Starting a Writing Life A Terribly Incomplete Guide*

* This guide was drafted because a group of creative writing students asked for some information about the road ahead if they choose to pursue writing. I'm just getting started myself and claim no expertise. I sincerely hope you'll take everything herein with a coarse grain of salt.

Why write?

While discussing my decision to go to grad school, my dad asked me why I wanted to be a writer. He spent 45 years as a successful journalist and editor for newspapers around the country, so his inquiry was rooted in personal experience.

I explained. I'd gone back to school to do something pragmatic, something that might make it possible to actually retire someday in the now-not-so-distant-future. After a 20 year absence from college, my first writing class opened up the floodgates, but didn't fit with my goals at the time, so I fought to ignore what others in my life saw as an obvious pull to write. I spent the bulk of my undergraduate time hoping that I would feel as much excitement about any of the academic threads I followed as I felt when I finished an essay. (And, I was a straight-A-excited-to-go-to-every-class-disappointed-on-snow-days sort of student.) My writing was improving dramatically, in spite of being sandwiched in between calculus and comm research methods; this helped me to see that my work could open up and develop into something special, given the room to do so. The MFA offered me the chance to give in to this dreadful and wonderful writing compulsion and see what happened.

"Good," he said at the end of my rambling, adding that being a writer is lonely, hard work and should only be pursued if I knew there wasn't anything else in the world that would make me happy. It's a calling of a sort, I think. Now, I see the ways this passion helps me push through the lows. There's a moment with every project, where I think I have nothing to say. I'm a fraud. I should go get a real job. I'll admit to scanning numerous job posting boards during those lulls that hold me in the liminal space between idea, research, and shapes emerging on the page. But, then it happens: the euphoric moment arrives, when the words flow and eventually I know a piece is done.* It's enough to keep me coming back, and the following is my attempt to offer some advice based on my experiences thus far.

* Until I reread the writing later, and see all the flaws and missed opportunities...

For those of you thinking about a Masters of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing

  • Consider the cost and only go where you get funding.
  • Consider the time. Two or three years is not a great deal of time. If you think you'll need to work a ton of hours to complete the MFA, you won't get as much out of it. If you think important personal relationships are not strong enough to handle the neglect, wait (or...). I literally shut down everything but the most crucial activities (family, eating, and sometimes bathing), especially during the final year writing my thesis. It was incredibly hard, but worth it.
  • Consider your life experience; it helps to have lived a tiny bit before trying to figure out how to write about life. Read the writers who will serve as your guides. These people are going to have a profound impact on your writing, so there should be something there from which to draw. I knew that staying at Portland State with a specific teacher would help me become a better writer and it did. Simply put, if you want to write a particular sort of nonfiction (or fiction or poetry), work with someone who is doing that well.
  • Audit a class or two. Ask if you can speak with a few students currently in the program.
  • Look at recent graduates and what they are doing now. Perhaps they might answer a few questions via email. They will have a very different perspective than students currently in the program.

Write for student publications

When writing under deadline, you learn a great deal. Even the smallest assignments offer unique opportunities to develop your instincts for spotting the story, getting the sources, and weaving it all together in a coherent fashion. These are skills that need to be practiced over and over again and the routine of writing for the school paper or magazine will aid this process in myriad ways.

When you are approaching sources as a student reporter, they are often quite forgiving in ways that a source outside the confines of the university may not be. The school administrator pretty much has to talk to you and you can practice interviewing big-wigs in a low-stakes environment. And, Hey Y'all: it is really important information; student publications are reporting on issues that impact all of our lives, from the working conditions of adjunct profs to tuition increases for students. I spent a month looking at which buildings on campus were seismically safe in a series that explored the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and what it will mean for Portland State. Students have a right to know that sort of thing.

Writing for the newspaper or magazine will challenge you in ways that will serve you well by forcing you to try new things. As observers of the world, we need to learn how to be comfortable navigating the unfamiliar and looking for details that convey meaning to others. This is not something one is born knowing how to do, rather it is a skill to develop and nurture over time.

While you are reaping all the benefits of actually getting to do this work for money, you're also developing a portfolio of clips that will demonstrate your ability to write to the folks awarding scholarships, considering your grad school applications, and pondering publishing your work.

Internships & NETWORKING

Like writing for a student publication, taking an internship with a local newspaper, magazine, or literary journal will be crucial in building your portfolio and your professional networks. If you're great, the internship might even land you a job. Even if the publication can't hire you, you're likely to get a great recommendation and possibly a heads up if something interesting pops up at another outlet.

Look for big internships, residencies, and fellowships and go for them. Honestly, there's a ton of rejection out there, so apply for anything and everything that piques your interest. I've been able to land some pretty extraordinary opportunities, because I've gotten practice writing essays and interviewing for all the ones that rejected me. My big point with all of this is: nothing happens when you do nothing, but when you try there's a chance you could end up writing for NASA or spending your summer on a boat with scientists exploring the ocean with robots. Of course, those are my ideal nerdy adventures, yours will likely be different. Whatever will serve your writing, do it in a bold way.

