Writing in Your Career – Advice from someone who knows

Thinking about writing as a career?

1st: Sign up for the NYC Communications & Arts Fair on March 1st right now!

2nd: Read on for some great tips and advice:

When Laura Denbow first asked me to participate in the Career Conversation program on the subject of writing, I was concerned that I might not have anything valuable to share with you.  I am not a published author, although I have plenty of rejection slips, and I have not been involved in publishing or print media.   However, I always seem to be writing something!  Allow me to explain.

Like so many of you, I studied creative writing as an undergraduate, but actually I was an Economics major.  This presented quite a dilemma in my senior year when I was forced to choose, or so I thought, between the right and left sides of my brain.  What was a young woman to do?  I thought often of going off somewhere after graduation to think great thoughts. After all, wouldn’t my great thoughts translate into probing insights about human nature?  And then wouldn’t my fresh understanding of the human condition easily translate into incredible storytelling and prose?

“No”.  That was the warning of my favorite writing professor.  His advice was simple and straightforward: “Get a job, any job, even a job on an assembly line.  Study human nature by day and write by night.  You kid yourself if you presume that someone fresh out of college has seen or experienced enough of life to understand anything worth writing about.”

September following my college graduation found me working as a staff accountant for a big accounting firm in New York City!

I remained in the financial world for the next several years.  During this time, I kept notes for stories that came to me and occasionally I wrote bits of prose.  But then something quite unexpected happened – I attended a seminar on business writing and a whole new writing landscape came alive.  Suddenly my fascination with beautiful words and interesting sentence structure gave way to an entirely new form of writing.  It was a style based on clarity and economy of words.  I understood the power of writing in a brand new context.  It was very exciting to discover that the world needs people who can translate complex ideas and important information into simple, understandable language.  (Think about this the next time you have to read a set of instructions three or four times in order to understand them!)

Now don’t yawn – I know you’re thinking I sold out and should have stuck with uncovering the complexities of the human soul.  But here is the reason I want you to stay with me.  Obviously you have a passion for writing or you would not have signed up for this Career Conversation.  Am I correct?  Consider that you are at a point where you are comfortable with writing and you enjoy it.  That is precisely where I was.  So allow me to continue and to tell you what happened next.

I left accounting, but remained in the corporate world as a treasury analyst at a multinational company.  My primary responsibility was writing financial operating protocols and procedures for the company’s worldwide operations.  My boss liked my work and before long was seeking my advice for things he was writing.  Others came to me, too.  Guess what?  There are a lot of people in the world, including high level executives and very educated people, who either cannot write, or chose not to because it is so uncomfortable for them.

What I did not understand then, but what is perfectly clear to me now is that good writers are sought out in the workplace – any workplace.  This is my point to you!  If you are a confident writer, writing will find you no matter what career path you follow.  Your reputation as a writer will precede you.

Eventually I left the working world to raise my family.  I have done a lot of creative writing since then and have come very close to publishing a few pieces.  But, what is more interesting to me is the fact that I am still sought out for my business writing.  No matter what volunteer organizations I fall into, I always seem to emerge as ‘the writer’.   In fact, I spent a large part of the summer working on a piece for a major fundraising campaign.  This could happen to you!

Now to your questions!

Because several of the questions were similar, allow me to combine them and re-phrase accordingly.

1.  How does one begin a writing career and support oneself at the same time?

Good question!  I guess I must refer you to the wisdom of my writing professor.  Find a job that gives you adequate financial support, while at the same time giving you the time to put your real energy into writing.  Remember, the rewards will be twofold, for not only will you have the time and resources for writing, but you will enjoy a glimpse of human nature that will be the basis for characters and stories.  Don’t worry if the job is not writing-related.

2.  Should I enroll in graduate school?

There are some very good graduate programs that have caught the attention of publishers.  One that comes to mind is the program at Iowa.  Although I did not pursue a graduate degree in writing, my guess is that there are at least two benefits.  First, you will be in the company of serious writers and that will be a source of good critical feedback, not to mention much-needed empathy.  Second, it will be an opportunity to really develop your voice and style, and maybe even genre.  However, all of this assumes that you enroll equipped to write about something (remember the words of my professor?).   Another avenue would be enrolling in adult writing workshops offered at your local community colleges, libraries and high schools.  Now don’t say, “I didn’t go to Bucknell just to go to a continuing education program back at my high school”.  I actually did this and found it very worthwhile because it forced the discipline of writing and gave me an opportunity to try some things out on my classmates.  I also know of some writers who find going to ‘writer’s or artists’ retreat houses’ very productive.  This would be a case wherein you stay at the retreat for two weeks or so in the company of others such as you.  Jane Hamilton has gone to the Ragdale Institute in Lake Bluff, IL a couple of times to work on her books.  Some writers find this a great way to get started on a project or wrap one up.  I once checked into a downtown club in Chicago and spent the weekend reviewing the beginnings of a book.  I returned having written the introduction.

3.  How do I get published?

Wish I could tell you first hand, but I never give up!  First of all, there are many publications for different writers’ markets.  Some are focused on the big publishing houses and they will tell you how to make a submission.  Others are directed at the short story or poetry markets.    There are small specialty publishing houses and all kinds of university presses out there.  Do the research and then determine what avenue is appropriate for your work.  And of course, use connections whenever you can!  Don’t forget to enter contests sponsored by local and national newspapers and magazines.  Finally, you can always self-publish – if you can afford it!

4.  What kinds of careers are out there for English majors?

Your English major is a statement to every potential employer that you can think and write critically and that you can take a position on an issue and defend it.  I have found that employers who seek liberal arts majors do so because liberal arts majors have the skills to seek knowledge that they do not already possess, understand it, and adapt it to the circumstance at hand.  Therefore my advice, and it is just that – my advice (so confirm this with Laura Denbow!) – is to follow your interests and let your English major open the appropriate doors.  For example, one of you has a double major in creative writing and studio art (Esther!).  I once spent an internship at an art gallery – doing what?  Working on a new catalogue…writing…writing…writing.  Galleries large and small publish brochures and catalogues for their collections and visiting exhibitions.

5.  How do I convey my writing aptitude on a resume?

Certainly you should take the advice of your career counseling staff and other professionals about resume presentation in general.  However, having said that and knowing that good writers are at a premium, make sure you make the point that you are a skilled writer and would hope to find a position that incorporates or plays to that strength and passion. I’d be very surprised if that did not stand out on your resume, but again, seek your career counselors’ advice.

6.  Other thoughts for you!

I have often wondered where I would be as a fiction writer today if I had pursued a job with a magazine or newspaper.  I pose this because it would have put me in the company of people whose livelihood was putting words together. I would have been surrounded by writers even if my job were something as mundane as making copies all day.  I guess my point is – think about the company you keep.

And that brings me to my next point.  Read, read, read!  Read fiction.  Read nonfiction.  Read poetry.  Read short stories.  Read essays (who are today’s great essayists – or have we relegated that art to the editorial pages…?).  Read book reviews.  Hang out in bookstores and read jacket covers.  Think about how your book will look!

Let your stories come loosely formed from your heart and your mind.  Do not force them to be something they are not.  It really is true that once you get going your characters will take on their own lives and lead you places you might not have imagined.

Find a time to write each day.  Stick to it and keep interruptions to a minimum.

Keep a journal.

Know the difference between storytelling and writing.  There are many who can tell a story, but truly cannot write.

I look forward to hearing from you.  This exercise has been a lot of fun for me!

Cate Waddell P ’07

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