Monday, June 9, 2014

Hope for writers?

Often I hear about young people wanting to become writers when they're adults. This always concerns me -- NOT because we don't need writers (we need all we can get, especially young people who know how to write properly and not like texting monkeys), but because it's so durned hard to make a living as a writer. Take it from someone who knows.

When I hear someone is getting a MFA (Master's of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing or English or some word-related field, I confess my first thoughts are, "I hope you have a back-up plan" followed closely by "Don't give up your day job, if you have one."

Which is why my eyes about bugged out of my head yesterday when I saw an article called Creative Writing Majors Getting Rich as Demand Skyrockets.

This extraordinary article claims that creative writing majors are in high demand by large corporations. "A new Labor Department report shows the demand for creative writing majors grew last year to its highest level ever, making a bachelor’s degree in the field more valuable than even a triple major in engineering, computer science and business."

Um, sure. Permit me to doubt.

The article goes on to claim, "Corporate America has finally realized the importance of hiring people who can not only write, but who can write creatively," said Renata Monty, author of the bestseller 'Why Poets Boost Your Profit.' "Today, there’s only one word: words. Words in ads. In company Facebook pages. Tweets. Financial audits. Internal emails. Memos. And so on." Monty says that companies need hundreds or even thousands of words strung together, each day, and no one knows how to put words together better than a creative writing major.

The article goes on to list some of the Fortune 500 companies hiring creative writing majors.

Yet in a way, why should I doubt? With the advent of personal electronic devices and the dumbing down of schools, writing skills have gone down the toilet. I suppose if there are people who can still coherently string words together, those skills would be in demand. Technical companies need people who can write clear and logical support documents, including such necessities as manuals and troubleshooting documents.

So my question is, has anyone heard of this? Is this true, or is it just wishful thinking? The reason I ask is because Younger Daughter is a superb writer and is at the stage of trying to figure out what she wants to do as an adult. It would be splendiforous if I could offer her hope as a writer.


  1. There is no reason your daughter couldn't make money as a writer.

    But then, if you're going to be a writer, there's also no reason to study that in college. If you're going to college, study something else. Writing is something you can do on your own time, for free. And it's something that you'll have to do for _any_ college major. But the only way to get good enough at it to make a living is to practice.

    If she wants to be a novelist, she should get her practice by writing novels. If she wants to do technical writing or other business writing (which needn't conflict with being a novelist, but is an entirely different skill set), then she'd be better off studying the subject matter she'll eventually be writing _about_, rather than the craft of writing.

    To improve your writing:

    1. Write more.
    2. No. Seriously. Write MORE.
    3. Show your writing to people you trust to give you honest criticism. But until at least 3 people give you essentially the same feedback, remain open to the possibility that the feedback is wrong.
    4. Then write more.

    (For what it's worth, I work for a large company that does hire people to write commercially. It's an ad agency, and most of the writers we hire have backgrounds in advertising and marketing, not "creative writing". Both my current employer and most of my past employers also employ tech writers. They generally studied engineering, before getting into that line. I've done a lot of screening and interviewing in my time, and I've never once been in a position where an MFA in creative writing would have been considered a professional asset. Companies that hire commercial writers care more about samples of the candidate's past work than degrees.)

  2. No insight on the writing, but just thought I'd make you aware, I got "hijacked" by a video ad that covered your entire page with a banner about "a word from our sponsors". It was one of those time-delay ads that kept playing for a while before I could close it. Not offensive content, but it's the first time I've seen that sort of ad on your site, maybe your host is doing something wierd?

  3. My friend from grad school has a BA in MFA and MA in English. He works for a university, reading and correcting PhD candidates theses. He has to have a broad knowledge to understand the work he is reading. His main job is to make sure the work is coherent, written in a scholarly manner, and grammatically correct. To me that is a dream job--telling people where they got it wrong.

    However, I would never get Fine Arts degree to write. She can take writing courses as electives. Those professors will try to convince her to major in their field. They ALL do, saying you are perfect for whatever discipline they teach.

    If she can write well, learn to write better by writing. You cannot always trust your friends to tell you about your writing. I let one friend with MA in English read a short story. She said I wrote like Thomas Hardy. I held my breath and asked her in what way. She said I went back and forward in time. All she told me was that she like a story told in chronological order. I asked a guy, engineer MA, what he thought about the same short story. He said I wrote like Michener. How so? He said I took 8 pages what he could have told in three sentences....sigh.

