By the 8th grade I knew I was going to be a writer. It’s funny the way that happens – how some of us know exactly what we want to do at such a young age. Even funnier that I find myself telling my kids now that they’re “way too young to know what they want to do,” even though my oldest starts college next September.
Back then – which was about 1982, to date myself – it was a good thing I decided so early to become a writer. The industry was fairly closed. It was tough to make it. Opportunities were limited and you had to find some way into the walled pillars of publishing. So you had to prepare yourself to fail, and you had to prepare yourself to make very little money. But if you worked incredibly hard and were one of the very gifted few, you could eventually be anointed and live the rest of life on Easy Street.
How times have changed. The market is now exploding with opportunities for writers. Each assignment pays less – sometimes pennies compared to the dollars of old – but there’s incredible opportunity to volume-write. Every company needs content. Every market segment needs bloggers. Every IT department needs documentation. Every club needs publicity. Every social-media platform needs an opinion leader. Five stories a day at $50 each adds up quickly.
If you want to be a writer in today’s world (and really, it’s never too late to start), then you need to choose English or journalism or composition as a minor. There’s just not enough to teach about writing that demands a $100,000 college investment. Solid grammar, effective sentence structure, an active writing voice, well-scripted bridges and a focused topic can be learned with tools like the AP Manual of Style, a few good books and a dependable mentor. The study of Literary History, which is the English major, is an awesome degree that transports you into the center of the written record of the world’s greatest thoughts and works of art, but it’s more of a combined history/philosophy degree that has little to do with practical writing.
If you truly want to make a living writing, then major or co-major in a broader field such as engineering or biology or business or mathematics, then use your English minor or co-major to become a leading voice in a subject area you know and love.
Want to write novels? Every great novelist, including Mark Twain, had a dayjob. You’ll need one too. Which is why today’s writing trade is so exciting. You can actually find that dayjob and earn a living by writing content and human interest for a biotech firm, or an architecture firm, or a marine-biology firm, or a chemical company, or a retail chain, or a sustainable-tech startup.
That’s a wholly new phenomenon. It’s a byproduct of the Internet and the new service-driven economy.
The market for writers has never, ever been stronger. But if you don’t have an area of specialization, you’ll have trouble breaking in and you’ll face a steep climb toward a decent living and better jobs down the line. Trust me: That novel you want to write? It’ll be much easier to write with the peace of mind that comes with a comfortable chair, a decent meal, a livable apartment and a great health plan.
(Photo by David Turnbull / Creative Commons license)