Is A Masters' Degree In Professional Writing Worth It?
March 25, 2014 7:20 AM   Subscribe

I've wanted to try to shift from being "secretary who writes" to "writer" for a while now, and just not really had a good plan how - nor any background in the technical writing that really would be where most of the money comes in. Would a full-on masters' degree program teach me that, but have any other benefits (i.e., networking, connections, etc. to jumpstart the career) or am I just fine with the occasional Gotham Writers' mart course and a lot of word-of-mouth?

The blue-sky hope would be the ability to get to a point where my "day job" is nothing but writing - medical writing, technical writing, what have you - where I don't have to necessarily sit in an office all day. Maybe what I'm writing is boring as shit, but I'm writing. And I can work from home often.

But I haven't had any experience in the specialized kinds of writing like grant writing, technical writing, etc.; so I already know I'd need to have some courses in the specifics. Writing I can do, but the particulars of those kinds of writing I'd need to learn. I'm also crap at selling myself and finding such jobs.

I'm wondering whether a full-on degree program would give me not only the courses in how to write for these specific markets, but would ALSO help give me the "so here is where you find this work" boost, and the exposure to internships/markets/etc. where I could make connections and get a start out of the gate. Or, whether it'd just be a heftier price tag for something I could just get with the occasional course at Gotham Writers' Mart or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Work & Money (20 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
You can get a fair amount of training and direction without going through an advanced degree program. Look for field-specific training from people in that field. For example, the Foundation Center has classes on writing grant proposals, and they include advice on how to navigate the world of foundations to actually get the work.
posted by Longtime Listener at 7:36 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're serious about doing something specific like technical or medical writing a certificate of some sort (think community college) might be helpful, but don't go into the debt required for a full on graduate degree in anything unless you've got something lined up or your eye on a specific position that requires that sort of education. I've got a master's in mass communication that impresses exactly no one. It makes me eligible for certain positions I wouldn't otherwise be eligible for, but most writing jobs don't require it, honestly. I don't think it's ever been a major factor in my being hired to do anything. My work product is what gets me interviews and jobs. So, if you want to write grants, volunteer to help someone who writes grants and learn that way. Volunteering to do medical writing or technical writing will obviously be trickier, but seriously think twice about taking out any loans.
posted by dortmunder at 7:37 AM on March 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm a technical writer. I got this job with a BA in English and a (PAID) internship in which I learned DITA. It's great -- I do write (mostly boring) things about software all day and I'm working from home right now.

I'd recommend you learn DITA and minimalist writing principles as well as some XML/CSS. If you can't find an internship, I bet there's some open source software out there that could use documentation. Learn to use an industry software like oXygen (which I recommend) or ArborText (which I hate).

With that being said, I'm studying for the GRE right now and planning to get my Master's in User Experience Design...
posted by woodvine at 7:39 AM on March 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think it's a waste of money with little chance of ROI. I'm a marketing copywriter with a CW from long ago, but my CW degree hasn't really helped me *that much.* I think a Masters in Writing would make sense if there was a solid co-op/work experience program (my CW program had one, but that's in Canada, where paid co-op positions are pretty normal for almost every degree program).

My advice is to start writing now on the side. Gradually building up contacts on your own will take the same amount of time as completing a 2-year degree program, and you won't wrack up any debt.

As a rule, I haven't found the faculty at Writing programs to be particularly helpful at networking. Indeed, most of them have little idea about the market for practical writing.

I myself got back into the racket after spending 10 years as a junior high school teacher. I talked my way into a government communications shop, and later became a "technical writer" writing documentation for a bunch of network security architects.

I eventually ended up at a non-profit writing a ton of project proposals (about $1.5M worth).

I then started doing marketing copywriting as a side-gig, and this has grown. I've also written for magazines, and this helps me do PR for various clients, pitching stories.

So I think really what you ought to do is start writing. Freelance doesn't pay much, but if you do decide to do some magazine writing, make sure it's in an industry/vertical where there is lots of money so you can work in it as a professional writer in the future. You'll make contacts, and also learn the lingo.

And to speed up the process of actually making money, learn the different formats of what needs writing.

For example, with the online PR stuff I do (a small sliver of the pie chart of activities I do) I needed to learn how to write news releases (I learned this in government).

I also needed to come equipped with the ability to pitch - I learned this as a freelancer.

