Total writing noob.
February 29, 2008 4:31 PM   Subscribe

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Always wanted… but never actually worked towards it, so I have no writing-specific experience or training. I’d like to transition to a career that somehow involves writing, but I’m not sure how I can get my foot in the door.

The details: I have a bachelor’s degree in art from a well-respected liberal arts college. When I started college, I had every intent of majoring in English, but it was nearly impossible to get into the tiny writing classes, and I just drifted off on a different track. I’ve been out of school for six years and held mostly admin assistant-style jobs since then—nothing really resembling a career. Currently, I work in advertising, though my position is nothing particularly exciting. I’m looking for a new job. Though I’ve been looking for positions similar to my current one, it’s really not a career path I’m excited about.

Writing, however, is something I could get excited about. I don’t need to write Great American Novels or New Yorker columns; I’d probably enjoy writing frothy copy for catalogs and potato chip bags. I consider myself a good writer: I can express my thoughts clearly, I have a solid intuitive grasp of grammar and usage, and I’ve had good feedback from friends who have read some of my writing. I’m also the kind of person who gets worked up over "definately" and pronouns without antecedents, so I think I would do well as an editor or proofreader.

However, I have absolutely no "real" experience in writing or editing – nothing that I would feel confident listing on a resume. The best I have, sadly, are intermittent blog entries. This lack of experience has proven to be my downfall: a while back, a friend recommended me for an editorial assistant position; though I interviewed well, it was obvious they were looking for someone with writing experience already on their resume, and the job ultimately went to someone with an English degree. Bascially, I’ve run into the classic the-chicken-or-the-egg employment paradox.

I’d appreciate any practical suggestions you may have, both on types of jobs that might get me started down this path, and on things I can do to develop my writing, particularly if they’ll look good to a potential employer (or publisher, should I choose that route). I know next to nothing about careers in writing—even previous AskMes on similar subjects are a bit over my head—so no advice is too obvious for me.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Metroid Baby to Work & Money (12 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
"It's easy to sit there and say you'd like to have more money. And I guess that's what I like about it. It's easy." -Jack Handey

Similarly, it's easy to want to be a writer. I've given the eulogy for a friend who still thought he had time to become an author.

Luckily, it's also surprisingly easy to become an author. The first thing you do is sell a piece of writing. No, don't write something first, sell the piece before you write it. Honest. Look up the standard formats for article and book proposals, follow the form scrupulously, and be prepared to send the same proposal to a number of publishers (or conversely, a number of different proposals to the same publisher). When your proposal is picked up, you no longer have the option of not writing. Ta-da! And when you finish writing, you ship it to the publisher, and you're An Author.

There's tons of "writers" in the world. They often join peer groups, and creative writing groups, and submit their "works in progress" amongst themselves. They're earnest. They want it so bad they can taste it. They struggle and rewrite and outline and diagram and brainstorm and...

There are many fewer "authors". Authors are the lazy bastards who sell the work before they create it. Authors have pen names because they realize it's a dirty job. Yes, I'm an author.

Wanting to be a writer because of a solid grasp of usage and grammar is like wanting to be a talker because of a solid grasp of pronunciation and diction. A writer of what? You can write about anything in the world, or out of it. Pick something. Do it. Now.

(The above is said with the kindest of intentions. Wanting to write is easy. If someone hadn't kicked me in the pants a long time ago, I'd still "want to write". Now I no longer "want to write." :) )
posted by lothar at 5:00 PM on February 29, 2008 [9 favorites]

I used to want to write when I was in high school and I'd tell people this a lot. At some point some family friend asked me what I'd been writing lately and I was sort of like "eh, who has time" and he gave me some short and sweet lecture about priorities and if I wanted to be a writer, write. Now, i sometimes write for pay and I find it a little challenging and maybe not exactly what I want to do lifewise, but I did get my foot in the door decently and may have some advice for you.

1. Write. You're doing this with your blog, try to branch out with some stuff that will get you into "print" whether print is actual paper or just for some more well-known blog. Think about what your interest areas are or what your writing specialty is. Pitch short articles or fill-in stuff for publications. Start small, work on an office newsletter or something for a local organization you're involved with. For many of those places who want to get the word out but just don't have time to put pen to paper, so to speak, you're not just offering them writing, you're offering them TIME and that's very valuable. My mom, for example, does a newsletter for a local restaurant and they, in return, give her gift certificates to eat there. However she's also got a lot of stuff in print in the newsletter. Decent trade.

2. Network. Networking doesn't have to be a dirty word. Hang out with people who write or who work with wtiters and see what they do. Ask questions. Be interested and interesting. Mention that you've been trying to move into more writing-related work, see if they know any small projects you could maybe do at the same time as your current job. Self promote without being a pain about it. Be friendly Give people a reason to remember you "Oh Metroid Baby says they always go to the openings of new BBQ joints and we need someone to review Pigger McGee's... mabe we should drop them a line..."

