Thursday, September 6

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, September 06, 2018 2 comments
This does NOT have to be you, young writer!
Over the years, I've had a number of friends reach out asking for me to speak with their child or cousin or niece/nephew who loves to write and needs some career direction. They see me as Exhibit A of how you can actually support yourself with an English degree, as if I'm a mystical unicorn. Perhaps I'm more like a white rhino, an endangered species. Much has changed about the publishing world since I left college and I don't think my path is one many could easily pursue today.

I entered the workforce before the Internet was widely available, and print media was still in its heyday. My relevant experience was limited to being a co-editor of the college literary magazine and tutoring at the writing center, plus a summer internship where I did administrative and communications work at an insurance company. It took ten months to find my first editorial job during the early 90s recession. But I've been able to find continual work as an editor ever since. One of those editorial jobs, at a nonprofit, even provided training in graphic design and paid for my grad school courses in journalism.

So while most college grads can't expect there to be scads of entry-level editorial jobs in print publications, there are still many ways to be involved in writing that can support you. It's also not unusual for fiction writing to be an avocation that becomes a serious side hustle as your skills grow and your voice matures.

People with strong writing and editing skills are needed in a broad array of fields. I think what's key is to figure out what genres and kinds of content you enjoy, and choose courses, extracurriculars, and work/internship experiences that give you "crossover appeal."

Career ideas for writers

If it's pure creative writing that excites you, consider script writing. Television series are booming with the advent of streaming services, and talent will always be needed. So combine your English or creative writing degree with one in drama or film studies. Look for creative ways to begin building a portfolio while you're in school by, say, writing sketches, monologues, or one-acts for the college drama group. Intern in the college publicity department, with local advertising agencies that create TV spots, or with a YouTuber.

If poetry is your jam, becoming a lyricist might be the career for you. Study music alongside poetry; join a college band or offer to write with one.

If you love science as much as writing, there's a consistent need for skilled writers in editors in medical publishing. Coursework, a minor or double major in biology, biochem or chemistry will give you the needed knowledge base. Consider joining a medical club on campus and doing some communications work for them to build your portfolio.

Maybe the wheeling and dealing world of business is more interesting to you. Consider corporate communications, which involves all kinds of written materials, from advertisements to internal newsletters to prospectuses to grant writing. Trade publishing is another field where business knowledge is needed. Again, courses that build your knowledge base will be key for finding work in corporations, accounting firms, banking, and the professional associations that support them. Trying your hand at promotional writing or grant writing for a college club can be a portfolio-builder.

If you're a gadget-loving techie and good at making complex ideas easy to understand, perhaps technical writing is the field for you. A background in computer science would be an asset.

If you have an artistic eye, learning graphic design and HTML coding along with writing and editing skills will make you a stand-out candidate in non-profit communications and marketing. Smaller operations need folks who can not only create and tidy up written content but also create finished products like newsletters, magazines, and websites. The more you can build a real-world portfolio (projects beyond class assignments), the better, so offer your design services to school clubs, family/friends, or favorite small businesses in the neighborhood, Many also want folks who know their way around social media. So get some experience under your belt running Twitter and Instagram accounts for your school clubs to show that you have some know-how developing a consistent message and building an audience, or reach out to family and friends and offer to manage social media for one of their businesses, as an informal internship.

If your one true love is fiction writing, by all means read as widely as possible and write all kinds of things. Don't limit yourself to fiction courses, because there are valuable skills to be learned from courses in poetry writing, drama, journalism, and rhetoric that will make your fiction stronger. Get involved with the literary magazine, because reading and critiquing others' work will grow your skill as well. If your school doesn't have one, search out some online literary zines and ask about joining the team that reads through submissions; these all-volunteer operations usually welcome the assistance. Submit work to small zines as a way to build up a portfolio that can help you break in to paying fiction markets and even land a literary agent. Join online forums like Wattpad, which enable you to test out your stories with an audience. Offer to beta-read for your classmates and try to connect with writers in the community at large, perhaps through NaNo meetups or at your neighborhood library. Developing your skills as a reader and critique partner can put you on the path toward a gig in a literary agency or with a publishing house. (Just be aware that you might have to moonlight elsewhere to pay the bills.)

Veronica Roth, who became a successful novelist fresh out of college, is one in six billion. Keep your expectations realistic: your goal now, while you are energetic but still green, is to work on your craft, learn a variety of skills, begin building a portfolio, and network.

Are there other writing fields you know of? How would you advise someone to break into the field?


  1. What are you talking about? You ARE an atypical unicorn. LOL But seriously, I loved hearing more about your journey. I think being a writing mentor or tutor (as you mentioned you did) is a great starting point for newer writers. Small community newspapers or publications are another way to break into the writing business all while breaking out of less-experienced writers' comfort zones; this one definitely helped me. Of course, those types of publications usually pay hardly nothing is anything at all. But the lessons I learned from those early days of my writing journey have proven invaluable to me, kept me grounded.

    1. I agree totally about local papers--they are great for building a portfolio of clips, but very few of them provide jobs with decent salaries. I tried to steer the advice toward careers that exist now and allow you to actually pay the rent. The biggest area for writing/editing in Philly is medical and pharma publishing. And those jobs pay very, very well. They actually use recruiters! (I've turned down many an opportunity to interview for such jobs, because my three years in medical editing was my least favorite job; just not for me.)