Business and Technical Writing Specialization: A promising option for creative writers
Kate Nesheim | August 2013
If you are a creative writer with your sights on a professorship, you may be looking for ways to add value to your candidacy in a challenging job market. Alongside your creative courses, maybe you would be willing to teach writing for multiple disciplines. If this is true, and your institution offers a business and technical writing—or professional writing—option, consider adding this specialization to your teaching repertoire. As more and more English and writing departments build writing programs in these fields, or host writing classes for other departments, the demand for instructors with these certifications is on the rise.
Lately, I have imagined an absurdist play about a creative writing professor-in-training who, after seven years of graduate school, buries her PhD in a file drawer and resigns herself to a career at Starbucks. Key scenes might include gnashing of teeth over a mountain of student-loan debt, a lesson in the art of the frappuccino, and a song-and-dance rendition of the English job market as a game of musical chairs. Just so, many academics and prospective graduate students in the humanities see the current job market as a case study in absurdity. Social media sites and professional newsletters alike feature articles imploring would-be English graduate students to think twice before enrolling. Those of us who are already waist-deep in a program sometimes ask ourselves if, at the end of all this, there will be a job that pays well enough.
It is a common concern, and arguably, a healthy one. The most recent comprehensive study of PhD placement by the Association of Departments of English reported that only 43% of creative-writer doctorates earned tenure-track jobs. The majority of English graduate-degree holders (including MAs and MFAs) work as adjuncts, which can mean a career burdened by concerns about health insurance, job security, and/or the respect of one’s colleagues in the department. The national average salary as of January 2013, according to The Adjunct Project, is just under $3,000 per three-credit course. And while no one takes up English education expecting a large salary, many with advanced degrees who accept senior lecturer positions see their student loans as a hardship.
And what if this—despite the risks—is still the job for you? Some of my former fellow graduate students have left their English programs for nonacademic careers and are satisfied with the switch. But for the rest of us, the drive to help our students achieve their potentials as writers is too strong, and the allure of a tenure-track professorship is omnipresent. The question is not if, but how do we make a run for a professorship with tenure? We know that the jobs exist. So, we approach the process knowing we must adapt. We might go for the PhD rather than, or in addition to, the MFA. We might prepare ourselves to relocate, we weigh out the implications of adjunct work, we tighten up our CVs and our teaching portfolios. And we look for new opportunities.
As creative writing professors-in-training, we often choose to become generalists. The well-worn stock trader’s advice—diversify!—applies to our graduate studies. Although our educational systems are quick to pigeon-hole us into one field or another, scholars like Wendy Bishop—who has published multiple books in both creative writing and composition studies—demonstrate that a blended approach can be natural. Bishop argues that “categories are constructed and genres are defined” and therefore that any writer is capable of moving between them. Tim Mayers, who is also a generalist, says there is no single “best choice” for study to guarantee employment in English or Writing departments. “[T]hroughout their graduate education,” he writes, “prospective teachers should be trained as writers, composing extensively and gaining an introduction to the many discourses of English studies (and when feasible to the discourses of fields outside English).”
But what should our diversification look like? Part of the problem for creative writers is that so many of us will, by default, specialize in the contemporary literature corresponding to our chosen genre(s). These specializations equip us to teach literature courses in these areas. Unfortunately, the job market is supersaturated with well-qualified English PhDs in literature. Many departments also struggle to maintain existing literature positions when a faculty member leaves. So, while this coursework certainly bolsters our creative projects and allows us greater variety in the courses we can teach, it is not always a boon in gaining the jobs we seek.
A good number of us have, therefore, turned our attention to rhetoric and composition as a secondary focus and for good reason. This might seem like a mercenary decision, as compositionists have generally enjoyed much higher placement rates than creative writers. Nevertheless, there is a relative wealth of scholarship—given the newness of creative writing as an academic field—describing the connection between this field and composition studies. Scholars in both fields have been quick to highlight the benefits of a dual focus. Lea Masiello, as an advocate for writing centers, argues that incorporating creative exercises into basic writing instruction can allow students to draw upon important mental resources they might otherwise have considered inappropriate to the task of writing an academic essay. And Daniel J. Royer and Roger Giles argue that the writing students at their own Grand Valley State University have been better served since they established a Department of Academic, Creative, and Professional Writing.
A less-discussed but equally promising secondary field, young enough to go by varying names, is what I will refer to here as business and technical writing. Scholars have also called this field professional writing or technical and professional writing, and these names refer to a large but overlapping range of practices and positions. Whatever its name, the study of business and technical writing taps into a demand that English majors have explored for decades. At least since WWI, English departments have been called upon to teach courses in these areas. Today it responds to requests by other departments for writing coursework tailored to students of business, of architecture, engineering, health sciences, applied sciences, criminal justice, and many other subjects. Such courses build value for our departments and draw in much-needed revenue, and this is leading an increasing number of English departments to look for instructors who can tap into this demand. Many are currently launching business and technical writing minors or majors.
For this reason, business and technical writing positions in English departments are currently a pleasant anomaly: the demand for qualified job candidates is strong. Between October 2012 and May 2013, by my count, the ADE Job List featured a total of 77 job postings mentioning business, technical, and/or professional writing. To be more specific:
- 24 listed as their primary focus a title such as “business and technical writing,” “professional writing,” “professional and technical writing,” and so forth.
- 36 requested business, technical, and/or professional writing among other mandatory requirements for the job.
- 17 requested but did not require skill in one or more of these areas.