3. Develop content. However you can. Think of everything you do from now to a writing job directed towards getting things you can show people who ask you "What writing experience do you have?" Find ways to turn things into professional level pieces. Volunteer to do things and save samples. Find professional level things in your field and pitch articles to them. In my line of work, libraryland, there are a zillion magazines, newsletters, encyclopedias and other opportunities for writing things down. Figure out what that is in your niche and figure that the first stuff you're going to write is more proof-of-concept [I believe you can write, but you may have to prove it to someone else] and so it may otherwise be a little dull or run of the mill. Look on Craigslist for local writing stuff, or ask around people that you know.

About all, believe in yourself and be positive. I know it may seem like a weird bind, not being able to get experience until you HAVE experience, but it usually just takes one lucky break to get the rest of it flowing smoothly. In the meantime, your project for you is to keep saying that you can do it and be ready for the opportunity when it strikes. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 5:02 PM on February 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

You indicate writing potato chip bag blurbs and frothy things for a catalog. That, my dear, is being a copy writer. Why don't you prepare a portfolio of "fake" copy pieces. Produce 8-12 pieces that you write about either an existing product or a fake product to give employers a taste of what your style is like. Really study copy (advertising) and notice how long it is, what words seem to convey the brand in an appealing way, what doesn't work. What makes you keep reading? Grammar doesn't seem to be vital necessarily, as the whole Got Milk campaign proves. It is a branch of advertising so why not try and network from your existing advertising related job and find out how those people get jobs?
posted by 45moore45 at 5:10 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Learn to write grant proposals and reinvent yourself as a kickass grant writer. Take as many classes and workshops on grant writing as possible and get an office type job where you will have an opportunity to help write grant proposals (non-profits are ideal for this). Keep track of the grants you have helped your organization receive. After you've gotten some experience and successes, start looking for grant writing positions or for jobs that require that skill.

If you can learn to write great, successful grant proposals, you'll have potential employers fighting over you.
posted by pluckysparrow at 5:35 PM on February 29, 2008

So, if copy is your deal 45moore45 is right. Start with the Copy Workshop Workbook (It's awesome and full of exercises that will help you build a portfolio. A class at a portfolio school might also help.

Now, I've been a copywriter and taught it, and ad copywriting is fairly difficult to get into compared to content writing, technical writing, etc. so think about how you want to write and why. Do you want to write "fun" stuff and focus on the idea (advertising). Or are you content to just make stupid stuff sound good (marcomm and tech writing)?

I've hired a ton of people based on a few samples from creative hotlist (a creative job website), aquent, and from postings I've made for freelance writers on craigslist. Many of them even had day jobs, but I didn't care as long as they made their deadlines. And, of course, if they were good, I'd use them again. And they'd have real samples they could use to get more work.

Also, do informational interviews with people. You might get valuable information but most importantly, you'll network (as much as that sucks).

There are tons of writing jobs for someone who is good at it, and once you prove you're good at it, no one cares about your degree. Good luck!
posted by Gucky at 6:44 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who had a job for a few years as an editor at a university press, it's tough to get in the door as far as that type of job is concerned. As you lamented, the lack of resume-worthy experience will bar you from consideration at most places. So, how to get that experience? There are a few programs in the US that offer editing courses. I am most familiar with those at the University of Chicago: their Graham School of General Studies (an extension program) offers a certificate program in editing, and another in medical editing and writing. From your profile, it appears that you are in Chicago; however, some of their courses are presented in long-weekend--type formats that allow for out-of-towners to complete the program over the course of a few weekends out of the year. Evidence of this type of training would definitely set your resume apart from those who have no experience whatsoever.

With said experience, or perhaps even without (if you're willing to try): many university presses are too small to retain many in-house editors. As such, they rely largely on freelance editors to tackle the bulk of their work. Following an inquiry into freelance opportunities (don't be afraid of an unsolicited inquiry), many will follow up with an editing test for you to complete, to gauge your abilities and/or potential. Although some might balk at someone with no prior experience, I'd guess that they'd have little to lose by seeing what you can do -- especially given that (as far as I know) you can't major in editing in undergrad, and you might have the natural skills they could use. If they like what they see, they'll give you a project. Wash, rinse, repeat -- editing experience and a name for yourself.

Perhaps the best thing you could do for yourself at this point (and, likely, the cheapest -- the U of C courses are pricey!) would be to obtain one or a few style guides: the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, and AMA to name a few. Then, actually read them through. Most people who think they can edit but who haven't really done so might be surprised to find that their usage skills are not consistent. Practice by editing different pieces you find according to these style guides, and your skill will develop. Most editing tests look for consistency over anything else, as house styles differ and you'll likely have to learn them as you go along from job to job.

Good luck!
posted by penchant at 6:54 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

The world is full of people who would like to have written.

Writers write. That's what they do. They can't help it. If you've managed to get through your life so far without actually writing anything, chances are you aren't a writer.

Sorry. It's the truth. If you're actually a writer you'll prove me wrong.

