As you know too well, most high schools don’t offer much “creative writing.” In fact, most schools offer one or two courses in fiction- and poetry-writing. And that’s it. I don’t think my high school offered any. There are a lot of historical and political reasons that explain why high schools are so backward, but we don’t need to get into that here and now. Suffice it to say that it’s frustrating, especially when parents and many teachers think learning to write poetry or stories or plays is no more important than learning to decoupage or do bird calls.
No doubt, as you survey the prospects for college, parents and other well-meaning authorities are advising you to “be practical” and consider a major in business or science. Understand that, as calm as they may appear, they are freaked out about your future. In a word, they are scared. Shitless. Bless them for showing such love. But don’t listen to them if they are telling you to do or be something you know will make you miserable. They may be paying the bills now, but you’re the one who will be living your life — for a very long time, if you’re lucky. So nod your head, say, “That’s interesting. I’ll give that some thought. Thank you.” Then follow the fire you have started for yourself.
For the really bad cases: I’ve met students in college who had to pursue the majors that their parents chose for them. Some of these students were clearly miserable, others were simply resigned to their fates. In any case, they were unhappy and felt they had no choice. Actually, you do have a choice. If you are being coerced into pursuing something you don’t care about, don’t go to college. There it is. I said it: just don’t go.
Yeah, I know, that’s easy for me to say because, yes, I had it easy — my parents let me go free and clear. But consider this: if you can’t go on your own terms, then, after graduating from high school, enter the job-force, save your money, apply for financial aid, win a scholarship — do whatever you have to do to make it happen. You’ll be a better person for it. (You’ll probably get a pretty decent job if you tell prospective employers you’re saving for college.) Your parents may reconsider. And then when you do go to college, you’ll kick ass because you’ll really want to be there.
What if you aren’t sure about college right now? For most reasonably bright people, college is a pretty good idea. However, that doesn’t mean you have to go right after high school graduation. Probably a third of the students who go on to college should not; instead they should go out, get a job, and grow up. If you’re not sure, don’t go right now. Do volunteer work for a year; learn a trade; write a novel.
Okay, back to the point: we’re talking about how to prep yourself for writing in college. Your primary challenge right now is to get writing experience — as much as you can and in as many areas as you can explore. For example, write for your school newspaper; write for your school literary magazine. If you don’t have a magazine, start one. (That will look impressive on your college application.) See if you can also get some editing experience by working on a school publication.
Does your school have a newsletter? If not, see if you can start one. Learn the fundamental software programs that professional writers know (In-Design and Photoshop) so that you can create professional-looking newsletters and publications. Familiarity with these programs will allow you to diversify where and how you can promote, display or exercise your writing. Does your high school have a literary website? If not, how about starting one?
Even if you’re in the most miserable high school in the obscurest corner of the country, you can probably find a half-interested faculty member to serve as an Advisor and a handful of students to construct and staff some kind of publication project, whether a website, newsletter, or magazine. College Admissions officers are impressed by high school students who show this kind of enterprise (“leadership,” they call it), who make things happen, who are clearly driven by a passion–in your case a passion to write. So now’s the time. I mean today; I mean pick up the cell and dial somebody now to get something started. N-O-W!
In addition to your writing and editing and production of cool stuff, you should be doing lots of reading. Not school reading. I mean real reading of stuff you think is good writing. Read during your winter break, during your summer recess, during your free time. If you don’t know what to read, start browsing through book reviews. There are lots of them online. Try Bookslut.com, for instance, or RAINTAXI.com. Or go to New Pages and check out the scene — find out what others are saying about good writing. See if you agree.
A few words about the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). Standardized tests like the SAT measure the dominant culture’s notion of “standard” knowledge. As it happens, our dominant culture has chosen the Educational Testing Service to construct the SAT. Who are these people who have made a career of constructing tests? They are “educators” who know all about standard procedures for standardizing questions about all manner of educational standards. Am I making fun of them? Yes, I am. Does this mean you shouldn’t take the SAT seriously? No, it doesn’t. If you want to do well in the academic game, you have to study the rules of the game. And study them carefully.
If there’s one trick to playing the game, it is this: test-makers will give you a box in which to think. The box will be a certain length and a certain width. If you try to think longer than that certain length or wider than that certain width, you will be wrong. Forget what may be debatable or reasonable in other circumstances or other contexts or other boxes. Test-makers give you only one box. Learn how to recognize that box. Learn how to work inside that box. Don’t second-guess the test-makers’ box-logic.
What does this mean? Study the test. Study the test. Study the test. Buy the test books or find the test sites and samples online, then take a sample test, then study to strengthen your weakest skills. Study a little bit each day. Then take another sample test. Time yourself. Find out how long approximately you can take for each answer. Then study some more. Drill yourself. Take another sample test. Keep doing this until taking the test is second-nature–until it’s as routine as doing jumping jacks. You are in training.
In recent years, colleges and universities have made the SAT and ACT optional. About time, I say. They’ve had to do this not because they believe it’s best for students but because the market has grown more competitive and offing the knucle-chewing entrance exams is a good way to recruit students.
If you’re a high school student who likes to write, then you’re lucky because you’ve got a lot of choices that people like me never had: there are now a lot of writing programs and a few writing departments in colleges. This didn’t used to be the case. Traditionally writing has always been the poor cousin of English, and many English departments all but starved it (picture a rag-clad cousin shivering in the attic). This is still the case in many colleges, where English departments offer only a handful of writing courses.
If you’re really hot for writing, go to a school that puts a lot of emphasis on it. I teach at a college that has an entire Writing Department, which offers two kinds of writing majors, supports two student-run literary magazines, and sponsors a reading series that brings nationally and internationally famous writers to campus to visit our classes and to read their work. It’s a really cool thing.
If you don’t know how to find out where the writing programs and writing departments are, then go to the AWP website and look at is Official Guide to Writing Programs. “AWP” = Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Click here for the link.
You may think that in order to get a great degree you need to go to a Big Name college. It depends what you mean by “great degree.” It’s true that if you go to Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, most people will be impressed. However, it’s not a forgone conclusion that such schools are right for you or that they will offer you the education you need. I myself am a big booster of state universities because they are affordable, diverse, and big enough to offer lots of opportunity.