Practice Professionalism

I had a salty-dog-type music professor who always kept it real with us. (So real, in fact, that I dropped out of music school because he helped me to see that I would not enjoy playing in the Sound of Music pit orchestra to make ends meet -- he boasted 476 performances at the time and I still cringe when I hear the opening notes...doe a dear, a female deer.) Anyway, his advice transcended the music business in every way. He said, "Be nice to everyone you meet on the way up, because you'll surely see them again on your way down." To that end, remember:

  • Never miss a deadline. It could be the only thing that editor will ever remember about you.
  • Hand in clean copy. In the same way that mistakes can haunt you, perfection makes you even more memorable. And, from what little I've seen thus far, clean copy really sets you apart from the error-laden writing inhabiting most slush piles.
  • Be courteous and kind in all your email exchanges, even if the editor rejects your work or fails to communicate in a timely manner. (There's a very real chance you might never meet this mythical editor creature in person so it's good to practice extra caution in the perceptions you transmit.) From what I am seeing, editors are buried in emails all day, every day. It can take more than a week for most editors to respond to any email. If too much time goes by, I simply send a quick note checking in, but never take the radio silence personally. I see the same at my small publication, where the staff is all very part-time. Since we're contracted to work a certain number of hours per week, once we've exceed that time we can't do any more work until the following week. I think this can create a cascading effect and generate considerable backlog. If you are sending your work out to literary journals and quarterlies, this is definitely the case as they are run by students, volunteers, and struggling writers.
  • All of the above should apply to the work you are doing in school and in your writing classes. Your professors will be crucial for letters of recommendation and possible employment. I know that two of my three teaching jobs are a direct result of the professionalism I displayed in my classes. One professor referred me without my knowledge -- I landed a teaching job with no interview, just her suggesting I'd be a good fit!

Develop a Unique perspective

I love writing and can imagine writing about almost anything (except maybe sports). But, for now, I've focused on science writing, and further narrowed that window down to women in STEM and ocean ecology. There aren't enough hours in the day to become an expert on too many topics at the same time, so I find this narrowing helps. When I get bored with one or both of these topics, I'll happily move along to the next arena, but for now the focus makes me smarter and more agile.

Writing about a new subject is so difficult. You have to learn as much as you can in a limited amount of time. I now see how stories I wrote early on were lacking because I didn't fully understand the intricacies of the topic. Now that I've been covering oceans for two years, I see how issues and emerging technologies are interconnected and this helps me see new story ideas alongside the evolution of trends I've been following.

It helps to have some authority and/or access. Because I've written a few stories about women from science history, I've got a tiny bit of street cred when I pitch my idea about this topic. Without those previous stories, I have more work to do because I must convince the editor not only my idea is good, but that I am also capable of pulling it off. (I hope.)

Read. Read everything. Then, read some more. Even when I am not working on a specific story, I follow all ocean-related news as much as I can. Even if it is only on Twitter because I'm overwhelmed grading your beautiful papers, I'm staying in touch with what's happening and looking where things are headed. This is especially true with magazine writing because editorial calendars are figured out months in advance.

It helps to start thinking out of season with everyone else (but in sync with the editors). If you want to pitch a story about baseball, you may want to pitch it in the winter when no baseball is happening. In other words, pitch your idea for the best holiday gifts in July because that's when the magazines are planning for their December issue.

Finally, use social media wisely and build your online presence with intention. Since Twitter is my professional social media platform, I don't post a ton of extraneous information. Someone following me on Twitter will see evidence of my work as a science writer and teacher peppered with a few other human items, but nothing too far afield from those aspects of my life. Whereas, on Facebook and Instagram, which I've only really opened to friends and family, one might see a wider range of personal interests like my obsession with knitting.

I suspect it may be more important than it ought to be to cultivate a following on social media, and I think some editors and fellowships look at this sort of thing because it helps them increase the eyeballs on their pages. It isn't very comforting to think that something so unrelated can impact the reception of your writing, and I'm sure there are lousy writers out there with a large following, but it is worth keeping this in the back of your minds.

If you aren't social media savvy, that's OK, you can still use the platforms to your advantage. I religiously follow publications, editors, and writers I admire -- especially if I hope to see my own work in their outlet. You get a sense for the rhythm and flow, for the voice of the publication, and this will help you develop ideas that will fit within their pages (or virtual spaces). I've read about and heard a frequent lament from editors about pitches from writers who've obviously never read the publication -- it's like pitching a feature story on the joys of living with black labs to Cat Fancy Magazine.

And, again this is only what I've learned from my experiences. Others make things work in their own way. You should figure out your own path; just do so thoughtfully.

"Meow," said Gus.

Think of your reader, always

This final tip can be applied in a variety of ways. From the most basic perspective, I try to write in service of others; I write to inform and illuminate. If I were to write about myself (I'm not very good at this and don't know if I ever will be), I hope I'd be exploring self as a means of sharing something that might be useful to others in some small way. To me, it is all about storytelling.

Be a good storyteller.

For me right now, this means looking at how I communicate. I see the world changing in exciting (and often scary) ways and I want to be able to convey information in a manner that's meaningful for my readers. Image, hyperlinks, video, voice -- these are easier than ever to incorporate into your process and I think this will keep changing. Try to challenge yourself to do something you've never done, whether it is a new form or adding an unfamiliar element like video. I really enjoyed rewriting my thesis as a children's book and learned from the experiment. Make art on your computer; make it by hand; just make it. However you choose to explore your writing and this strange world, be engaged.

Write good words.
Created By
Jenny Woodman


All photos are mine.

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