But I cannot recommend doing a Masters Program unless you want to teach.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:44 AM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been a freelance writer for decades--books, national magazine articles, documentary tv, etc--and have a master's in journalism, but the degree contributed exactly zero to whatever success I've had. If you land in the right program, you might make contacts that could help you. You're right to see the importance of that. And as someone said above, specialized work probably requires special qualifications. But to succeed in general non-fiction freelancing, I think your best bet is to become an ever-better writer and work your ass off.
I've taught writing at the master's level and doubt you could learn more there than on your own. The quality of work is really all that matters.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:51 AM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hi! I write things people think are boring, and I have done so for many years. I make a salary that pays the bills and buys me some extras.

I wouldn't dream of going post-graduate. Seriously, I've been reading your comments for years now and you're a fine communicator already.

I'd spend the money on specialized classes, but also on memberships like Society for Technical Communication. This is a good way to find job leads and see what types of industries could use your services.

I found several of my first FT writing jobs through technical/legal temp agencies and was able to build from there, but I have also had leads through professional orgs. Go where the money is: tech, healthcare, legal, government, financial.

And it helps to have a niche of some kind, no matter what you do. I'm good at memorizing style guides and working with busy subject matter experts, so I get good reviews and get asked back pretty frequently.
posted by mochapickle at 7:59 AM on March 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

I started out as a technical writer years ago in the IT field having in hand an undergraduate major in one of the liberal arts and an MS in library science. The MS wasn't a requirement. Much of IT technical writing is more editing than writing. Often people who are skilled software developers don't have English as their first language.

Your posts have consistently demonstrated that you are an articulate, thoughtful, careful commenter. For that reason, I'd bypass the writing masters. If you are going to study anything, you might take courses (not necessarily a degree program) in the subject matter (medical, computer science, financial, etc.) that appeals to you, to familiarize yourself with the structure of a given field and its jargon. Or, you might study adult education, in order to package yourself as having a training/technical writing skillset. But I'd first try to get my foot in the door at a company with the knowledge and experience I already had.

Others have written about freelancing, which you might want to explore; I'd also suggest applying for work at a medium-to-large size firm for a regular paycheck, and for the opportunity to work with others on a team (with you possibly wearing a technical writer/trainer/contracts management hat). For years my projects have used MS Word to develop technical documents and (granted, simple) graphics, so familiarity with its features would be a strong selling point for you (so a community college in its features would be a good idea if you don't already have that skill.) The working-from-home possiblity depends a good deal on the rapport you have built with a manager/project team.

On preview: agreed that the Society for Technical Communication is a good bet. But even better: getting that first job as a technical writer. You won't be expected to know everything about a field, and there's nothing like actually doing the work of technical writing/editing to get you the training and experience you are looking for.
posted by apartment dweller at 8:10 AM on March 25, 2014

I'm just finishing up a masters in technical communication, and I don't know how much it's going to help me land a job. I can't say the program has improved my writing, but I have learned about concepts that are relevant to the field. The thing is, you can teach yourself these concepts (things like how to write in plain language style, how to conduct a usability lab test, how to write for an international audience). I think attending some STC meetings will be helpful and I do know there are paid internships out there in the field that you might look out for (for example, in Texas, National Instruments and Southwest Airlines both offer paid internships for technical writers, which makes me think other places might do the same).

I am also interested in medical editing and have heard good things about this certification program.
posted by megancita at 8:50 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't speak as much to the technical writing side, but as a grant writer, I would say that no, a master's degree is not worth it. You'd be better of doing some volunteer work for a non-profit, networking, and getting in with your local chapter of Grant Professionals of America if you want to get into grant writing.

One note on grant writing - yes, you do a lot of writing. But you still have to do a bunch of other crap that you'll have to do working in any sort of non-profit: meetings, budget development, endless emails.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:43 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

One sort of side note about writing jobs. I have personally found that being a writer by day makes it very difficult to also be a writer by night. What I mean is that I've found that if I have to write all day I have little inclination/energy to sit down at the computer after hours and work on fiction. YMMV.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:44 AM on March 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Pro writer for a decade and a half: no. Get a mentorship, l learn the ropes. Also even on the technical side these days, getting a job is so tough and frightening as a contract worker I went to nursing school.
posted by syncope at 12:45 PM on March 25, 2014

MIT and other institutions offers a number of free courses online. You can take one of these and decide what it is you need to know.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:02 PM on March 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

You don't need a masters, you need connections.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:08 PM on March 25, 2014

I'm a technical writer and I used to interview people for technical writing roles. At the time, I lived in a place where a local university offered graduate degrees in technical communications, so we had some applicants who didn't have professional experience but who did have degrees. We didn't hire any of them.