    My story was a Southern story, a coming of age story. So, I was puzzled when I was compared to Hardy and Michener.

    I have a BA in English, all the coursework for a MA in English and an MA in Education, English/Language Arts. I applied to jobs at companies who worked with NASA, the space industries here in Huntsville, AL. Those companies need people with a degree in education to satisfy grant requirements from DC because education is a component of their duties. I would never suggest a BA in education unless teaching is what she wants to do.

    She can starve while trying to write or she can work and make money so she can relax and write, not worry how to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food on the table. Besides, her work may give her fodder for her writing.

    Actually, people do just write for companies or correct documents, but those jobs often are obtained after working for a company. What I did was find the website of the company for which I wanted to work, talk to someone on the phone about applying for a job to correct the writing on the website, not be the webmaster. Some of those places were shocked about the mistakes, none of which I revealed. Of course, when I discussed this, little did I know the economy was taking a nosedive.

    Good luck to her, but no Fine Arts degree!

  4. "So my question is, has anyone heard of this? Is this true, or is it just wishful thinking?"

    Let me answer that with a resounding "YES!"

    It's been a couple years since I was active, but it was actually pretty easy to make money as a writer.


    Making anything close to minimum wage was a completely different story. Only if I didn't have to do any research did I come close.

  5. My daughter majored in journalism and graduated a year ago. She got a job recently working for a university and half of her job is writing but the other half is digital marketing. The biggest reason she got this job is because of her past work while in school-internships (paid and unpaid) for newspapers and PR companies, as well as part-time work for a university newspaper. So I agree with lelnet study what is important to the student and hone the writing skills.

  6. What lelnet said. My first thought was 'ads' One could conceivably get paid some mega bucks for this kind of 'creative writing' on a movie poster or billboard "THEIR BACK!" Hmmmm I think that's been done more than a few times. No college required, except perhaps in Marketing.

    I freelanced as a writer for some years, had good success in terms of getting published, had a great time but never made near enough money to make a living.

    I would add to what lelnet said by suggesting any would-be writer take advantage of local writers clubs. The fellowship is usually great, and you will learn some valuable tricks of the trade (the business part, which is changing rapidly, as in 'kindle' and 'blog' terms unheard of when I was writing columns for horse mags,

    Write On!!

  7. Ditto to the first comment. With the explosion of digital media, authors are publishing themselves and finding a wide audience. Yes, I purchase lots of free books from Amazon but also, when I love the free books, go on to pay for books by the same authors.
    I'm not sure how much money these folks are actually making but they are honing their skills and making names for themselves.
    (BTW, the bird on your blog picture is so beautiful......)

  8. Please forgive a short personal story. I am a product of a 70's progressive school from which I graduated with a State diploma and 6th grade writing ability. I had no idea what sentence structure was and the cartoons with conjunction junction shorts taught me more about writing than any school class. After seven years in the military I started college knowing I could not write. I minored in Technical Writing, after three semesters of remedial English and writing classes. This was in addition to a Physics major and Computer Science minor. This was followed a few years later by a masters in Engineering Management and Quality Engineering. I would never have completed the technical work without the writing focus.

    The most important classes and training I received was the technical writing. I have to work at everything I write, but at least I can do a good job editing my own work. I still fall back to the grade school bad habits. Mild dyslexia, very poor spelling and no typing skills do not help either :)

    Today I see many professional people, both senior and junior, who write poorly. In the technical world this is very difficult. Technical documents and communications need to be clear and concise. In my industry most of our work is shared world wide where English is a second, third or fourth language, and has to be translated. Writing must be at a level where everyone in contact with your work must understand it, because many cultures will not ask for clarification fearing they will look incapable.

    To your question, I see technical writing as means to a living, like farming, is can be enjoyable but is still work. The creative writer is the flower gardener. While the gardener can make a living it is much harder, but provides a higher level of enjoyment. Both can be balanced and both are needed. The true skill I see is the ability to define the audience and keep them interested. Three hundred page technical manuals are boooooooring, but when the information is organized and clearly written the job gets done.

    I sit here now, with a new project in mid development, and as the head geek, I have a stack of documents to update and create. The "fun" art of machine invention is done. Now the real work begins.