You will find more than one excellent teacher at any school, and a truly motivated student can get a really good education even out of a mediocre state university. So don’t let the Big-Names and big price-tags distract you. After you graduate, the most important consideration will be your performance–how you do on the job-not the name of your college.
It is true that, immediately after graduation, the name of your college can help you network and find a job. It is true, too, that those networks vary according to the reach of the college. Some colleges, for example, are known regionally; others are known nationally. But the value of the network also depends on the kind of career you plan to pursue.
As a writer and a college professor, I have never — ever — benefited from the network available to me through my undergraduate university, even though it is a large state university with a national reputation. Never. Which brings me to an important point: your choice of undergraduate institution isn’t nearly as important as your choice of a graduate institution. (See below.)
So, find the college where you can pursue the kinds of studies that most light your fire and don’t worry about the college’s name or rep. Does it have good teachers? Will they give you the time and attention you think you need? Do they offer the kinds of courses you think you’d like?
Getting on in life, like getting a job, is matter of packaging yourself. You start constructing that package in college, specifically through the courses you take. The question you need to ask yourself is, Does this collection of courses make sense somehow?
First, as a writing major or specialist, you should take as many writing courses as you can. All kinds of writing courses. You may decide where you want to focus your writing: fiction? drama? poetry? essays? rhetoric? And then take every course in that area. But the main thing, at this point, is to get experience writing different kinds of texts. That kind of versatility will give you many more options as you (later) refine your areas of interest.
You should know that courses in most departments rotate, meaning you can’t get access to everything every year. It’d be a good idea to plot out the courses you hope to take over the next four years, then find out whether or not those courses are going to be offered when you think you’ll need them. Also, when plotting your selection of courses, consider which courses in other departments would be most beneficial for your major. I found several semesters of Latin and French to be helpful as an undergrad because, in my reading of literary classics, I kept running across all of these Latin and French words. Generally speaking, the more foreign language you take, the better because we writers need all the textual and lingual exercise we can get.
All writers nowadays — and the bulk of writerly activity — can be found on the internet. This means that you should know how to use the internet really well. In college, you can take a course that teaches you how to build a website, for example: all writers need a website. You should also take a course in how to use InDesign and/or other typesetting and book-making software because you may want to edit and publish your own books. Or you may want to become a publisher of other people’s writing.
Keep in mind that, in the workplace, writers are often responsible not only for writing but also for laying out and producing newsletters, web pages, brochures, press releases, pamphlets, fliers, and books. The more you know about software programs — especially the Adobe Creative Suite — the more marketable you will be.
Most colleges have really good computer facilities, plus courses and tutorials to help you learn the programs. Take advantage. At the very least, get comfortable with these three programs: Photoshop, InDesign, and Dreamweaver. This kind of preparation will put you six months ahead of those job-seekers who don’t have this knowledge.
Further, you should seek out experience as an editor on your campus’s literary magazine. Try writing articles for your school’s newspaper. In other words: your college career offers tremendous opportunities for you to develop your versatility and expertise as a writer.
It is up to you to consult with your adviser–early and often–to see when these courses and which of them are offered. If your adviser doesn’t know, then ask him/her to find out. Don’t wait for somebody to say, Hey, do you need advice? Take possession of your academic career! You get only one undergraduate education, make the best of it. Keep in mind that your advisor doesn’t have to be your primary mentor. For advice on all matters, consult the teacher you’re most comfortable with and, even then, seek out the advice of other professors–the more information you have, the more options you can consider.
These are good ideas, especially if you are determined to go on to grad school. Usually you have to plan your course-work well in advance to accommodate such projects. And usually you need the department chair’s permission as well. So check it out now: I mean right now.
Believe it or not, your first employer after college will not give a flying rat’s ass about your GPA. Nobody will ask. Nobody will care (unless you’re going to grad school). I know, I know, you find this absolutely unbelievable. And you know why? Because you have been brain-washed, my bookish birdy. Brainwashed by years of parental brow-beating and teacherly guilt-tripping and societal mind-knuckling. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make good grades; I’m just saying that, once you’re out of college, your grades won’t mean diddly. Not even one did of a diddle.
Why? you ask with a gasp. I’ll tell you: what matters outside in the so-called Real World is what you can do, not what you can promise. To tell a prospective employer that your GPA was 4.0 doesn’t tell your employer anything except that you knew how to play the school game well. It doesn’t guarantee that you will make the company a million bucks or that you won’t lose their best client. It doesn’t guarantee anything, actually, except that if someone were to quiz you on, say, the American Civil War you might get the answers right.
That’s why you don’t have to put your GPA on your resume; that’s why almost no employer will ask about it.
Now, if you’re going to graduate school, grades matter, it’s true. Because grad schools, for obvious reasons, revere the school game. (We’ll get to grad schools shortly.)
So, my point is this: unless you’re planning to go to graduate school, stop fretting about grades. Spend your energy selecting the classes you think you’d really like —- not, dare I say it, the classes that will earn you a good GPA. And take the professors who will give you a really hard time so that you grow smarter and intellectually tougher. It should go without saying that I assume you’re smart, you’re motivated, and you can play the game well — i.e., that you will earn good grades no matter what.
Remember, as you orchestrate your academic career, be on the look-out for professors you really like to work with and who really respect you. You’ll want to find at least two of these and take at least two courses from each. That way, these professors will be able to write you credible letters of recommendation for your job file or for graduate school. If you do not earn an “A” from these people but you think you have made a good impression on them, be sure to ask them if they feel they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. (For more on letters, see below.)
What about an internship? Get one. If your college doesn’t have an office that handles student internships, then ask your professors about it. Then call local businesses — a publisher, a magazine, a newspaper — and ask if they have an internship program. If they require that you get college credit for an internship (and your college doesn’t have an internship program), then arrange to take it as an independent study, overseen by a professor who supports your ambitions.
