Making It Work: Writers Finding Careers
Dave Essinger | June 2014
When I began organizing a panel called “Good Luck with That: Writers Paying Bills” for the AWP conference in Seattle, it wasn’t difficult at all to find qualified and enthusiastic participants. More writers with diverse professional careers were willing to share their experiences than we had room for on a single panel. It soon became clear, though, that the crew we’d assembled was singularly in demand. As the conference approached, one panelist learned he would be out of the country on business; another was unable to attend due to other obligations. Another could only carve out a narrow single day in Seattle, and got squeezed out by airport delays. Throw in the snowstorm that hit the East Coast that weekend, and after a flurry of substitutions and reconfiguration, the show went on.
I take a few morals from this backstory. One is that writers who hold down jobs in the real world are extraordinarily busy people. Another is that, somehow, often by improvisation, we always make it work. Gone is the day when academe or bestsellerdom were the only, or even best, career options out there for writers, and today, there are as many different ways to make writing work as there are working writers, which is to say—a lot.
Generally speaking, the skillsets acquired and practiced in MFA and creative writing programs can be repurposed in a broad variety of careers that most graduates never stop to consider. In the working world, effective communication is a rarer skill than many realize, and there are many productive ways to leverage that skill in a professional environment. Many writers have found alternative career paths to be rewarding, fulfilling, and financially satisfying.
“Writing skills can be translated to just about any career so long as you know your audience,” says Dustin Ballard, a writer and practicing physician. Annie Baxter, a poet, fiction writer, and reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, agrees; “there are many occupations one can pursue that involve a lot of writing and from which one can draw satisfaction from turning a good phrase.”
So, where exactly are these occupations, and how do the aspiring employed find them? One often-overlooked field is Technical Writing.
Ron Tulley, Chair of the English Department at the University of Findlay and an experienced professor in the Technical Communication field, advises, “don’t be intimidated by job ads.” Creative personalities may have trouble selling themselves, he says, but often, “once you get on the job, whatever that skill is you think you’re lacking, you’ll get it.” Consider applying for jobs for which you have some of the skills, and can grow into the others. “If you can write in one situation,” Tulley says, “you can write in another.”
If you are still taking courses, “Try to get breadth in your coursework, not just in document design, but instructional design as well,” Tulley suggests, and incorporate fields like “digital media, curriculum design, or philosophy of education.” These kinds of converging skills are beneficial “because the thing about being a technical writer now is that writing is just one part of it; it’s really about the superstructure of the design, and understanding how your audience is going to use that document.”
Elkie Burnside, a recently hired Assistant Professor at the University of Findlay who teaches technical writing, elaborates. “There are specialized skills that a technical writing degree can offer you, but there are many more jobs than that out there. A clear communicator, concise writing, the ability to edit and proofread—you can’t discount those skills.” The practices and mindset learned in creative writing workshops apply readily to professional scenarios as well. Burnside says, “Those skills, the ability to give critical feedback, the ability to copyedit, the ability to revise—those are the kinds of skills that will help you in a technical writing situation.” She suggests including a section for specialized skills on your resume, to demonstrate how these will translate from your degree.
The Jobs You Should Apply to (And How You’ll Succeed at Them)
When it comes to searching for compatible jobs, the terminology itself can be confusing. Tulley lists a variety of search terms that may be used to describe opportunities in his field. “We’ve got Professional Writing, Technical Writing, Technical Communication, Instructional Design, Information Design, and part of the battle is knowing the keywords for jobs that would match much of your skillset.” Job titles such as Editor, Instructional or Curriculum Designer, or Technical Writer should catch a creative writer’s interest, as should Information Architect, Documentation Expert/Specialist, or Training Designer. Some skills that will enhance an entry-level applicant’s marketability include knowledge of Microsoft Office and Adobe Technical Communications Suite, capability with screen capture and graphics modification software, and experience writing white papers or text copy for web pages, along with work that demonstrates the ability to self-edit and communicate clearly to varied audiences and on tight deadlines.
Additionally, students should begin building a broad network of resources and references as soon as possible. “It starts with people here, reaching out, making those relationships, before graduation,” says Tulley. “I get a call or an e-mail every week, about a tech writing or editing position. I do not have people to fill it.” If you cultivate a good relationship with your professors, they can be an excellent resource well past graduation. Janet Desaulniers, faculty in the MFA in Writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, agrees that students should “ask their teachers for ideas, for help—I think that comes with the price of a graduate degree.”