  9. My friend's daughter just graduated and has a job writing! She writes out brochures and things for businesses. I had no idea there was a *job* for this sort of thing, but apparently so!

  10. Of course, it depends on what your daughter wants to write as to how well she'll do financially. That said, apparently you can publish your books for Kindle readers. Not at all sure how that works, but I'd have to assume it eliminates the need for an agent and search for a publishing company. At least it's an idea to look into. She certainly doesn't have to wait till she's older, she can start now.

    My son (with the MBA) is a tech writer (specializing in energy) for an online financal publication. He started by submitting very short articles to them which they purchased. Later he was hired on contract and makes a very comfortable living from that alone.

    Here is a third possibility, but I know nothing about it. Do some research before committing:
    Finally, she can do her own blog (just like Mama). Not sure how money can be made this way, but if you need to write, it's an outlet that affords exposure which can lead to freelance assignments or other opportunities (right, Mama?).

    If this is what God plans for her life, then He will open the doors. Sounds as though He's already given her both the talent and the tools for the job.

    Just as a word of encouragement, nobody needs a degree to write but they might need a certain field of expertise or the ability for in-depth research and talent to convert that into readable material.

  11. I just had a few comments:
    1. I *love* the photo of the blue bird with the dragonfly in its mouth. Beautiful!
    2. There is a typo in the last paragraph of this essay on writing. Since it is about writing, the typo stands out (I believe you meant to say "she is a good writer" not "she is a good writing."
    3. As a freelance writer myself for the last 20 years, I will say that my hourly wage as a writer is excellent. I can research and write a good piece in 40 hours and make $2500. However, the work is so variable (feast or famine) that if I had to make a living as a writer (without my spouse's income), I would live under the poverty line. The nature of freelance is that you have to constantly be hustling to secure your next assignment and sometimes (like in 2008-2009) assignments are a scarce as hen's teeth.

  12. As others have said, if you want to write, the best thing for you is to just do it.
    As an engineer, I can show you the difference between good and bad technical writing - technical writers are sometimes writing or English majors, but can be from across the spectrum of degrees; the important thing is that they have a mind that can understand complex highly technical issues and the ability to help others understand those issues. Every big company that I know of employs technical writers in long term well paying positions.
    One suggestion for somebody looking at technical writing: One of the big tasks for a technical writer is instruction manuals and teaching aides. For somebody who wants to have it as an option, I would suggest finding an instruction manual or assembly directions that are poorly done and redo it, with pictures and formatting, in a more understandable way, to have as part of a portfolio of work to show future employers.

  13. Do not go to college to major in writing. Find something else more practical to study with an eye toward the actual money-making career that will feed you and yours.

    For example: When I finished my last two college years I majored in speech so that I could qualify to teach speech, English, and drama (triple qualification in one major). As a former history major I could also take the state test to add qualification for history. Outside of college I taught myself computer programming -- never taking a class in it because I could learn it faster and deeper on my own than anyone could teach it. I also wrote and wrote and wrote.

    I have had three careers simultaneously. My primary career has been as a computer systems programmer and system administrator. That has paid the bills for decades and continues to do so. (You can tell I'm a computer pioneer from the arrows in my back.)

    My two secondary careers have been writing/editing and teaching. I taught computer science at one high school where I wrote the curriculum and text book. I also taught at several vocational schools, colleges, and universities, including one for which I wrote their accredited computer science curriculum. I wrote numerous articles for small and large magazines , a book for software developers, and was the editor for a magazine with international distribution making theme and content decisions, approving articles for publication, copyediting, and even stepping in for the publisher on a couple occasions. It is still possible to find my articles on Internet searches.

    Never needed to view writing/editing or teaching as primary careers. Sometimes one paid more than another. Sometimes did two, even all three, at once. All supplemented my primary income at the time irrespective of its source.

    Find a profession you enjoy and are good at other than writing. Study everything about that profession and become as much of an expert at it as you can to make yourself in demand. Meanwhile, write, write, and write some more. Robert Heinlein had writing rules that boiled down to write, submit, write some more. If what you submitted came back, submit it again, write some more. If you ever get to the point where your writing pays more than whatever else you're doing, you can always decide to give one up for the other, but you don't have to decide if you can keep doing both well.