Extra Credit You want to get ahead? be smarter? discover more options for your creativity? bring more ideas to your writing? Start your own private course of study. Find an author you really want to learn more about, or a kind of writing you want to explore. Ask your teacher for a list of suggested reading that you can pursue during your summer and/or free time. What free time? You can make time when you need to make time. Yeah, something has to give, so give it up: your head-work is Priority One
At this very minute, as you read this sentence, there are lots (hundreds) of young, talented writers in America who have published lots of essays, stories, and poems in respectable magazines and have earned their M.F.A.s from respectable, even famous, writing programs and are now looking for full-time employment as college professors. These are smart, capable people, many of them with one or more books published by major presses. And yet they cannot find a steady college gig. Why?
Here’s the simple answer: graduate programs have done their work very well and flooded the market with smart, accomplished writers who are now looking to do what their teachers did, teach writing in college. As a result, the competition is fierce. In many cases, perhaps most, you can’t even get an interview for a full-time college teaching job unless you’ve published one book or more.
Here’s the complicated answer: I know of no graduate writing program that claims it credentials its graduates to teach at the college level. The M.F.A. is not a teaching degree; it is an arts degree. More, specifically, it’s a studio-arts degree that promises only to allow students time enough — in the studio — to hone their craft.
It just so happens that, in order to make their programs more affordable, graduate schools across the country give tuition remission to those students who agree to work as slaves in the classroom. These slaves are called Teaching Assistants. They labor for less than minimum wage, often with minimal support and no training, so that the School can operate in the black — and, not coincidentally, allow its talented, senior faculty to teach fewer courses.
Although the TA scam has been exposed and excoriated for years now, it remains well entrenched for a number of socio-political reasons we don’t need to flog at present. Suffice it to say that, if you get financial “support” as a graduate student, you will most likely be assigned to teach a couple of lower-division classes to unsuspecting teenagers who think their good money has supplied them with a wise and seasoned professor.
Chances are that you will have no idea where to begin as a teacher, you will spend many sleepless nights fretting about your own incompetence, and, oddly, it will not occur to you to blame the School itself for this painful situation. On the contrary, you’ll probably blame yourself because the School, and America culture, has led you to believe that teaching should be easy and natural, like . . . jumping into a vat of boiling oil?
My point is this: it will take more than an M.F.A. and a few semesters of college teaching to make most of us into college professors. For starters, if you want to become a college professor, you should consider getting a Ph.D. It’s the only degree the Academy truly respects. I know, I know, all of us PC-minded academics support the M.F.A. as a legitimate and respected terminal degree (see below for explanation of terminology) and, I hasten to add, in my own department we fully support the hiring and tenuring of writers who have only the M.F.A.
Nonetheless, I refuse to Stevie Sunshine you about this issue. The Academy (what regular folks call “college”) is one of the most conservative forces you will ever encounter: the professorate loves its Ph.D.s and only grudgingly acknowledges the legitimacy of the M.F.A. or, for that matter, the arts of any kind (with the exception of the “liberal arts,” which to their mind isn’t the same thing at all).
So there you have it: the M.F.A. will not automatically make you a teacher, much less a professor. Nonetheless, the M.F.A. (or the M.A.) will allow you to teach at the college level as an adjunct if you so choose. An “adjunct” is a part-time college instructor who, like the TA, works for slave wages and is generally treated poorly. In some schools adjuncts have no offices or are crowded into an office with several other adjuncts (not all at the same time, we hope). Usually adjuncts have no say in departmental matters and, in the worst cases, they are like ghosts: seldom seen, if at all.
Even if you get a Ph.D., you will find the going tough if you want to become a college professor. The job market has never been more competitive. Applications for positions in English departments (where most writing programs reside) have never been more numerous, sometimes as many as 200-300 for a single opening in literature. An opening in Writing may attract as many as 200 applicants—even for part-time positions.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to graduate school. I’m saying only this: you shouldn’t go to graduate school with the expectation that your degree will win you a teaching job.
M.A. (Masters of Arts) in English, a 2-year program, an intermediate degree that serves as a stair-step to the Ph.D. and may, with transfer credits, cut about 2 years off your Ph.D. program if you choose to continue. The M.A. culminates in your writing an original thesis (50-100 pages) of literary criticism.
M.A. in English with a concentration in writing, a 2-3-year program that offers some workshops in writing (fiction, poetry, or nonfiction), may also fold over into a Ph.D.
M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts), 1-3-year program, with an emphasis on the arts (writing, in this case) instead of academics, though there will be some academic courses. This is a terminal degree, meaning there is no higher arts degree.
Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in English: traditional academic program in which you take many seminars, write lots of papers on interesting and not-so-interesting books, then come up with an original book of criticism yourself for your dissertation, which takes 1-3 years to write. Depending on the program, you will be tested on your proficiency in 1-3 foreign languages. Total schooling time involved: 5-7 years.
Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation: same as above, only you can write a novel or book of poems instead of a work of criticism.
Ph.D. in Creative Writing, a fairly new degree and is not as marketable as a traditional Ph.D. in literature because most traditional academics still believe that “creative writing” has no rigor and is better left as a hobby. This is old view changing, however, and there are several, very good programs that offer a Creative Writing Ph.D.
D.A. is a Doctorate of Arts, usually a teaching degree (focus on English) and sometimes it does not demand that you write a dissertation to graduate.
D. ED. is a Doctorate in Education, which is most common among people who wish to teach education (teach about teaching) at the college level.
D.ED.’s are also common among high-level administrators in public school systems (principles, supervisors, boards of education).
Nowadays, getting into a writing program (MFA in writing) is analogous to getting into medical school. Competition has never been tougher, mostly because, for the past 20 years, undergraduate programs have been producing ambitious and accomplished writers. But know this: traditionally, writers have never gone to grad school. This is a recent phenomenon. Before the MFA-program craze, writers simply did whatever they had to do in order to write.
Chances are, if you’re a fiction writer under the age of 22, you’re not ready for grad school. I certainly wasn’t at that age. Mainly because writing short stories demands the kind of sustained effort that only experience allows. The average age of fiction-writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the last time I checked, is 30. However, poets are often able to start their graduate career earlier, I have found.