Desaulniers refers students to occupations in the corporate and business worlds where they can capitalize on their creative sensibilities. “I send people to corporations, because students know the arts. They could become incredible consultants or could work with the community grant arm of major corporations; every major corporation has somebody in charge of giving away their money. You could go to work for a bank and help them give away their money…I think people don’t cast as wide a net as they possibly should.”
Other recently graduated writers have found their communication and critical thinking skills extremely applicable within traditional corporate contexts. Matt Feczer, a creative writing student now employed by the Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, says, “one skill that I have found useful in the corporate world as a data business processing analyst is that of effective communication. I’ve seen many problems escalate because of a lack of understanding between two groups.” Mediating these kinds of conflicts is a valued skill, he says, and his creative perspective also lends him unique insight. “I sometimes think people that I work with get used to a status quo environment and don’t often ask the ‘what if’ questions that I am always asking as a writer,” he says. By streamlining a lab process that is now saving an estimated $10,000 in lost-time costs annually, Feczer’s creative point of view has helped him move up in his organization.
And even in a position like his, for which writing is not a highlighted aspect of the job description, Feczer says, “you can still use your writing craft and skills and make an impression using your strengths. If your position doesn’t have a documented work instruction, that is something that you can create to demonstrate your ability to write and communicate effectively. If the position does have some documentation, chances are it is pretty old and either the document needs updating or the process does.” He recommends examining areas that tend to be sources of friction for opportunities to demonstrate your communication skills. “A writer and creative thinker can really do well in a corporate setting because it is so dynamic,” he says. “Things change and issues come up on a daily basis, and people who can think creatively when dealing with problematic areas are very valuable to a corporation.”
While it’s true that the communication styles demanded by various fields may force creative writers to adopt a partly or wholly new voice, it’s important not to discount these careers. Many writers have found that making this stretch only broadens their skills.
A friend from my MFA program laments the time and effort it took her to “unlearn writing the perfect sentence” when she entered a career writing for television, but she loves the opportunities and audience it has brought to her writing. Really, it can be just another way of intentionally writing against your strengths, or pushing yourself beyond what you already do well. “Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness,” I tell my own students now, as my best professors once told me, and adaptability is key.
Tulley says, “We are coming full-circle back to what a liberal arts education means: being well rounded in a lot of things, not necessarily being an expert in any one thing.” Ballard adds, “Writing well is a professional commodity; editing well can make you indispensable to friends, colleagues and superiors.” Many of us creative types have learned to pounce upon the wordsmithing assignments our colleagues lack the confidence to approach.
Moreover, one takeaway here is that writers should not shy away from applying for the jobs we may not think we’re qualified for. “They want someone else,” we may think upon reading a carefully worded ad that lists skills we don’t realize we have. It is important to remember, that these advertisements may well be “wish lists,” and hiring committees may be very willing to consider applicants with relevant skillsets the ad never listed.
Leona Sevick, an award-winning poet and an assistant provost at a small liberal arts college in Maryland, says she applied for her first full-time job as an assistant professor and assistant academic dean on impulse. “Who would hire me,” she thought, “eight months pregnant with my second child, as an academic administrator when I had no experience?” Once she got over the shock of being hired for exactly this position, she jumped in. “Even though I felt overwhelmed and exhausted, I learned in two years how absolutely everything works on an undergraduate college campus,” she says. “Without knowing it or planning to, I had made myself marketable.”
Making Your Own Opportunities
What to do, though, when available, pre-existing jobs simply don’t meet your needs? More and more, industrious and creative writers are making their own opportunities.
Freelance writer Wendy Altschuler, as a stay-at-home mom, was looking for a way to contribute to her family’s income as well as challenge her intellectually. “At first I wrote for online blogs and local magazines for free—I wanted to get publishing credits and build a writer’s resume,” she says. “I also had a blog. After I had a few things published, I started submitting writing proposals to bigger magazines for payment. This then led to my gig at The Chicago Sun-Times, Pioneer Press. Now, I’m branching my writing career into other sources to fill my basket with more eggs.”
Altschuler’s best advice for an aspiring freelancer is “to sit in a chair and write something: get published in the genre of your interest or career path and then start telling everyone that you’re a writer—networking is important.” Altschuler is working intentionally on a part-time basis now, and while she thinks it’s possible to make a decent living and support a family by freelance writing, she considers it a better choice for supplemental than primary income.
