Monday, January 14, 2008

A Career in Writing: Four Things My College Education Didn't Teach Me

Like a lot of freelance writers out there, I have a degree in English. When I was in school, I remember a lot of people saying things like "So what are you going to do with it--teach?" and "Hope you don't mind starving!" But I never planned to give up food in trade for a career--and as much as I respect teachers, I never wanted to be one. All I ever wanted to do was write.

I loved earning my English degree. I loved reading different authors from diverse cultures and time periods. I loved writing, loved talking about writing like it was the one thing on earth that mattered most, loved critiquing other people's work. I think that my writing degree taught me a lot about writing as an art--and practically nothing about making a living at it.

I think that many liberal-arts schools fail students who study the arts. The cliche of the "starving artist" is so prevalent that a lot of schools don't expect more of their arts students than to continue their interest in art as a hobby. The tragedy is that so many humanities graduates leave school with thousands of dollars in debt and no idea how to have a meaningful career. Many of us wind up taking jobs outside of our interests out of necessity, and these can turn into a lifetime of work that feels meaningless and unfulfilling.

But for some of us, writing on the side just isn't good enough. We've got the talent--we see the pros at work and we think, "I can do that." But it takes more than just talent to make a living, and a lot of writers don't realize this until they get out of college and have to figure it out for themselves. Here are four things I wish my professors would have told me before I graduated.

It's not just about your creative talent. It's also about your self-promotion skills. Before I graduated, I thought that if I wrote well, opportunities would naturally come my way. But that's not really how it works. There are thousands--maybe millions--of people out there who want to be writers. Even if only a small percentage actually wrote anything worth reading, that's still a great deal of competition to deal with. When you're a professional writer, you'll be competing with other writers for the attention of agents, publishers, critics, clients, and readers. Many of them will write worse than you. Many will write better.

When competition is this fierce, you have to be able to promote yourself at every stage of the game. To succeed as a writer, you have to hone your self-promotion skills as much as your writing skills. I never took any classes on marketing in college--no general business marketing courses, and no specific courses on marketing myself as a writer. In my opinion, it should have been a required part of the curriculum.

Want to do your creative work on the side? It's harder than you think. When I was in college I just assumed I would have some sort of job, and I'd work my writing around that until my "real career" came through. After I graduated, I found that the reality was somewhat different. I worked full-time at several different companies, and I found that my employers didn't care about my outside interests: if the company needed me to stay late and come in early, I had to do it. I often felt too drained after a long day's work to put much time into developing my outside interests into a career I could live with.

Many people assume they will find fulfillment doing what they love outside of work. But unless you have a very undemanding job, it can be tough to find the spare time you need to truly live up to your creative potential. And when you have other outside responsibilities to deal with--like kids, for instance--the time you have to pursue your passions can quickly dwindle into nothing. I didn't realize how important flexibility would be to me until I lived without it for years.

There are plenty of ways to integrate your talents into a career that works for you. When I was in college, I assumed I had two choices as a writer: novelist or journalist. Nobody told me anything different. No helpful career counselor sat down with me my senior year and talked to me about career options that would let me use my writing skills. I talked to a career counselor, but they didn't really know what to do with me--I didn't want to go corporate or be a teacher, like most English majors.

I wish someone had talked to me in college about careers for writers--jobs like the one I have now. If you're artistic, you don't have to shove your talents into a dark, unseen corner of your life while you labor away at something you have no interest in. You can craft a career as a consultant or freelancer doing practically anything. Performance artists can become public speaking experts. Visual artists can become graphic designers. Writers can become copywriters. You can work for a company, or you can run your own business.

Business isn't as scary as it looks. I never considered running my own business as a college student. I thought that "business" and "creativity" were two extremely different, unrelated categories. I didn't see how businesses need--even thrive on--creative people. I just saw lots of people with conservative suits on and seas of drab cubicles, and I assumed I would never really fit in any business environment. I had classes that taught me to think like a creative person--like an artist.
But now, my "business environment" is my laptop. And business isn't just about wearing a boring suit and working in a boring office. It's about making your dreams a reality.

When I was in college, I had a very different attitude--and I faced a steep learning curve as a result. It took me years to come around to the fact that I'd have to be business-savvy in order to thrive. If I had had classes in college that taught me to think like a businessperson--and to use business principles to get what I want in the world--I might have had a plan right out of college. I might have been able to hit the ground running.

With the amount of money a college education costs nowadays, I feel colleges owe a little more to their humanities graduates. They owe them a solid education in their chosen field--but they should also take them seriously as future professional artists. Many creative types don't need a degree to succeed--nobody cares what Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, or Ian McKellan majored in. But we do need guidance in how to make a living at what we love. Give us that, and a college education will be more than worth it.


Anonymous said...

Hello there fellow English major! Wow, we had extremely similar experiences in college. To this day, when I declare that I was an English major, I hear "Oh, so are you a teacher?"

Considering the fact that the written word is quite literally everywhere you look, it's amazing that people equate careers in writing only with teaching.

Coincidentally, I have a post coming up about about English teachers, though it deals more with grammar. However, the state of education as a whole is becoming more and more disappointing. While the business majors get the inside scoop about marketing and making money, everyone else is left high and dry, and often end up in drudge jobs as a result.

Thanks for such an insightful post, Jennifer.

Jennifer Williamson said...