Until you've written 'THE END' on something you care about you aren't a writer.
posted by unSane at 8:55 PM on February 29, 2008

It looks like you're near Chicago - have you ever heard of 826Chi? They are a nonprofit group dedicated to improving writing skills in school-aged children but they also offer programs and workshops for adults. They are always looking for volunteers to tutor kids in writing and to get out their publications. I was an intern at the San Francisco branch this fall and I loved every minute of it. Not only was I able to add the experience to my resume, but it rekindled my long-dormant passion for writing and I made some good connections.
posted by easy_being_green at 11:18 PM on February 29, 2008

I am so very much in your shoes, its not even funny. I've been in the working world slowly going insane for a while, although I recently found a project that's really inspired me so I've found both brief respite from my aching desire to get out of corporate work and get into writing, as well as further inspiration to actually write. So, take everything I say with the very large grain of salt that I have not moved through the entire process of actually becoming a writer yet, but I damn well plan to get there.

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment. - Hart Crane

I think this is perhaps one of the most important aspects of becoming anything approaching a half-decent writer: you have to read. A TON. Read the kind of stuff that you'd like to write yourself, but read other stuff too. Read the news. Read the internet. Read the classics. Read anything you can get your hands on. The more you read, the more you'll be drenched in words and able to write well. Get familiar with words.

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. - Thomas Mann

Another important thing is to manage your expectations. Just because you want to write doesn't mean its going to be easy. I've had a lot of times where I really felt as if I was forcing myself to write, and even more where I just didn't even have the motivation to force anything out, and nothing got written. I'm still struggling with figuring this problem out, but the underlying point is that its OK to struggle with writing - struggling doesn't mean that you're not a writer. Another writer once said that writing is easy - you just stare at the piece of paper until drops of blood start to form on your forehead. Hah.

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. - William Wordsworth

Keep in mind that the person to write for is yourself. Tell the story that you most desperately want to read. - Susan Isaacs

This has been an important lesson I've only picked up recently, which makes me feel pretty stupid, but that is what it is. You should write things that you enjoy reading. The best stuff I've written (based on what other people have said), is stuff that I really enjoy going back over, re-reading, thinking about how I could have written it better, etc..

No man should ever publish a book until he has first read it to a woman. - Van Wyck Brooks

This one is pretty self explanatory. And he's serious, and he's right.

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it. - Ernest Hemingway

Critique your own stuff pretty hard before you put it out for anyone else to see. Re-read it and edit as necessary. I think anyone who knows even a bit about writing can tell what crap writing is. Don't think you're above producing crap. Check yourself often.

You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success - but only if you persist. – Isaac Asimov

One last thought - your blog is important - try to write there more often, but definitely try to write here on Metafilter too - its a great informal tool for doing so. I read the blue and try to make useful, constructive comments that add something relevant to the topic at hand. It takes a while, but sooner or later a topic will come around that you have some particular experience or related story to share - so do just that. If you write something worthwhile, I can promise you that the affirmation from the community here will be hugely encouraging and will make you want to write more.

There's a few really great writers on this site that do just that, and I am a huge fan of them - find those people here who write great stuff, and follow what they write. Emulate as necessary. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:41 AM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's Robert Heinlein's five rules about writing:
1 - Write
2 - Finish What You Write
3 - Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
4 - Put Your Story on the Market
5 - Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

Canadian sf writer Robert Sawyer adds this one:
6 - Start Working on Something Else
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 3:37 PM on March 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

A good way to get a portfolio is to volunteer at a non-profit. Offer to write press releases, copy for mailers and brochures, etc.

One job you could look for would be at a small newspaper who needs people who can wear many hats. Preferably in the department that designs ads for advertisers, so you could write copy. The more they get to know you, the more opportunity there will be to write articles and get editing experience. If it's a really small rag, offer to do write for low pay or for trade (I've done stuff for a nice steak dinner) so you can add to your portfolio.

Look for small radio stations as well, they need people to write scripts for ads.

Consider web content as well.

My husband has taken the copywriting course offered by AWAI and he liked it a lot. More info and ideas here on how to create a career as a writer.

From now on, any time you write something, whether for yourself or for pay, print a copy and put it in a sleeve in a binder. Having a hard copy in front of you will give you confidence.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:59 PM on March 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I hear you. I also recently realized that I would like writing to be a much bigger part of my life, even my career if possible. I've been doing some freelance writing on classical music (my field) for a few years, first for a small local newspaper, then for a much better area paper. Now I'm also getting to do a little writing at my job: I've talked people into letting me write program notes for a couple of concerts and articles for a biannual publication. I've become a go-to person for proofreading, because I've shown people that I have a sharp eye.

So my advice is: use what you currently have. You're working in advertising? Ask if you can spend a couple hours a week assisting or apprenticing to the people that write the text. Mention to as many co-workers as possible that you're looking to do some writing, you have this blog (which, I agree, you should contribute to daily), and it would be great to incorporate more writing into your current job. See if there are any job openings within the company that involve more writing. If your current position has enough leeway, and people involved in writing seem really busy, offer to help out. They might love the help, and you might get a chance to prove yourself.
posted by bassjump at 2:02 PM on March 2, 2008

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