“I love earning extra money, having flexible hours and being at home, plus there are amazing writer's perks that afford our family great adventures and free admission to behind-the-scenes museum experiences, zoos, and overnights at hotels and resorts,” she says, and some of these experiences are worth more to her now than the financial compensation. “All of this adds into what I'm being ‘paid.’” She is increasing her writing commitments steadily, though, as her children grow up and spend more of the day in school, and is on pace to double her income since last year. And once her time opens up further, she will be well-positioned to take advantage of more opportunities. “I think that having options is incredibly important,” she says, “and having jobs on the back burner that you can take when you have more available time.” For Altschuler, while the income is not insignificant, the attraction of freelancing lies in the flexibility she has now, coupled with the opportunities she is building to expand on her writing down the road.
And if writing for hire for existing publications doesn’t suit your interests (or immediate economic needs), the world of self-publishing nonfiction has become increasingly viable, even lucrative. Shelley Hitz, who has self-published over thirty books, has been able to quit her job as a Physical Therapist to write full-time. In her soon-to-be-released how-to text entitled Self-Publishing Books 101, she says, “Self-publishing has never been easier! Now, with the recent advancements in technology, anyone can get published. It is not only simple, quick, and doable to get your ideas self-published, but will also save you money.”
Her text shares tips on composing and designing your work, explains the nuts and bolts of several methods of self-publishing, and addresses issues of marketing your work both before and after publication. Hitz details methods and pricing strategies for eBooks, weighs the benefits of various methods of self-publishing or using an independent publishing service, and walks readers through the specifics of pricing structures, royalty agreements, and details like ISBN acquisition.
In the end, though, Hitz cautions, “As an author your most important job is writing. Marketing gets you noticed, but without having books for readers to buy, it is pointless.”
Another way to monetize writing about your interests arises from the blogosphere. Sara Elizabeth Dunn, who writes for her own website and many other venues about motherhood, natural living, and homeschooling, discusses the unique facets of building and writing for an online audience.
“People want ‘real’ from blogs—quick information they can use,” she says. “That’s why sponsors and companies love to work with bloggers. When a potential customer Googles a company or product, chances are good that they will venture on to a ‘mommy blog’ and read her experience before buying the product. Bloggers with established readerships and networks have the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of potential customers, and companies are learning this. Buyers may not trust a commercial on TV, but they’ll trust the blogger they interact with on a daily basis. Companies pay good money if they can find a blogger with strong writing skills and readership.”
Dunn began writing online simply as a way to share information with other like-minded individuals, and had built an audience based on common interests before anyone suggested she try to monetize her interests. She says, “It took eight months to build my first 1,000 likes on Facebook, and that felt like forever. So many times I wondered if I was having any kind of positive impact on anyone and if I should stop, but I'd get an e-mail or message from a reader that would inspire me to keep going.” Six months later, though, her Facebook page was approaching 10,000 likes with a total actual reach of 300,000 [people], and now a year after that her “likes” are closing in on 50,000. Dunn has focused on her content rather than aggressively seeking out financial opportunities, but since she has begun generating this kind of traffic, companies looking to market their products and services have found her.
Some sponsors are now willing to pay her for a social media package alone, as promotion to build their reach, without a full write-up or endorsement. “From my perspective,” she says, “these are worth the most value for quick, immediate results.” And once one has acquired enough of a following, this audience can be leveraged in other ways. When she met with a literary agent at a recent conference, Dunn says, “His interest grew when I told him my numbers.”
It can be hard, she acknowledges, to get such a venture started, and it’s essential to really care about what you’re doing. “The hardest thing about starting an online writing venture is that popularity is very visible. As much as many hate focusing on numbers, it’s easy to become discouraged when numbers aren’t growing as quickly as another blogger’s or to fixate too much on them when they are,” she says.
Practical tips for broadening one’s audience include submitting guest articles to established bloggers. Dunn also suggests starting with self-hosted WordPress from the beginning, as opposed to using sites where you may not fully own your posted content.
As much work as it is, at the end of the day, Dunn loves what she does for its flexibility and opportunity to reach a broad and engaged audience. And, like Altschuler and Hitz, she has successfully built a writing career centered around her own interests and skills.
