Industry Profiles – Full Time Employees - Professional Writer
This is a supercharged subject for me both personally and professionally. Obviously, I’m a writer. I had a (paid) career advice column for a year and a half for the Seattle Times. I’m on the Board of Directors for a local non-profit that puts on writer’s conferences every year (and I have been attending for almost 10 years.) I started writing fiction about 10 years ago; and being a recruiter I pursued the profession from a job hunting perspective, which a lot of people don’t seem to understand. I’ll touch on that later.
I’m going to break the “writer” profession into separate postings. First I will cover full-time employees that are paid to write, then freelance professionals and finally I will wrap up with a discussion on published authors (books).
There was a discussion over on LinkedIn a few weeks ago about finding “creative writing jobs”. There are very few “jobs” that will pay you to be a creative writer. If you are being paid to write something, you don’t have carte blanche to write your own content and expect someone else to monetize it. Generally, you are given content subjects, writing guides/style manuals, a specific word count, and a strict deadline. The person that started the discussion wanted someone to offer him a salaried position to write poetry. About the only “job” you will get in this medium is working for a greeting card company.
So what sorts of jobs can you get as a paid, professional writer on a salary? Advertising and PR firms still hire writers to work on branding slogans/campaigns for clients. That is about the best “creative” writing job you will get, but it’s still going to be someone else’s guidelines. The “marcomm” role has changed significantly over the last decade or so (Marketing Communications) as marketing as an industry has changed (see my prior posting on the Marketing Industry). A lot of young professionals want to be “social media” content writers/editors/managers. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t all about writing 140-character pithy pitches. This a pure marketing job that delivers analytics-based campaigns supporting the corporate branding strategy. These days, “marketing” communications as it relates to generating content is a small portion of a larger position.
The time-honored “Technical Writer” role was a haven for many English and Communications majors graduating in the late 80’s and through the 90’s. The technical writer is mainly employed in two industries: technology/software, and the scientific/life sciences arena. The role of the tech writer is to take technical/scientific concepts and “translate” them for people. For example, the “help” function in any software program is often written by a technical writer; white papers, help manuals, design specifications, business analyses. But, as you can imagine, this skill is used in conjunction with another: deep expertise in a technical/scientific realm. There is a fair amount of research that is done with other professionals within the organization in order to create a comprehensive set of information. That being said, I queried several friends that have been long-time Tech Writers, and the consensus is that you need to able to learn a vast array of subjects, digest them, and then “translate” that information back into understandable language for the lay person. The more you can do that, the more employable you are. If you are able to learn those technical or scientific concepts that need “translation” then that is your most applicable skill. I have seen a shift in the tech realm away from the profession of “technical writer” towards an inclusion of the role into “human centered design”, a philosophy that mixes usability and product management.
In a related vein, if you are interested in the non-profit world, there are organizations that employ grant writers. This is a very specialized skill, as each grant award has very specific guidelines and you have to learn the ins and outs of the process. I asked a good friend of mine who writes grants regularly for her scientific research job how one would go about *getting* a grant writing job with no experience, and this was her suggestion: “I suggest they team up with an experienced writer. I got my start with non-profits by volunteering. The best way to learn to write grants, in my opinion, is to find successful grant applications. My first 100% self-written grant, I got other T32s, and followed the format.”
If you really enjoy learning something really well and then writing about it, there may be positions in law or government, including attorneys (they write extensively, mostly “briefs”), paralegals, speech-writers, congressional aides, and lobbyists. Of course becoming an attorney means going to law school, but a law degree can open up a lot of doors involving writing and communication overall.
Journalists do still exist, although full time, paid-by-a-paper-or-magazine roles are quickly diminishing as the face of the publishing industry is changing. You might have luck writing copy for a local news station (TV/Radio), or else you will want to work for a publication with a fairly large circulation. Most of the jobs for magazines and larger publishing entities are going to be in New York City. In the same vein, you may find jobs as a copywriter or copy editor at those same publications, but a full-time position is now the exception rather than the norm.
So let’s segue into publication, as it’s a good transition. These days, most editors, copywriters, and journalists are self-employed freelancers. With the advent of the internet, e-books like the Kindle and the Nook, the need for full time publishing house editors and copywriters has fallen drastically. The majority of newspapers and magazines have had articles submitted by freelance journalists for decades. “Publishing” is changing drastically. Newspapers are being replaced by news aggregators. Magazines are still in existence, but most of them are online now and if they hope to continue making money, it is my opinion that they will eventually go all digital. There are still editorial positions here and there at traditional publishing houses, major newspaper/magazines, and sometimes you can get a job as an editor working for a literary agent (you may end up becoming an agent as well.) But most of what you do as an agent is read, not write. The same with publishing houses/publications. The role of the editor is to fix bad writing, so you need to know/understand that if you decide to go this route. New/junior editors at traditional publishing houses in New York are known to be woefully underpaid, and several of my own personal contacts had to work second or even third jobs to pay their bills until they had a decade or more under their belts.
"Jobs", as in full-time paid employee status, for writers are diminishing quite a bit. However, freelance opportunities and a variety of different publishing options are increasing daily.