There are always exceptions, of course. In any case, if you’re determined to go to graduate school, you need to decide when would be the better time: now or later. If now, then you’re going to learn a lot of things in grad school you could learned on your own, if given time. Grad school will serve as a boost to get you started. If later, you’ll be able to make more mature use of the instruction you’ll find and the experience will serve you more as a finishing school.
YOU SHOULD KNOW: graduate school works best for the most motivated student — those who have been pursuing their studies passionately, reading voraciously during their free time, seeking out advice and suggestions on further study from their teachers, and practicing their craft relentlessly. In short, grad school is not something you decide upon because you can’t think of anything better to do. If you think something magic is going to happen to you in graduate school, you’ll be wasting your time and money.
YOU SHOULD ALSO KNOW — at the risk of contradicting much of what I’ve just said — that graduate school in many ways is no big deal. I was scared shitless when I went because I’d been out of college for 8 years and I thought I’d be overwhelmed by the brilliance of my classmates. While some were indeed brilliant, most were just regular folk. Some smart regular folk, yes, but some surprisingly dim regular folk too. Now, mind you, I was 30 when I went to grad school, so I’d been around and I’d had time to think about what’s what. Still, if you’re fairly smart and motivated, you will do fine. And, chances are, you’ll be surprised to discover that the world is far from over-populated with brilliance.
Key points for making your application:
1) Apply to at least 3-5 programs in order to secure as several options. I applied to 7 myself and finally got the best deal at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you get an offer from more than one school, you can—very diplomatically—negotiate a better deal at the school you most prefer. In some respects, acceptance and rejection will seem like a lottery: some places will reject you out of hand, while others will be clamoring to get you.
2) Go where they really want you. Usually that means they give you financial support.
Support is as follows:
Call up the program to see how receptive it is: are they friendly there? does the director or someone with authority take time to answer your questions? You can tell whether or not you want to work with these people if, after receiving your application, they are eager to talk with you.
3) Talk to other people who have been to this program. Some of the big programs are nothing more than shark pools–blood and guts and in a swirl of feeding frenzy. Some of the smaller programs may have less prestige but they will take you more seriously and give you the kind of support and encouragement you may be seeking.
4) On the letter-of-recommendation form, where it asks you, “Do you waive the right to examine this document….,” say, yes, you waive that right. This indicates that you are not afraid of what your teachers may say about you. If you have any doubts as to what a teacher may say about you in such a letter, then you should not ask that person to write you a recommendation.
5) In your personal statement/essay, do not tell your prospective school that you hope to publish a novel or a book of poems some day. That is a given. Discuss, instead, the concerns and issues you like to explore in your writing; the writers who have influenced you (and why); and a current project you are undertaking. Have your teacher/mentor read over this to make suggestions for improvement.
6) Decide which schools you are most interested in by October of your senior year so that you can get the application forms and submit the letter-of-recommendation sheets to your professors no later than November.
No matter where you go, no matter what job you’ll apply for, you’re going to need letters of recommendation. Whether or not you’re going to use these letters soon, ask for them well before you graduate–usually the fall semester before you graduate: September is good. No later than November. Definitely not December. (For grad school, most letters are due in January-February.)
You ask for letters now because now your teachers can talk most specifically about your academic strengths and your character. We teachers deal with 70-100 students a semester. After a few semesters, how much do you think we can remember specifically about any one student, even one as memorable as you?
Get 3 letters. If you are not going to use them now, ask your teachers to keep them on file. Get letters from teachers you have worked with more than one semester and, we hope, teachers who think you’re really smart. If, so far, you have not worked with any professor more than once, make plans to do so!
Get 2 letters from teachers in your major and 1 from a teacher in any other field. At least one of these letters should address your particular area of expertise. Other letters will confirm that, generally, you’re an excellent student and a great person. The main thing a letter of recommendations conveys to a prospective employer is that you are a good bet. Keep in mind, that employers or grad schools invest a lot of time, energy, and money in a new employee (or student) and so they need as much reassurance and encouragement (to hire you) as you can give them.
In addition to asking for letters of recommendation, ask these same professors if you can list them as references on your resume. The resume is a “summing up” of your career. Also called a “curriculum vita” or “c.v.” (the “course” of your life), it should be brief, precise, and look very clean. One page is sufficient: 1) Name, address, phone number 2) education, 3) work experience, with a very brief list of your duties, 4) related experience (optional), such as work on the school newspaper, literary magazine, etc. You could include this under item 3. 5) skills, such as computer programs you’re familiar with (optional–you can mention these in your letter of application or in item 3), 6) hobbies/interests (optional: if the job calls for a more personal touch), and 7) references (offer 3, full addresses, with phone numbers–many employers simply phone them up instead of asking for a letter).
When writing a letter of application, you want to be as professional as possible, obviously. That means saying enough to make yourself sound good, but not so much that you sound either desperate or arrogant. Your challenge is to sculpt your qualifications into a nice fit for the job. Don’t simply catalogue your attributes. Pitch directly to the business you’re talking to: how would your qualifications make that business better? Be sure to offer specifics–examples help–to illustrate your qualifications. It is acceptable to enclose a sample of your work.
WHAT does the GRE measure? It’s pretty much like an advanced version of the SAT. There’s a Math section (basic algebra and geometry), a Verbal section (vocabulary and reading comprehension), and an Analytical section (a persuasive essay).The point of all this is to give the graduate school some numbers to judge you by. Always assume that numbers matter in grad school because America’s university system is just that—a system . . . that delights in medieval hierarchies and a Machiavellian scramble of desperate aspirants for limited resources. It’s not a place for the insecure or the weak-stomached.
HOW do you prepare for the GRE? Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t prepare for such tests. You can. Vocabulary drills, math exercises, anything will help. The best strategy is to go to the book store or library or online and pick up some test booklets. The same people who make directories of colleges and SAT prep books make GRE prep books based on past GRE exams. Take as many of these mock-tests as possible.
Familiarize yourself with the rhythm of the exam, with the logic of the questions, with the basics of the material. Study your weaknesses. And study daily, or at least every other day, two months before the exam. You will improve your score.