Compartmentalizing vs. Integrating
All of this brings us to another question, though: what if your job—even your dream writing-oriented job—begins to eat your life? Can your purely creative and your professional selves coexist? Writers find all kinds of different ways to make it work, whether strictly compartmentalizing their writing and professional lives, or letting the two integrate and flow into each other.
On the appeal of letting our writing direct our work, Desaulniers says, “I think that once we begin to make cultural opportunities in literary ways we come to see that we also make cultural opportunities in terms of our own lives. I think that’s what's ahead of us, that’s the future: people who are more than one thing who also happen to put expressions of those things into book form” and other artistic and literary forms. “I encourage people to find ways to create opportunities doing what they’d like to do for the world.”
Speaking from his own experience, Ballard appreciates the merits of letting profession be a means into one’s writing. “One of the many values of a writer who is also versed in the medical paradigm is the ability to take seemingly impenetrably complex topics and put them into terms that the rest of humanity can relate to. It’s the rare person who is not interested in their health on some level. Taking true scientific data and helping the public to make sense of it is an invaluable, arguably ‘greater good,’ pursuit. If you’re at all interested and have acumen at this, consider it a calling that can make a difference in people’s lives.” Expertise in any particular field can be a strong driver for compelling writing in any genre. “Writing what you know almost always works better than writing what you pretend to know,” Ballard observes.
And there is no reason to sell short the legitimate inspiration we may bring to our creative day jobs, even if it is done for a paycheck. Baxter advises, “Do not judge the imagination and creativity you manage to bring to your work as somehow less important/meaningful than the imagination and creativity of ‘pure’ literary writing.”
Still, Ballard cautions, “Be prepared to flex and adapt your writing style to fit the conventions of your profession, but don’t let those conventions creep too deeply into your real writing. For example, scientific manuscripts are chock full of abbreviations and tend to favor a passive voice and technical language—even when more simple language would work just as well. You do not want those sorts of principles to translate into the type of prose you’re truly striving for.”
According to Desaulniers, it is necessary to maintain a strong idea of artistic self when we venture out into the world. “When you leave a graduate program, you should have a studio practice, a true sense of this is how I make work, and want to make that bigger. In a culture where you’re always doing something else, whether it’s being a student or having a job or having a family or running for office, you should know how to keep your studio practice alive.”
Sometimes, simply the security of having the bills paid is freeing, in terms of keeping that practice alive. Sevick points out, “While I'm sure many of us nurture fantasies of winning the lottery and then having more time to write, I've come to believe that my day job helps me to be a better writer in some unexpected ways. I'm not really a person who writes better under every kind of pressure, and having a day job means that my livelihood will never depend on the writing work that I produce, and no one expects it to.”
Elkie Burnside agrees that it can be possible and productive to maintain a separation, and keep work from subsuming one’s creative life. “People back into this,” she says. “My goal wasn’t to become a technical writer; my first degree was in literature.” She advises students to be open to any kind of career. “Yes, you love your craft; you don’t have to lose it. The best thing about working nine-to-five is that you have that time outside to practice your craft.”
In the end, says Desaulniers, many of the students who become the most successful are those who “find lives that meld art and work in surprising ways.”
ASTD: American Society for Training and Development. Job bank: http://jobs.astd.org/
STC: Society for Technical Communication. Job bank: http://www.stc.org/job-bank
Virtual Vocations: a database for telecommuting jobs: https://www.virtualvocations.com/
Technical Writer Jobs: http://www.techwriterjobs.net/
eLance, for freelance writing jobs: https://www.elance.com/
Medium, a site for aspiring writers and editors: https://medium.com/
Dustin Ballard’s collection in Medium: https://medium.com/on-doctoring
Shelley Hitz’s web home: http://shelleyhitz.com/
Wendy Altschuler’s column: http://specialsections.suntimes.com/lifestyle/parenting/index.html
…Facebook Writer’s Portfolio: https://www.facebook.com/WendyAltschuler
…and Twitter: https://twitter.com/RueDeLaBucherie
Sara Elizabeth Dunn’s web page: http://amamasstory.com/
Dave Essinger’s most recent fiction and essays appear in ellipsis…literature and art, Pilgrimage, and elsewhere, and he’s the winner of Sport Literate’s 2013 creative nonfiction contest. He received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is an Associate Professor at the University of Findlay, in Ohio, where he teaches creative writing and edits the literary magazine Slippery Elm. He has recently completed a novel about ultrarunning.