However, we did hire people with experience that was only tangentially related to technical writing, such as textbook writing and journalism. I can imagine that we'd also be open to people who did medical writing or science writing, if it seemed like they could handle the transition into a software development environment.

Keep in mind that technical writing doesn't necessarily mean writing text all day every day. There have been a couple of times in my career that I've written a full-on product manual from scratch, but that's rare. You're usually writing small pieces of text or reworking text from other documents. It really varies a lot from company to company.

I agree with many of the recommendations above: check out the Society for Technical Communication, look for open source projects you can contribute to, read up on information design and topic-based authoring, and learn about help authoring tools and component content management systems.

Although technical writing may offer a work-from-home option, you may not be able to do so at first. In my experience, most tech writers who work from home are freelancers who've been doing it for many years. I've always had permanent roles and I have yet to find an employer that'll let me work from home regularly. This is especially true of companies doing Agile/Scrum.
posted by neushoorn at 3:02 AM on March 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Corporate writing is soft journalism. You write paid advertorials for brochures and pamphlets and company books, corporate blogs and so on, where you interview customers and staff and essentially produce something pleasant to read that soft-sells a product. It can be quite interesting and requires being a quick and good writer with a happy spin and the ability to interview people with an agenda. The pay in trades and commercial work is much better than Proper Media, and if you get a couple of decent clients, you can have fairly steady work. I would cold call editorial consultancies and ad agencies with a short summary of your skills and experience, stressing that you have very fast turn around, are super reliable and have the ability to write to spec.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:15 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Message gratefully received that, as I suspected, the benefits of a Masters' wouldn't outweigh the debt.

Please, do continue to weigh in, anyone; I may also, with your leave, memail a few of you with further questions (I'm from a theater background, and the inner-voodoo of this field is completely foreign to me and I'm having a hard time figuring out what step 1 would even BE, much less how to do it effectively). Thanks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on March 26, 2014

I'm a technical writer for a medical records company and got my job without any prior technical writing experience. We throw a bunch of writing prompts (e.g. "write a short news article based on X, write up instructions for Y) at applicants so that we can gauge whether they write well and figure we'll teach all the rest just the way we want it done, so we tend to hire smart people who can write rather than specifically folks coming in with prior experience (not that we count against for it or anything).

Peruse Glassdoor or similar job-info type sites extensively to get a good sense of what various potential employers look for - some demand experience/published samples, others (like my corp.) will just test/interview the heck out of you, and there's a bunch in between.

Feel free to memail if you'd like to talk more!
posted by Rallon at 12:28 PM on March 26, 2014

So I've been thinking more about your question and your curiosity about the inner voodoo. The trickiest part is landing the first job, and after you do that, it's pretty easy to land another. I got my current job through networking and am writing this, on a break, barefoot on my front porch.

The funny thing is, a new writer with common sense, a clean style, and zero ego can easily trump a cranky writer with experience, certifications, and advanced degrees. Especially if they just fired a cranky writer with experience, certifications, and advanced degrees.

The most successful writers I know:

+ Don't have a ton of ego
+ Are practical and self-reliant and helpful and have a sense of humor
+ Turn in clean, consistent, polished copy that doesn't need a ton of edits
+ Adapt to editor preferences without bickering
+ Have good instincts as critical thinkers but know when to push and when to relax
+ Have good recall for dates and information
+ Have a good sense of logic and process & identifying parallels
+ Quickly grasp technical tools and processes
+ Are good at building & engaging relationships
+ Are good listeners and ask good questions
+ Can memorize style guides and conventions specific to the industry, client, or project
+ Understand the difference between passive voice and active voice & the purposes for using each

See how this has VERY LITTLE to do with actual writing? Like, hilariously little. But you'd be surprised how far the above will take you.

I started out in software. If you're thinking of starting there, know that one of the best skills you can have is a passion for QA and development. Learn the product, try to break it, and pay attention to the user experience. Sometimes management hires writers when they really just need extra QA, so people who can straddle both roles and help the QA department do really well.

Hope this helps. Please do feel free to memail me if I can be helpful.
posted by mochapickle at 1:23 PM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I most likely will be memailing a couple of you this weekend; this is rapidly turning away from "do I need a Masters' Degree" (which was answered) to being a bunch of "so then what do I do" questions which aren't part of this question any more.

Will reach out to a couple of you this weekend. Thanks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:45 PM on March 27, 2014

Response by poster: So when I said I would reach out to people "this weekend" clearly I meant "Wednesday".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on April 2, 2014

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