Regardless of whether or not they’ll primarily be working with one department or not, you’ll likely need them to pitch in when another team is slammed. If they’re too specialized to lend a hand on other projects, then they may ultimately bring productivity down.

So, should you work with a generalist or a specialist copywriter?

At the end of the day, there’s no definitive answer to this question. It really depends on your unique needs, both immediate and long-term.

If your industry and audience is highly niche, a specialist may be just the ticket, especially if you’re looking to hire someone for your in-house team. But often, the right generalist can bring the same level of knowledge you’re looking for (after a brief ramping up period), along with additional insights and a strong ability to pivot at a moment’s notice.

When you work with a generalist, you can help them get up to speed quicker by providing any materials that would be useful for them to look at—like internally produced manuals or links to relevant industry publications—and by sharing your own ideas and insights. This is beneficial both to the writer and to your business, ultimately leading to better work. Writing may be a largely solo endeavor—but when it comes to your company’s marketing needs, collaboration pays off in spades.

If you do choose to work with a generalist, we hope you’ll consider MarketSmiths. Our team is filled with accidental specialists and highly adaptability generalists who can rise to any occasion. Contact us today to find the perfect fit.

Samantha McLaren

Samantha McLaren

Having worked as a ghost tour guide for five years, Samantha knows how to get a reaction using only words. Hailing from bonny Scotland, she spent years gathering weird, eclectic experience (from laboratory assistant to radio DJ to Sunday school teacher) before finding her true calling–writing. She came to New York to see what MarketSmiths could teach her, and never left. Copywriter by day, amateur horror writer by night, she has a passion for words and is drawn to the strange and unusual.

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