WHEN do I take such an exam? At the very latest, in the fall semester–October or December–of your senior year (if you’re planning to apply to grad schools for the following academic year). It takes at least 6 weeks for the GRE to send out your exam results. And many graduate school applications are due in January.
WHEN exactly are the exams given? Any time you like, you can go to Sylvan learning center or Kaplan testing center and take the GRE on computer. Double check with the GRE folks to make sure: Educational Testing Service, PO Box 6004, Princeton, NJ 08541-6004.
WHAT is the GRE subject exam? This is more or less the college equivalent of an advanced placement exam — it shows your expertise in the area of study you have selected. It’s kind of like Trivial Pursuits for the Lit. nerd. Study for it by reading those big fat lit. surveys, like Norton’s. Learn to recognize key writers by style and theme. (Alice Walker, for instance, isn’t going to be writing about white folk in a shopping mall.) Some, but not many, Masters degree programs demand that you take this exam before making your application. Most Ph.D. programs require it.
Going to grad school is no guarantee of anything. It won’t necessarily make you a better writer or even, for that matter, a better person. What’s more, plenty of graduate programs are poorly run — which means you could find yourself in a program that is designed mostly to make money or, just as bad, to make a “reputation.” And plenty of students go to graduate programs for the wrong reasons — which means you could find yourself in a workshop with a gang of yahoos who are mostly interested in posturing and gossiping. So, yeah, there are many reasons why you wouldn’t stay in such a situation or put yourself there to begin with.
Know this: graduate school for writing is a recent phenomenon. It’s only since the 1980s that M.F.A programs have proliferated. Ultimately, their benefit to young or “emerging” writers is debatable. Writers of previous generations had no formal writers’ workshop experience and certainly had no graduate degrees in writing. They created their own highly-individualized courses of study, read widely, practiced their craft for years (often in isolation), and, when they could, conversed with other writers and artists in order to stimulate their own ideas.
You can do this too.
For those of you who really want the workshop experience but don’t want the hassle of doing the whole grad-school thing (or want to bide your time before you make that kind of commitment), you could try a summer writers’ conference.
There are dozens of writers’ conferences (for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) every summer–you can find one in practically every state. Writers’ conferences usually last one or two weeks. They cost a fair amount (over $1000) in order to pay the heavy talent they bring in as teachers. The settings are casual, the students themselves range in age from 18-70, and the talent among these workshoppers may be as various, too, though you will always find at least one or two in every workshop who will be good company and good readers.
Every conference offers one or two scholarships to the most talented (and/or neediest) applicant. Also, many conferences have agents, editors, or publishers come for a visit to lecture and, sometimes, read the best manuscripts. Agents do visit the better conferences to pick up new talent.
Application to these conferences is “competitive,” though, for nearly all of them, you can get in if you’re willing to pay the fee and you’re a fairly competent writer (which you are) and you don’t apply at the last minute. To find out more about conferences, look in the AWP Guide to Writing Programs, which has a section in the back about conferences: link here. Check, also, for announcements in “Writer’s Digest” magazine, “AWP Chronicle,” and “Poets and Writers” magazine.
Of all the writers who have published two or more books of fiction or poetry, only 2% make a living at writing. In other words, trying to make a living writing novels or plays or poetry is like trying to make the NBA or the USA Olympic track team. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. It does mean, however, that most people who love to write novels, poems, plays and such do not write these things for a living. They do something else. I am a good case in point: I teach. Fortunately, I knew I wanted to teach well before I knew I wanted to write. So I got lucky.
You need to decide what kind of work would make you happy. As I discovered when I became a professional musician (for 6 years), making work of one’s passion is not always a good idea. Remember that many writers have held jobs that were quite alien to their private pursuit of writing (e.g., Hawthorne was a customs inspector, Wallace Stevens a banker). Remember, too, that if you really want to write, if you have an inexorable passion for writing, nothing will stand in your way — you will write, even if, like a friend of mine, you have to get up at 4:00 every morning, stumble into the cold garage, and pound out your dreams for an hour or two before shuffling off to work.
And what if you don’t write the great American novel? What if you don’t publish before you’re 30 or if you never publish at all? Will the mantle of the world crack? Will angels tumble from heaven? Will you be a failure? I, for one, won’t think less of you. Go easy on yourself. Remember, the nature of life is that it eats you up. Do what you have to do. Get married, if you must. Buy a couch, a car, have a kid or two or three. Above all, be happy with your life, with the choices you make. I became a professional musician, for instance, because I wanted to see if I could do it — it cost me a lot, took me farther from writing than I had anticipated, but I had to do it because I didn’t want to look back, years later, and say, “I should have tried that….”
Here’s what I’ve learned about experiments: your 20s are the prime time. If you can afford it — if you don’t have loans pursuing you, if you don’t have burdensome obligations, like a sick mother to support or a baby to raise — then take this time (your 20s) to experiment and explore. Work the kinds of jobs that stimulate you. Travel, if you feel travel would help you become the kind of person you strive to become. Don’t do an on-the-road-fear-and-loathing-in-Las-Vegas trip just because you think you should. Do what feel. Do a year volunteer work, if you feel this would be a good thing for both you and the people you would help. Before doing such work, however, talk to a few people who have tried this because, as with any experiment, you will benefit from the advice of others.
YOU SHOULD KNOW: Nobody really expects great things of you in your 20s. Mostly, parents and parental types will want you to “settle down,” get a good-paying job, because that would make them feel good. You will be sorely tempted to do just this. And it’s fine if you do. Maybe you’re eager to get married — as I was at 24. So get married, if you think that’s the answer. (It wasn’t for me.) Just keep in mind that nearly nobody will understand your need to write. At best, it will seem to your friends and family that you have a quaint hobby. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mate who will encourage you and offer emotional, if not financial, support. Eventually, though, most people will look at you with suspicion because, here in America, if you want to be taken seriously you have to be making money. “Creative” writing — stories, novels, poems, plays — rarely makes money.
By the time you approach 30, parental types and others, like your prospective spouse, will be haranguing you to get serious and get a career. If you want a decent car and a nice couch (i.e, one that doesn’t have mice living in it), you should take their advice. I myself went to graduate school when I was 30. That calmed everybody down right away. But it was another 7 years before I got a real job.
