Nebraska Center for Writers

Chimney Rock The Writer in the World

What happens after you receive your B.A. in creative writing? Are you besieged by publishers all clamoring to rush you into print? Do universities beg you to teach creative writing for them? Do publishers plead with you to become an editor? Fat chance.

Entering the world can be a difficult adjustment for someone fresh from an undergraduate creative writing program. You go from a place where even your most faltering attempts at writing get the full attention of your teachers to a place where no one seems to care that you write. They see writing as, at best, an odd hobby, not something a serious person would want to do for a lifetime. And the places where writing and writers are taken seriously graduate writing programs, newspapers, publishing companies, etc. seem closed to new writers, no matter how good. Magazines and book publishers can publish only a tiny fraction of the many thousands of submissions they receive each year. Publishing companies, newspapers, etc. can hire only a small fraction of the writers who come looking for jobs. And often the creative writing major has to compete for jobs with other graduates (English, journalism, and communication majors, for instance) who may seem better qualified to employers. The point is that having a college degree isn't enough to get you a writing job (or any job, for that matter).

So where does that leave you applying for law school? med school? food stamps? Don't despair.

The best strategy for entering the world is to prepare well while you're in college. Don't assume that taking all the required courses in English and creative writing will make you look good to potential employers. Don't even assume that great grades will do the trick. Everyone takes the required courses. Everyone has great grades. You?ll have to do more to distinguish yourself from the herd.

Get published. Don't just hold out for The New Yorker. Submit to campus and community publications as well. You'd love to see that sestina of yours in print, I know, but don't look down your nose at the prospect of writing articles for the campus newspaper, press releases for your club, etc. The point is to get yourself into print.

Get work. Find a part time job that requires writing or communication skills of some kind, whether it's writing news copy for the campus radio station, editing classified ads for the campus newspaper, or doing research for a campus department or program. When employers see that you've been paid to write, they start taking you much more seriously.

Volunteer. Universities produce tons and tons of writing. And someone has to write it, edit it, or both. There are journals and other official publications, of course. Whether or not they're hiring, look into the possibility of volunteering your services. Giving a few hours a week as an unpaid editorial assistant will show an employer that you have real experience in publishing. And don't overlook the out of the way possibilities. Departments and programs of all kinds produce newsletters, reports, etc. all the time. They're often produced by overworked faculty or staff members who'd welcome a little help. Almost every faculty member is involved in writing of some kind. Find one whose work interests you, and ask if you can serve as an unpaid editorial assistant. Does your school have a literary magazine? Get connected. Such magazines are often understaffed, allowing you to take on a number of responsible duties, like editing, writing, production, etc., all of which will make you more marketable after graduation. And remember that the people you work for and volunteer for will be able to write you the kinds of specific letters of recommendation that can make all the difference during your job search.

Learn. If you think you might be interested in a career in publishing, take the courses that seem most relevant at your school. You might also consider enrolling in one of the many summer or short term publishing courses offered around the country. Some of the better ones even offer job placement services. Three of the best known programs are the Stanford Professional Publishing Course (Bowman Alumni House, Stanford CA 94305), the UC Berkeley Certificate Program in Publishing (UC Berkeley Extension, 2223 Fulton Street, Berkeley CA 94720), and Radcliffe Publishing Procedures (Radcliffe College, 77 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138). Though programs like these may serve your needs very well, note that they're relatively recent. The time honored way to learn about publishing is to get a job at a publishing house. Jobs in the mailroom and the sales department are often available. Publishing companies hire lots of secretaries. There's a great deal of mobility in the publishing world. Many of the top editors got their start in these jobs. Salaries are low for these entry level positions, but you're not in it for the money, right?

If you're interested in teaching, of course, you'll want to take the proper education courses and find opportunities to teach and tutor while you're a student. With a B.A. you can teach in public and private schools. Teaching at the college level requires at least an M.A. or M.F.A., and more often a Ph.D.

Intern. There are internships all over the country, with major magazines television networks, government agencies, etc. The majority pay no money but give you the kind of valuable experience no college course can provide. If you can find a way to keep body and soul together, an internship may be the perfect way to find a real job. Look for listings in Harper's, The New York Times, your school?s journalism department bulletin board, the career counseling center, etc.

The traditional jobs for writers are in publishing and teaching. If you're lucky enough to get a job in publishing, know that the pay is generally low and the entry level job available to you may be little more than opening envelopes. There's a good deal of mobility in publishing, though, and you may find yourself advancing to positions of greater responsibility if you?re good enough and if you can just hold out long enough.

Writers and editors are often hired by high tech industries. If you have (or can get) some training or experience in computers (word processing skills, desktop publishing skills, graphic design skills), you might pick up one of these jobs. Such writers spend most of their time writing manuals, which can be tedious but often pays well. Technical writers of all kinds are hired in all kinds of industries, companies, and government agencies. But don't assume being a good writer qualifies you for these jobs. Most employers prefer people with training and experience in their field, meaning they?ll often want a computer science graduate who also happens to write well. In your application letter and/or at the interview, you may be able to convince them that what they need is a good writer, not another good engineer, but it will be tough. If a potential employer seems to think creative writing majors are unsuited for real work, point out that no business survives in our time without talented communicators on staff, that employers and recruiters are constantly complaining about the poor communication skills of business school graduates, and that creative writers are among the best communicators anywhere.

After a while, you may consider doing what only a short time earlier seemed unthinkable going back to school, to a graduate program in creative writing. If so, go for the right reasons. An M.F.A. in writing won't make you a whole lot more employable. The best reasons for going are to get time and guidance for your writing, not to hide out from the world. And if you don't get into a program, don't take it too personally. Admission is highly competitive. It doesn't mean you're not a good writer, or that you should give up writing. It probably means there just weren?t enough open spaces.

If you find yourself, at the end of all your efforts, stuck in a boring, menial job, don't despair. Everything's material. The boring job you suffer through today may become the subject of a story, poem, or novel tomorrow. Don't believe me? Read George Orwell's wonderful Down and Out in Paris and London. It's called "paying your dues," and it's worth all the classrooms in the world.

The Rock

Nebraska Center for Writers