    These days, you're better off not worrying about the major hardcopy publishers. They're struggling and showing increasing failure. Look toward e-book publishing in various formats and marketing resources. Following Heinlein's advice, everything that you've written worth releasing should go down that path. Ignore writer clubs. Amateurs talk about style and other soft writing issues. Pros talk about marketing and contracts. Authors talk about writing. Writers write.

  14. My daughter would like to know what type of camera you used to take the photo of the blue bird. Thanks!

    1. It's a pocket-sized Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZX19 with 20x zoom. I call it a "Costco Special."

      - Patrice

  15. A couple of years back a free-lance writing job for a small business in NH 'dropped into my lap'... it was God's doing, no doubt. I wrote and took photos for an on-line monthly newsletter, then set up and managed a blog for the business. In all, I was employed free lance for this business for about 2 1/2 years. No way I got rich, not even close. The real pay off was having someone I didn't even know recognize my talent in photography, art, and writing--and his background was in advertising, and commercial art. It was a 'shining moment' in my life and I felt like I had won a Gold Medal in the Olympics. I have had some short stories published also, and it brought me personal satisfaction and empowerment as a person. If your daughter loves to write, then her skill is going to be recognized. As some of the other folks have said, "write, write, write."

  16. oh, and I love the photo of your Bluebird. I enjoy your often-changed blog header photos. And I enjoy your blog! (how about that---I started a sentence with 'and'.)

  17. It is possible to earn money writing.

    Unless the magic piece of paper has gotten a whole lot more magical, don't go to college to learn it. Made that mistake.

    After five years spent with people somewhat more liberal than Harry and Hillary, wha I learned was that I no longer cared to write.

    Going on ten years and three kids later, I might finally once again have the stirrings of something to say.

    Encourage her to write. To study Liberal Arts, not so much.

  18. The report is utter and total garbage. I will be hiring about 20 FTE for my commodities trading and logistics company this year and about 70 over the next three years. Anyone who sends me a resume showing a MFA will at best get about 30 seconds of attention before their resume is deleted. I need people with engineering, finance, logistics, accounting, IT, software, construction, mining, and marketing training and experience. English and Fine Arts graduates need not apply - I don't need you and will not hire you -- Starbucks might be hiring.

    If you like writing - great - do it on your own time but don't waste your money or that of your parents studying writing. And what ever you do, NEVER borrow to get a writing degree as that is a negative ROI investment and anyone dumb enough to rack up student loans for that kind of a degree is too stupid to be one of my employees (and I do full background and credit checks before making offers). Learn marketable skills and a trade. The more math and technical the better - poets generally cannot do math, science, or technical work but if you can do that AND write your value increases to a potential employer.

  19. P.S.
    The best training I had for writing short stories and articles was when I had to write press releases for the Hospital I worked for many years ago. It was just a small and incidental part of my job, BUT! I learned to make clear, concise and very effective short paragraphs. That skill served me very well.

  20. From the About page of the site where you linked

    "In case any doubt lingers, The Dandy Goat is, in fact, a UN-recognized news satire publication — meaning that we are signatories to the 1975 International Satire Convention,"

    It is a satire site similar to The Onion rather than a serious news site.

    1. Aha! That makes sense. If it sounds too good to be true...

      Thanks for clarifying.

      - Patrice

  21. Writing. Boy, it's hard to say what makes a good writer. Practice, of course. Like practicing a piano, you just can't be a good writer without practice.

    A good writer. I knows it when I sees it, but I don't know how to define it.

    Just Me

  22. I have a friend who is fanatical about contests - and she's a terrific writer. She still enters contests, but she's earned money doing things such as writing contest rules. Right now, she writes for at and is one of their top topic draws, which does pay something, though it's a lot of work.

  23. Worked as an Editor, Journalist and went freelance. Have several non-fiction books under my belt and some stuff in a college text book. Never finished my degrees in CJ and Nursing but used them to write about science, business and law enforcement. The people begging to write for me always had degrees, including law. I have done PR and advertising too. If you want to write...write. If you are good, you can make money off it. Become an expert in several fields or learn how to interview experts. Blogging and self publishing are the way to go. A degree in writing is an utter waste.

  24. I work for a financial services company, and we routinely have a hard time finding good technical writers.