A HAPPY STORY: I knew a guy who, for twenty years, wrote short stories and novels and never had a single success. He had a Ph.D. in English and taught adjunct classes (for more on “adjunct,” see grad school), made a meager living, burned up a couple of marriages, and then, when he was 43, surprisingly, miraculously, he sold his novel. Sold it, ultimately, for $500,000. It changed his life, you can well imagine. He got a 3-book publishing deal, bought a new house, got a new wife, etc. Is he happy? I don’t know, I’ve lost track of him. But he did realize a big part of the writer’s dream — he joined the NBA of creative writing. And he did so because he never gave up. He pushed and pushed, worked, improved, revised….
That’s why I said earlier, if you insist on writing, you will write, no matter what. But if you don’t continue writing, that’s okay. Become a dedicated reader instead. Support those who continue to carry that dream. And you can dream of other things, like the tree house you’d like to build for your kids. It’s all good energy so long as you put it some place that does you good.
Once you’re out of college — whether as an undergrad or a grad student — you will find that it is difficult to meet people who share your interest in reading and writing. In fact, it’s downright unnerving to discover that most people don’t read anything except memos at work and snatches of newspaper. There’s simply no place in their lives for that kind of activity. Most people, we discover, are just trying to get by and it’s all they can do to slog through a muddy day of work, stumble home, pop something into the micro, zone a bit in front of the screen, then crawl off to sleep, only to start it all over the next day. That’s the American Way: drones to the hive. . . .
So the challenge is great because the Hive wants to make you a drone too. (Hear that buzzing in your head?) If you want to keep your mind alive and open to the siren song of writing, here are some suggestions and resources:
1) Involve yourself in writing groups & clubs at the local level, regional level, and national level. You can find like-minded people online — there are plenty of blog sites and literary chat communities that may give you some support. (Do a search for “writers’ groups” and lots of links will come up.) However, the ideal is to find a group of writers in your town — people you can meet with and exchange work with.
One way to meet other writers is to go to the readings in your town or community. Start with your local library — they are often bringing authors to the library to read and talk about their writing.
Also check out your local book stores: they, too, will have visiting writers who have come to town to share their work.
If you’re lucky, your town has an arts organization (like Baltimore’s Creative Alliance) or, better yet, a literary group (like Baltimore’s CityLit). Such organizations hold workshops and festivals that you could attend.
In any case, make this — attending literary arts events — central to your life. In doing so, you’ll be living like a writer, mingling with other writers, and starting to extend your writerly network.
2) Make Writing a Part of Your Daily Life: keep a journal or notebook that contains your observations, ideas, jottings, anything. I never know where my ideas are going to come from for a story or an essay. But I do know that I have to feed myself ideas constantly–that’s why I am reading constantly and reading anything and everything that catches my eye. And I’m using my notebook (or phone) to jot down ideas that I may or may not use. Don’t worry about how silly or stupid it may sound. Nobody’s going to see it but you. The idea is to start a writerly conversation with yourself, keep the fires of your thinking stoked.
YOU SHOULD KNOW: if you wait around till inspiration strikes or until somebody gives you something to write about, it isn’t going to happen. Like anything else, practice helps make you stronger. So put aside a little time every day — even if it’s as little as fifteen minutes — to write the thing you most enjoy writing. Even letters are helpful — anything that gives voice to your inner speech.
3) Read, Read, Read: If you have a passion for writing–whatever kind it may be–chances are you like to read. So organize your interest in a way that will help you prepare for the kind of writing you would like to do most. Start keeping a reading list of books, stories, essays, and writers you’d like to check into.
In whatever field you want to write, you’d do well to read some of the biggies in that field because others in your field will have read these and have learned from these people and will refer to them. College courses give you a taste of some of these major writers and trends. But not all. If you’re not sure where to start, getin the habit of coming through book reviews. You can subscribe to some mainstream reviews like the New York Times Book Review or The New York Review of Books and/or check out more independent reviews–there are hundreds online.
4) Write Reviews of Books You’ve Enjoyed Reading
Writing book reviews is a great way to practice your writing and to connect with other writers. For starters, you can post your reviews on Amazon and Good Reads and similar sites. You can also seek out blogs that welcome guest reviews.
Be sure to write only about books that you feel are worthy of attention. It’s too easy to slam books that were badly written. No need to contribute to online negativity. Promote only the books you really want to share with others.
5) Acquaint Yourself With a Variety of Publications to see what’s happening on the scene. This may include magazines that will introduce you to new writers, new techniques. But also may include information on contests, grants, and networks that could help you out.
Check out Newpages.com to see a large sample of magazines that publish creative writing. Or go to the library and check out all the print (hard-copy) publications they have — it’s a smorgasbord of options for you. Take an afternoon to sit there and read through a handful of these magazines. If you’re into journalistic essays, for instance, pick up the hybrid journalistic-literary publications. Find the magazine that appeals to you and support it. University libraries are a really good resource to check out–and they have tons of online stuff too. At the very least, spend an afternoon browsing the magazines at your best-stocked local book store.
The following list is not an endorsement, it’s simply an acknowledgement of the major outlets available to you. Most of this information is online now. Check out my resources page for more.
WRITER’S DIGEST and THE WRITERare both big-circulation monthly magazines that offer general how-to writing articles and updates on contests and prizes. Most book stores carry these.
POETS & WRITERS MAGAZINEis a six-times-yearly publication that profiles a wide range of American writers and discusses an equally wide range of issues and problems American writers face. Each issue features an extensive listing of contest and fellowship information.
AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) CHRONICLE a six-times-yearly publication that does pretty much what POETS & WRITERS does but offers also fairly in-depth articles on the latest issues and controversies on the writing scene, particularly as they apply to college and university writing programs. If you are planning to enter a writing program or want to know what’s going on at other writing programs across the country, this is the publication for you.
POETRY MAGAZINE and AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW are long-established magazines that feature new poems by both established and “emerging” talent, as well as reviews of poetry books and the poetry scene.
