How to Get Your First Job as an Editor, Copywriter, or Graphic Designer

Emily Lu | March 2007

You’ve just graduated from an MFA program, and like most recent grads, you’re probably looking for a job that not only makes use of your ability with words but that is also welcoming and satisfying for writers. It can be hard to know where to start your job search. Even if you’ve had lots of publications, finding a full-time job in the academic market can seem impossible, and you might find yourself wondering what other options are available.

Although the writing, editing, and graphic design fields are difficult to break into, these fields are, in my experience, particularly well-suited to writers. In these fields, you are more often than not using your natural abilities and following your personal inclinations. It can be a self-affirming choice for a writer to work in a field that takes pleasure in language and values good writing. Plus, these fields stimulate creative minds—they tend to be fast-paced and are often collaborative. At their best, jobs in writing and graphic design are another outlet for creativity, encouraging you to brainstorm and bring your best ideas to the table. And as a writer, even though you might not realize it, you probably already have many of the skills necessary for a successful career as an editor or copywriter.


Taking Inventory of Your Skills and Experience

Many recent graduates from MFA programs have taught classes in their department or have TA experience. As a recent grad, you might also have worked on your school’s literary journal as an editor, reader, or production manager or assistant. Make the most of these experiences on your resume.

If you’ve taught English courses, especially in a composition or literature classroom, you have skills that are directly related to the work that editors do day-to-day. As a composition teacher, you can build a case in your resume and cover letter that you not only understand the components of good writing, but that you also have experience helping writers (your students) rethink, revise, and edit their work. As a teacher or TA, you should also be able to carefully point out your keen awareness and knowledge of grammar and sentence structure. After all, you’ve probably carefully scoured hundreds of student essays for grammar, spelling, and language usage mistakes. In some ways, reading student essays and helping student writers re-envision their work is more difficult than working with and proofing manuscripts by professional writers who generally have several years of successful articles and essays behind them. Be proud of this experience, and use examples from your time in the classroom during the application and interview process to demonstrate your knowledge and abilities.

Similarly, if you’ve been an editor for your school’s literary journal, regard it as experience working on a professional publication. Delineate your duties and responsibilities in your resume. Working on getting permissions from authors, typesetting or laying out text, working with a printer, checking bluelines or printer proofs, reading submissions, or copyediting to ensure accuracy are all important parts in any publications process. Any applicable experience working on these tasks can help you get your first job.


Applying for Writing and Editing Positions

If you are applying for a writing or editing job, make sure to take the time to write a thoughtful, well-worded cover letter and resume. A well-written application goes a long way here. Other writers and editors will be reading your resume, and how you present yourself informs an employer’s earliest opinions of you and provides insight into your writing style. Good writing can make an enduring impression. Awkward sentence structure or vague writing can cause an employer to doubt or dismiss the application of even a well-qualified candidate with years of experience. Be especially careful to proofread your whole application package. There is no excuse for grammar or spelling mistakes. If a potential employer notices even a small mistake, she may question your attention to detail, which is one of the most important requirements of any editing job.

If you are invited to interview for an editing job, take the time to learn the standard copyediting symbols. You can find these editing conventions on the Web or in almost any copyediting book or manual. Some jobs require you to take a copyediting test before you are hired. (My first editing job did.) Although, you are not necessarily expected to know the conventional editing symbols for an entry-level position, it does help. By learning the conventions, you are learning the symbolic “language” that other editors use to communicate with each other. Also take the time to learn the most common editing mistakes. These mistakes are common for a reason, and it’s easy to miss them under the pressure of taking a test.  


Building a Writing Portfolio of Professional Clips

After your resume, your clips are the most important part of your application to a copywriting job. If you are serious about a career as a professional writer, start building your writing portfolio now. No matter how talented you may be, you will be hard-pressed to find an employer willing to hire you if you do not have professional writing samples. In fact most jobs, and marketing or publications internships for that matter, that have a significant writing component require you to send two to three clips along with your resume. How do you get clips? Query magazines and journals, like the Writer’s Chronicle, that have open submission policies with ideas for articles and essays. Familiarize yourself with local newspapers and small magazines, and ask if there are any freelance writing opportunities available. Although writing for small local publications might not seem glamorous, these clips can help you get writing jobs at larger newspapers and magazines. Don’t discount publication credits from college and university newspapers and magazines. Compelling writing in these kinds of publications have led to entry-level positions for many writers.

Make good use of marketing, publications, and writing internships. Not only do internships give you the opportunity to build up your writing portfolio, they also give you the opportunity to establish contacts and to work on professional writing projects with experienced writers and editors. If you’re offered an internship, take it seriously. Promising publications interns at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts are often given the opportunity to write radio commercials and work on marketing blurbs for the season brochures. In addition to increased opportunities to build your portfolio, taking your internship seriously is important for another reason. You should see your internship supervisor as a potential reference for your first job. Having a good relationship with your supervisor can lead to that person becoming a mentor during your first years as a professional writer.


So You Want to Be a Graphic Designer

It’s difficult to break into the graphic design field without a degree, and since the field is competitive, graphic design jobs are often demanding. If you don’t have a degree in design, but you’re interested in the field and have done a little bit of production work on a college magazine or newspaper, a job doing layout is a good starting point. Most entry-level layout positions don’t allow for much creative freedom. Often in these kinds of jobs, you will be working with templates that have already been designed or you will be carrying out the ideas of a senior designer. But, you will learn how to typeset and flow text, and you’ll learn advanced skills in either Quark or InDesign. As you learn more and grow more comfortable with the standard design software packages, with luck, you’ll start getting opportunities to design smaller projects.

When looking for a design job, the most important thing an employer looks at in addition to your previous experience is your design portfolio. If you’re not given the opportunity to go beyond working with templates at your job, volunteer to work on newsletters, posters, mailers, or other projects with a local organization. Many small community-based nonprofits have a real need for this kind of help, and it’s important to have original work in your portfolio.

If you are currently in a writing or editing job in a publications department, ask if you can help typeset articles or help convert graphic files to the right formats in Photoshop. Familiarizing yourself with the standard design software is the first step if you are interested in doing design work, and often designers are happy to have help with these routine tasks.


Job Considerations

Certain writing and editing jobs attract more applicants than others. Jobs in book publishing and advertising are among the most difficult to get. If you look in the help wanted section in your local paper, you’ll see openings in these specific industries only sporadically, and they will often require several years of previous experience. However, there is usually a steady stream of writing and editing jobs in technical fields and for trade journals and publications. Although these jobs might not be your first choice, they will give you the skills and experience you need to find a job in industries that are more competitive.

Working for small publications department or in a small organization can have its advantages, too. In a small department, you’ll have the opportunity to work on a lot of different tasks and you’ll probably be given greater responsibilities than at a large department. If you work in a small department, you will most likely be in contact with several print vendors, you may be asked to do some print bidding and buying, and you will often have the opportunity to look at printer proofs and go to press checks. In smaller departments, since there are simply fewer employees, the variety of tasks you will be assigned will usually be greater than at larger organizations. For writers who are seriously interested in careers in copywriting, editing, and graphic design, smaller departments and organizations can be great places to learn and can be great places to get your foot in the door.


A former Associate Editor of the Writers Chronicle, Emily Lu has been a professional writer and graphic designer for the past five years. Currently a freelancer, she was most recently a Copywriter and Graphic Artist at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

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