If You Seek a Full-Time Writing and Publishing Career
Jane Friedman | November 2014
Dear Hopeful Student,
When I applied to undergraduate programs in the early 1990s, I only considered one type of degree: the BFA in creative writing. I’ve now forgotten why I fixated on such an eccentric degree that only ten schools in the country offered at the time. But it was a fortuitous obsession: I fell in love with my program and soon embarked on a dynamic publishing career upon graduation.
However, here’s a simple question, one that never occurred to me as an 18-year-old: what does an undergraduate creative writing degree prepare you for? If you intend to land in another creative writing degree program (MFA or PhD), then the answer is simple. You’re practicing and laying important groundwork for more of the same.
But if the degree should prepare you for a career in writing, editing, or publishing—if you intend to earn a living from it—most programs do not help students achieve that through their requirements or extracurricular offerings alone. This is not an accusation as much as it is a statement of fact; BFA and BA writing degrees are like English degrees, with some writing courses thrown in. Required coursework will not force you to be a successful writing professional.
I’m not eager to debate the intrusion (or necessity) of professionalization of undergraduate writing degrees. Rather, I want to speak directly to the students I hear from every day, who seek guidance on how to make a living from what they love: reading and writing.
You’ve probably heard that it’s hard to make writing pay—or even that the best writing, the most artful writing, is at odds with commercial success. This is the persistent and dangerous myth of the starving artist, that “real art” doesn’t earn money, and it’s not possible for art and business to dance. Some creative writing programs divide the art from the business, rather than exploring how each informs the other, and how successful writers across history have proven themselves savvy at making their art pay.
Thankfully, I was lucky to be in a program that didn’t perpetuate that myth. Such attitudes don’t serve anyone—not you, not the writing programs, and not the world, which needs more writers who can be artful and innovative about producing work for an increasingly digital world where attention is the most precious commodity there is.
When I graduated with my BFA in 1998, the Internet was part of daily life, but media had yet to go fully digital. Today, traditional newspaper, magazine, and book publishing jobs are dwindling as the economics of the industry change. More and more people are writing than ever, with or without degrees, for free. As Arianna Huffington has said, writing is the new form of self-entertainment. Questions about how writers earn a sustainable living are at an all-time high. Nearly every writing career is supplemented by some other kind of skill: a knack for copywriting, ability in photography or graphic design, or expertise in a particular field such as science.
Your writing program’s requirements should push you to get one cornerstone in place: it should discipline you to write, to write a lot, to write across genres or mediums, and to analyze the techniques of others. Obviously this is one of the whole points of the degree: immersion in the craft.
But you can’t stop there, because the writing you’re learning to do in a typical creative writing class has little relevance to today’s publishing and media industry. Entry-level positions require creativity with digital media, imaginative social media tactics, and an artful approach to online marketing. This isn’t to say that the writing itself isn’t important—excellent storytelling that can cut through the noise is critical—but good writing skills aren’t enough.
So what do you do? Seek opportunities to do more writing and reading on a deadline, particularly in digital media environments. Contribute to print and digital publications, volunteer to copyedit and proofread, learn how to build your own online presence and portfolio of work. Whatever hands-on experience you can get, take it, and take more than you think you can handle. Don’t limit your writing experience to the typical classroom workshop environment, where egos can be fragile and stakes are low.
When you’re evaluating a program, consider:
- Does the program include courses that acknowledge most reading, writing, and publishing is now done digitally?
- Does the program work with organizations or businesses to regularly offer internships or other opportunities to students? Is internship credit required?
- Do you have (or will you have) more knowledge and experience than your professors in digital media? What do they have to teach you beyond how to write fiction, poetry, and personal essays for traditional print publication?
While I was earning my BFA, I ventured outside the English department, and took classes to learn copyediting and graphic design and layout. I served as editor of the university newspaper and literary journal, which helped me land internships at two book publishers before graduation. I could have done these things just as successfully without being a BFA student, but I gained something of tremendous value from my program: the mentorship of my writing professors, who offered constructive criticism and invaluable professional connections for my career. Each of them had practical experience and insight that contributed to my ability to happily earn a living post-graduation.
If it were up to me, every undergraduate writing program would help their students better understand the economics of the writing life and how authors or artists do manage to put together a full-time living from doing what they love. It is possible, but instruction and mentorship surrounding these issues remains rare in traditional programs. So it is up to you, dear student, to demand it from your program and its professors, or find it elsewhere.
Jane Friedman is a full-time writer, editor, and publishing consultant. She’s the publisher of Scratch, a magazine about the business side of the writing life, and the former publisher of Writer’s Digest. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia, and maintains an award-winning blog for writers at JaneFriedman.com. She earned her BFA in creative writing at the University of Evansville (Ind.).