PLAYBILL is a long-established magazine on the theatre industry.
To find more speciality magazines, go to a well-stocked magazine section of your local book store: you’ll be surprised at the variety. Nowadays there is a niche magazine for just about every interest or pursuit. (See International Directory below.)
Subscribe to a literary journal either in their print or online versions–these are great for the latest in what’s happening in essays of every kinds, short stories, poems, and even plays and novel excerpts. They also have contests and articles on current trends in the writing world. They’re cheap too. YOU SHOULD KNOW: the majority of “literary” writing in America occurs here. There are over 500 literary magazines that publish stories, poems, and essays. The big magazines, the “slicks” like THE NEW YORKER and THE ATLANTIC, publish only one story and 2-3 poems per issue. There are only about 7-10 such magazines in America. Consequently, they are hardly representative of writing scene. The best print source for a complete listing of literary magazines is THE INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES AND SMALL PRESSES. See the resources page for more on this.
Catalogues, Guides, and Directories are a primary source to help acquaint you with your options in the literary world.
AWP GUIDE TO WRITING PROGRAMS explains all the basic info. about college and university writing programs throughout the U.S.A. Also it gives you addresses and application guidelines for Writers’ Colonies and Centers.
THE INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES AND SMALL PRESSESis the most extensive guide to literary magazines in the U.S.A. (well over 1000 to choose from!). This book tells you what kind of work each magazine publishes, how often it’s published, etc.
WRITERS’ MARKET (published by Writers’ Digest Books, at most book stores) offers descriptions of magazines and book publishers, submission guidelines, and how-to advice.
GRANTS AND AWARDS AVAILABLE TO AMERICAN WRITERS describes submission requirements for virtually all awards and grants offered to American writers (fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, children’s lit., nonfiction, and translations).
PEN/America Website of Grants and Awards
5) TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Grant: a gift of money that allows you to undertake or complete a writing project. A grant is usually given outright as a lump sum.
Fellowship: a term most often associated with academics, it entails a gift of support, like a grant, but often over a period of time, like an academic year. A fellowship may involve support in the form of room and board (instead of cash) for a week, a month, or a year, during which time you are free to write.
Scholarship: Almost exclusively an academic term to designante money given for support of study. Most writing conferences offer scholarships to a few talented applicants.
Writers’ Colony: this is a writing center that supports writers with room and board for short periods of time, ranging from a week to several months, so that the writers may work on their projects without distraction.
Writers’ Conference: a 2-4 week gathering of writers, usually during the summer. Accomplished writers run workshops for the participants and hold readings. A conference is a good opportunity to network and learn a lot in a short period.
Manuscript: any piece of writing, published or unpublished. Usually referring to a piece to be submitted.Ms. is the abbreviation; “mss.” is the plural.
SASE: self-addressed stamped envelope. This is what you include with any submission you make so that the people you’ve submitted to can send your work back to you. Otherwise you won’t hear from them
Those who make a living as professional writers, usually do so as versatile wordsmiths in business settings. Every business and organization in America (and the world) needs a writer. Therefore, if you enter the workplace with writing expertise and an ability to cooperate easily with others, you can make yourself invaluable to any business that hires you. You can double your chance of success if you have expertise in software programs like InDesign (for page layouts and typesetting) and Photoshop (for graphic manipulation). Here is a list of some possibilities for you to consider:
BOOK PUBLISHING: the traditional route for English/Writing majors interested in working with literature. The pay is low at all levels but the work can be gratifying. New York City is still the publishing capital of America, though there are opportunities in other cities as well. To get started in publishing, usually you take a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. Here are some of the positions you may seek in a publishing house:
An editorial assistant does everything from fetch coffee to read manuscripts (if lucky).
Reader: somebody who reads the “slush pile” (un-asked-for) manuscripts sent to the publisher, sends out rejections, and writes summaries of promising manuscripts to be sent to an editorial assistant or an assistant editor.
Assistant editor: more responsibility, may propose books to editor; may work some with writers, maybe only as a copy editor; most likely will do a lot of paper work.
Copy editor: proof-reads manuscripts and makes corrections; may also fact check.
Editor: solicits manuscripts from writers, reads manuscripts, pitches promising manuscripts to the editorial board for possible approval, then works with writer to complete publication of book.
Managing Editor: directs traffic flow of manuscripts and may oversee production; also reads and selects manuscript. This position is more usually found at magazines rather than book publishers.
Senior editor: more responsibility than an “editor”; might have his/her own imprint (branch of the publishing house).
Other positions in marketing, public relations, and distribution.
Link to article on being an editorial assistant
SMALL PRESS PUBLISHING: similar to the above but with many fewer books published and a much smaller budget. Small presses range from tiny, desktop operations in somebody’s basement to prestigious literary publishers, like Gray Wolf Press in Minneapolis, MN, who publish mostly established writers.
DESKTOP PUBLISHING: this is an old term for the new technology that has, pretty much, taken over the publishing industry. It refers to books and things being published via the computer. At its most crude, it is just pages spewed from the printer in your home office and the bound as a book.
At its most sophisticated, it’s using a computer to print “camera ready” text for publication. This includes creating the cover art also on the computer. Then this digitized master copy is printed off either as photocopies (essentially) or as plates that are inked on a traditional printing press.
The main thing you need to know about the desktop printing revolution is that NOTHING is typeset anymore. Computers have replaced the large, clunky machines that made metal type that stamped the page. This process —stamping the page with metal type — is called “letter press” printing and it’s now reserved for special-edition and art books mostly.
The great thing about the desktop publishing revolution is that ANYBODY can become a publisher because start-up costs are so low — you just need a decent computer and printer and the right software. That’s why, starting in the 1990s, every company in America began printing its own newsletters and fliers and brochures. And that’s why, you would do well to learn something about formatting and putting together different kinds of texts using computer software like In-Design. Writers need to know the tools that will enable them to put their writing to work.
Let me say that again: writers need to know the tools that will enable them to put their writing to work.