When I tell people what I do for a living, I invariably get impressed responses. People are impressed that it's actually possible to make a living writing--not that I'm doing anything special, but that I'm actually doing well in the subject I majored in. It's an upgrade from the "starving artist" cliche, I guess. I loved getting an English major, but sometimes I think I might have been better off studying business--or at least taking a lot of business electives.

french panic said...

Your perspective is interesting - I was a reluctant English major. I knew full well that having an English degree was not going to guarantee me anything, job-wise. I went to university because after flailing around for a few years, I thought I could "hide out" in university and something magical would happen. It didn't.

(My mom thought an English degree would make me into an instant Margaret Atwood, which is a sweet thought, but oh-so-naive!)

Though I don't regret my English degree, I found it to be an incredibly frustrating experience, as most students seemed to be there to do the time, and not actually engage in discussions about literature - it was all about making sure you could write a paper to fit the perceived style of the prof. Boring.

I also didn't fully understand the whole grading process - I would get a failing mark on a paper I researched and sweated over... and a spectacular mark for a paper I pulled out of my ass at the last minute.

I agree with what you've said about doing something creative on the side - it IS next to impossible when you spend (including a commute) 11, 12+ hours of your day dedicated to "the job" - you become exhausted and drained and completely uninspired.

I live in Montreal, in a section of the city that apparently has the highest number of artists/musicians/creative types per capita in Canada - maybe North America. I see it all around me: Creative people NEED marketing skills - it is so stunning to see how many people seem to rely on their friends or word-of-mouth... and then get depressed when they haven't "made it".

Your last comment is interesting - that you are actually doing well in the subject you majored in... I have never thought that "English major" = "Writer" - maybe because of some of the truly awful writing my fellow English majors were churning out. Or having to read papers in literary journals that were written by people with PhD's in English... holy crap, some of those academics just CANNOT WRITE!

Excuse my long winded comment -- you've given me a lot to think about, and I could go on....but I won't!

Anonymous said...

I also got my bachelor's degree in English and then went on to get my master's in business because I was so afraid that I'd never have a "real job" because of hearing similar comments made to you.

After several years of working in jobs I hated, I found my current job as a copywriter for a marketing company.

It's so amazing to get paid for what I love to do, and I hope other writers/artists can be in similar situations.

Susan Johnston Taylor said...

I attended a good communication program and they still didn't teach all of the skills a good freelancer would need (not that that was most students' goals anyway). But I majored in PR and the skills you learn for writing PR pitches are very transferable to query letters.

Ironically, my friend who majored in journalism admitted that she wanted to freelance and could write a killer feature article but really didn't know where to start on a query. So it's not just English majors who feel this way.

I agree with you that many freelancers who are starting out underestimate the importance of self-marketing. Boy, did I learn that last year!

Jim Smoot said...

You are right on the money about working as a writer on the side. After an especially draining day at my "real" job, it is difficult to try to remain fresh enough to write at my best.

I guess I just need to self-promote until I can afford to do what I love as my real job.

Tony said...

Hey Jen!

I can't agree more about not having any spare time on the side after rough days (or weeks, as they seem to quickly become) at the office. Unfortunately, this isn't limited to writing, as I personally just don't want to play around with computers on the side much anymore.

For me, writing was never my job, so I can always escape from my daily drudgery and write up a good rant and feel so much better about myself. The change-up between sides of my brain (between programming and "arts") always does me good. I hope that never changes.

Maybe you should get more into math/computers?!

Jennifer Williamson said...

@French: it's funny that you don't equate English majors with writers. My program was pretty creative-writing heavy, so maybe that's why I do. But even so, a lot of people were clearly there just to get a college degree with the least amount of work possible--many of them couldn't write at all. It's sad that they didn't seem to improve too much from Freshman to Senior year.

@Melissa: I'm glad you managed to find a career that uses your talents. That's really why I wasn't happy in most of my prior jobs; I just wasn't doing what I was good at. There are plenty of well-paying jobs out there for writers--English majors don't have to be teachers or secretaries (or starve) if they don't want to.

@Susan: If I'd majored in PR or marketing or something like that, I may have been more prepared for what I'm doing now. My belief is that even Creative Writing and Lit majors should have some elements of PR and marketing included with their curriculums. I definitely think students who already know they need a business/marketing background have an advantage over those who just want to be creative and who assume their career will work itself out.

@Jim: It's a common complaint. A lot of people I know who were very driven in college took jobs to pay their student loans and barely ever write anymore. It's tough to maintain the balance. But you're right, the only way I can see to get out of it is just to keep writing and promoting yourself.

@AJ! Good to see you!!

I can definitely tell writing is fun and generally easy for you. One of the reasons it was so hard for me to juggle both writing and a full-time job was that for me, it wasn't "fun"--I considered it my real work. Not that it wasn't enjoyable to do, but I couldn't just do it when I felt inspired if I wanted to make a career out of it.

Believe it or not, I am getting a little into computers--I spent a few hours last night reading up on web design. And my taxes are coming up, so I'm about to start exercising the miniscule "math" section of my brain...ugh. Don't remind me.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

I think life experience counts for a great deal when it comes to making a successful career writing. Education is limited and often based on the lowest common denominator.

Having said that, I still plan to major in English and minor in Business. Despite being an adult and mother the degree feels like a missing part of myself. Gaining a degree offers the chance to be immersed in language, share the experience with other writing enthusiasts, and walk away with the confidence and discipline formal education provides.