While these numbers don’t offer any sort of employment guarantee, the results have been encouraging. For example, since its launch in 2000, the professional writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has seen each of its six PhD graduates gain a tenure-track position.
Yet the more important question here is whether business and technical writing might be an engaging secondary field for a creative professor-in-training. Three major considerations would be the following:
- Does the teaching candidate engage the writing process—putting words on the page, imagining an audience, revising, editing, and so forth—as avidly as he does the creative aspects of his work?
- Does he currently take satisfaction in teaching noncreative, writing-focused courses like composition?
- Is he interested in exploring multiple disciplines? Would he enjoy working with a class of engineers, followed by a contemporary fiction class?
Responding positively to these questions may indicate that the writer will do well in teaching entry-level writing courses for nonhumanities disciplines.
While I don’t wish to diminish the complexity of this field or its difference from creative writing, foundational business and technical writing courses have significant commonalities with the work we are already trained to do. Like most writing-based disciplines, this field shares our investment in helping students understand audience writer relationships and to see writing decisions as rhetorical. Business and technical writing instructors often teach the purposes and contexts of writing, encourage clarity and concision, introduce the processes of revising for self and others, and teach the design of documents according to function. Theoretically speaking, many scholars of these fields emphasize work to shake off the ghosts of supposedly “pure” and “transparent” communication still haunting many scientific and industrial fields. Instructors help students understand ways of composing decisions at work that hinge upon how a supervisor might react, what a lawyer might find, or what a client might expect. Many professors also empower future workers to shape their workplaces in positive ways or to constructively resist oppressive authority structures. There are, of course, as many emphases as there are dedicated instructors, but the primary objective is to help students develop skills to meet future goals through more effective rhetorically focused communication.
Another significant connection is that both fields emphasize writing practices above the study of texts and artifacts. Unlike literary, film, or modern studies, our primary end-goal is to enable good writers. This can be good news for those who believe traditional English coursework, in privileging interpretation of texts, doesn’t fit their primary practice. A business and technical writing specialization allows us to focus on theories and pedagogies of creating texts. Moreover, business and technical writing studies honor well-ordered prose. A technical writing instructor teaches students to give the best, most precise version of their material and to allow their readers to follow, and sometimes participate in, what they write. If you are interested in helping students of various fields become better writers, this can be rewarding.
Third, most academic creative writers excel at promoting effective peer collaboration in the classroom, and this skill is readily adapted to the business or technical writing course. Few members of academe will have gone through as many peer-review workshops as a creative writer. We have extensive training in giving and accepting feedback, criticism, and ideas from other writers. Many of us have developed sophisticated methods for group interactions. We devote substantial energy to discovering what it means to respond to someone else’s work with respect, and we demand this of our students. Ironically, it is the creative writer who most often goes on to write single-authored texts, while professional writers are required to write collaboratively and to accept suggestions and criticism from colleagues. Because of this, business and technical writing classes are increasing their focus on peer-review and collaboration. In fact, these courses often take group work a step further, requiring students to not only consider others’ work but to write together on the same project. The creative writing instructor knows how to engage students in many of these important practices, helping to foster respect among writers in a community. She can also borrow from the practices of her business writing students by encouraging her poets and screenwriters to try composing collaboratively.
As a side benefit to our work as creative writers, business writing courses can offer a range of valuable skills as we market our own work. Most successful writers gain their advantage in part through a basic understanding of the business strategies involved in selling the written word. It is not enough for a writer to produce a strong book and then rely on agents and publishers. When we are ready to launch a book, business writing experience can help with networking and with designing effective websites, posters, and other promotional materials. A course in marketing might help a writer circulate such materials to key audiences and help him make educated decisions about social media, internet publications, and reading-device technologies.
The recent surge of interest in business and technical writing can, for these and many other reasons, offer new opportunities to many academic persons passionate about writing. Although many of us may be frustrated and disillusioned by the academic life, there are still options available. Certainly one of the most promising fields able to engage our writing-pedagogy skills in the next several years will be business and technical writing.
Kate Nesheim is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and the National Poetry Review. She enjoys teaching writing in multiple fields and genres and is the creative non-fiction editor for Cream City Review.
- Bishop, Wendy. “Crossing the Lines: On Creative Composition and Composing Creative Writing.” In Colors of a Different Horse, Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, 181-97. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
- Faigley, Lester. “Nonacademic Writing, the Social Perspective.” In Writing in Nonacademic Settings, edited by Lee Odell and Dixie Goswami, 231-48. New York: Guilford, 1985.
- June, Audrey Williams and Jonah Newman. “Adjunct Project Reveals Wide Range in Pay.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 59.18, January 4, 2013. Accessed May 15, 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/Adjunct_Pay_Conditions/136439.
- Masiello, Lea. “Voices from the Writing Center: It’s Okay to Be Creative—A Role for the Imagination in Basic-Writing Courses.” In Colors of a Different Horse, Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, 208-16. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
- Mayers, Tim. (Re)Writing Craft, Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
- Royer, Daniel J and Roger Giles, “The Origins of the Department of Academic, Creative, and Professional Writing at Grand Valley State University.” In A Field of Dreams: Independent Writing Programs and the Future of Composition Studies, edited by Peggy O’Neill, Angela Crow and Larry W. Burton, 21-37. Logan, Utah: Utah State UP, 2002.
- Steward, Doug. “Placement Outcomes for Modern Language PhDs: Findings from the MLA’s 2003-04 Survey of PhD Placement.” ADE Bulletin 141-2 (2007): 75-102.