Virtually every company of every size has a need for a writer who can put together a package of information, whether that package is a brochure (public relations) sent to prospective clients or a newsletter distributed to employees or brief explanations printed in the company’s catalogue oran e-flier to the company’s prospective clients or a web page for the company’s site, and so on. All of this is done on the computer, using software that you should learn (start with Adobe’s Creative Suite).
Just because you like “creative writing” doesn’t mean you have to go into publishing. But if you’re determined to do so, you should consider taking seminars in publishing to learn more about its business, its technology, its history — and how all of this has changed — in order to better qualify yourself for a career in publishing. Some universities, like UVA and Emerson, offer summer programs (2-6 weeks). Others, like Pace University, offer academic degrees in publishing.
WRITING FOR THE WEB
Below, I mention many facets of professional writing– all of them are now either exclusively online or heavily reliant upon online media. The internet is probably the most promising source of employment in the writing field because the possibilities are endless. But you need to understand that writing for websites is different than writing for traditional (hard-copy) texts. Study the forms online; study the online formats; study the mix of online media — all of this you can use to your advantage.
PUBLIC RELATIONS: this is simply a matter of you, the writer, making a client or a company look good on paper. The range of tasks could be very broad or very narrow, depending on the job. See “desktop publishing” above.
ADVERTISING: copy writers are the people who write copy (the ad), which is not a position you can get right out of school. As with any of these pursuits, you must pay your dues, start low and aim high. Other positions include accounts executives (they find and woo clients), graphic designers, and marketing personnel of various sorts.
GREETING CARD PUBLISHING: You may think I’m joking, but I am not. Hallmark Cards, of Kansas City, MO., has a huge operation that employees hundreds of writers and editors and creative persons of all kinds. They have test booklets you can send away for in order to assess your suitability for this career. I kid you not, it’s a nice place to work and the work itself can be very gratifying. Link:Hallmark Careers.
FREELANCE WRITING: The easiest way to break in nowadays is blogging.Consider starting your own blog so that you can train yourself to work with a frequent deadline and try to build a readership. You may be able to move to guest blogging. Blogs have become a form of online magazines and sometimes more popular than many online magazines. Many writers have found full-time writing work — at magazines, news agencies, think tanks, etc. — because they gained exposure and credibility through their blogs.
In order to get work writing for any publication, you need “clippings,” which are samples of your best, published work. Write for the your school newspaper (if you’re in college) or your local newspaper or arts paper. Nowadays, every newspaper has an online branch. It’s ALWAYS easier breaking into online publications. You might start by submitting an editorial or piece of commentary or brief essay on a current topic. Study the publications you would write for. Make sure you know what kind of article that publication usually runs, then send a query letter/email to that publication to see if the editor is interested in your idea. You have to make that idea attractive in a single page. Be to-the-point and polite. For more info. and advice on doing this, see WRITER’S MARKET, WHERE & HOW TO SELL WHAT YOU WRITE, published by Writer’s Digest Books.
Freelance writing is a tough way to make a buck and, in most cases, it’s best left as means of supplemental income. However, if you’re really good with deadlines and flexible with assignments–willing to write for all kinds of publications–you could make a decent living writing this way.
REMINDER: there are now more publications, serving more special interests, than ever before (due, in great part, to the internet).
FREELANCE (copy) EDITING: this is fairly easy work to get because it’s arduous and does not pay especially well, though I’ve known people who have done it for years to get by or to supplement their incomes. Send a letter to a mid-sized or small book publisher (usually not a literary publisher) to inquire if you could be of service as a copy editor to proof-read manuscripts before they’re sent to press. Eventually one of these publishers will give you a chance (check with them every six months). Then, once you’ve done a good job with one assignment, you’re on your way. You get paid for the task itself, not by the hour.
GRANT WRITING: you write proposals that convince rich people to give your organization money. There’s considerable art in writing an effective (i.e., convincing) grant and, depending on the organization that hires you, you could make a very good living doing this. Virtually every non-profit organization — from hospitals to church groups — needs the help of one or more grant writers. Although there are specialized courses and workshops in grant writing, many grant writers simply learn the art by doing it, usually of necessity (e.g., the only write on staff takes a stab at writing a grant proposal, is successful, and soon becomes that organization’s grant writer).
WRITING/EDITING: look in the newspaper and in other want-ad directories (e.g., Washington Post on-line) and you will see openings for editorial assistants, writers, etc. in various capacities at companies of every kind. Everybody needs a writer of some kind. Your challenge is to find what type of organization you’d like to work with (profit/nonprofit, arts-related, business-related, science-related, service-oriented/research-oriented, etc.). Remember, it’s much easier to get a job if you bring related work experience to that job. So now’s the time–through internships and extra-curricular activity–to get your editing/publishing/writing portfolio together.
TEACHING: To get your certification to teach public school, you’ll need to take one year of graduate school specifically designed for this purpose. Chances are, you’d end up teaching English. If you don’t want to go for the extra year of schooling, you can teach English and writing in a private school right away (private schools don’t demand certification). Naturally, it helps to have had teaching experience. Volunteer at the Loyola tutoring center, check with the Center for Values and Services to see what teaching opportunities they might offer.
If you want to teach at the college level, you schould consider getting a Ph.D. That’s 5-7 more years of schooling beyond the B.A. (link: GRAD SCHOOL) You can teach at the college level with a master’s degree in English or writing but only as an adjunct. That means you would be hired from year to year (no job security) and you would get paid about half as much as a professor. It can be a tough way to make a living.
MAGAZINE PUBLISHING: look at the masthead of any magazine and you’ll see the list of positions you might consider. Magazine publishing is dead-line-based (weekly, monthly, quarterly) and the range of magazines themselves is tremendous, everything from big-press magazines (called “slicks”), which publish 50,000 or more issues each run (PEOPLE or TIME are good examples) to “small press” magazines or “little” magazines, which publish as few as 100-500 each run. The latter category are usually literary or special interest magazines.
Increasingly, magazines have gone to online versions in lieu (or in addition to) print versions. This means that the chances of your getting a writing gig are greatly increased because publication cycle of online versions is shorter than print versions and so they eat up more material. Study the magazines you would write for. Find the easiest way into print in these magazines (letters to the editor, contests, special editions,e tc.).