Everything I Should Have Learned in College About Professional Writing

A writer's work is never done.I was going to cite a whole bunch of employment statistics—ones that show how having the right college degree helps you get a job—but instead, I am going to lay the truth down as per my personal experience: in terms of finding full-time, gainful employment, having a humanities degree today is roughly akin to having no degree at all.

Since graduating in 2007 with my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing I have spent the majority of my working life in customer service, save the last few years in which I’ve been fortunate enough to get paid to write things. I worked as the marketing guy for a local club for a while, but even that averaged out to around $9 per hour when all was said and done—a little less than I would later make at a jewelry repair store in the mall. I was overqualified (I was told) for most office jobs and underqualified (I was usually ignored) for anything entry-level. Go figure.

On top of that—though I have to admit that my tenure in a top writing program most certainly made me a better writer—once I left school for the rat race, diploma in-hand, I was no more prepared to become a professional writer than I had been after graduating high school. I had a degree in the subject, sure, but I still I had no idea what a query letter was, let alone how to write one, and that, it turned out, was Pro-Writing 101. I didn’t hear anything about agents, or publishing books, or writing magazine articles, or how to talk to editors or submit to journals until after I graduated, and most of this I did online with the help of blogs like this one. But I did read a lot in school. And I wrote a lot. And I learned how to take criticism. Most of that stuff you can do in any ol’ workshop for much less than the cost of college tuition, and any one of those workshops is sure to tear your work apart all the same. Yes, having award-winning writers as your discussion leaders does have its perks, but for the vast majority of us humanities grads (myself included) it never translated to a single byline.

What nobody likes to talk about when they are trying to sell you a site membership, a book, or enrollment in a class promising instant six-figure success in your freelance writing career is how much work it’s going to take you to get there. They’ll tell you over and over how few of your classmates will become actual professional writers as well as how difficult it is to break into the industry and how the odds are stacked so very high against you, but none of my professors ever told me anything about how much labor was involved in writing professionally. We’re talking nerve-frying, eye-drying, staring-at-a-screen-so-long-you-want-to-puke work. You’ll send in more queries than you thought you could ever write only to have 99 percent of them rejected at first. Then what do you do? You come up with more ideas, send in more queries, reach out to more publications, and keep on slinging it ‘til it sticks. Eventually the rejections are fewer, the work is more, and maybe—if you’re lucky—clients will even start seeking you out for projects. Finish a book-length manuscript or a piece of short fiction in your “spare” time and it’s back to the world’s slowest races with the world’s most obtuse learning curve (Still working on breaking into that side of publishing myself).

Everyone’s backup dream plan seems to be to write something—someday, down the road, once life settles down a bit. But the ones that actually sit down and do it—and then do it again, and again, and again—are the ones collecting the paychecks. And some, as you know, are pretty well-paid.

There is no easy path to writing success that I have found. The road to regular publication—and therefore, regular paychecks—is a strenuous one, though it is littered with intangible treasures if you know where to look. How else are you going to find an excuse to talk one-on-one with your childhood heroes? or that politician for whom you actually had a few questions? or the rockstar who wrote that song you love—the one with the lyrics you never could quite understand. You know the one. How else are you ever going to make a living doing what you love except by throwing yourself headlong into doing it?

I pulled this from a list of Joss Whedon quotes compiled by my editor at MentalFloss.com. She apparently got it from a Hulu Q&A. Don’t worry—you don’t have to be a Buffy fan to get the meaning behind it, and whether you like it or not, Whedon is one of those guys collecting the checks:

“If you have a good idea, get it out there. For every idea I’ve realized, I have ten I sat on for a decade till someone else did it first. Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”

Summation: give your passion whatever you’ve got, then give it a little bit more. Make it a point to surprise yourself and inevitably you will. If I owe nothing else to my college education, it’s the fact that during those four years of workshops I was forced to “MAKE” over and over again, often reluctantly (some things never change). Everything after that was details, each one meticulously honed through a seemingly endless phase of trials-and-errors. I’m still erring from time to time, yeah, but now I’m publishing, too.

If I had to do it over, I would study journalism or marketing or engineering—one of those subjects that actually prepares you for a real-life job. The writing—the “MAKING”— would have come all the same; it was, after all, something I considered a pleasurable hobby long before it paid any of my bills.

Though it may sound like commonsense, all of this took me seven years on top of college to figure out. You just got it tuition-free in about five minutes.

Happy making.

How did you break into the world of professional writing? Do you have a story about something you tried that DIDN’T work for you the first time? I’d love to hear about it—comment below or email me at info@craigsbaker.com.

3 thoughts on “Everything I Should Have Learned in College About Professional Writing

  1. I hear you, Craig. I wish I had ‘maked’ when I was younger. My priorities lay elsewhere and I regret the lost time. BUT it’s never too late so I’m chugging along now, older and wiser 😉 I hope your post and other similar advice gets to the right people in good time and gets them going!

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