I received an email yesterday from a young woman, a college student, who wanted to know my advice on how to begin a writing career. I was about to dash off a response, but I thought I’d take a few extra minutes and write something I could share with some of you who may also have this question.
Here’s part of her message:
I have expressed an interest in a writing career, after four long, grueling, stressful years of earning a science degree. I’m very interested in getting started straight out of college, which I will most willingly be leaving in the grand and glorious month of blessed December, but have no idea where to begin. I’m not sure how good I need to be. I have talent, but it is fairly raw.
Here’s how I responded:
Congratulations on being so close to finishing your degree! That’s an accomplishment in itself. You’ve slaved through four years of school, and “grueling” is a good word to describe it. Your degree is in science — wow! Now, that took some effort. You’ve obviously got high motivation and stamina to hang in there and finish.
With a degree in science, it seems to me you’re in a perfect position to become some type of science writer. In any job, you don’t want to work long hours for low pay — you’ll end up hating your job and hating yourself for choosing it. You want to work smart, find something that pays well, that uses your skills — and will allow you time to have a life outside of work. In other words, a writing career is not going to be ultimately fulfilling if you don’t have time to play, relax, exercise, travel, and hang out with those you love.
So, how can you work smart? Here are three steps I’d recommend taking:
1) You’ve paid a ton of money for your tuition, and part of that goes to the staff of the career counseling office. Use them! Make an appointment with somebody and go over there and start asking questions. Ask advice on how to make your resume the best it can be. Don’t be humble when it comes to putting yourself on paper — this is all prospective employers will know of you. Set high goals — now’s the time to go after your dreams!
2) Join a professional organization. Do a search for “science writer” online. Here’s something I found — Go visit this site: National Association of Science Writers. You’re perfect for them! Think how much more qualified you are than the average writer — YOU have a science degree! From looking around this site, I can already see that you’ll find yourself in a vast network of people who love science and love writing, like you. You’ll find employers looking to fulfill positions, and you’ll be able to put this on your resume. That will show an employer that you’re serious. If possible, try to attend a conference of some sort — the small, local ones are often inexpensive. You’ll have lunch with people who share a passion for your field. And if you can get to a national conference, you’ll be ready to explode with ideas (I speak from experience!)
3) Start subscribing to a couple of writing magazines — or at least try to browse through them on campus. Subscribing is the best because then you feel like you own the magazine. You’ll feel like the editor is speaking to YOU, and the writers are writing to YOU. I think the absolute best magazine for writers is Writer’s Digest. Sign up for their online newsletter, and once a week, you’ll get a bunch of free articles and motivation. But also sign up for science writing newsletters. Get as much as you can for free! Right Writing is one of my favorite websites for writers, with tons of great articles and a blog called The Writer’s Life.
Here’s one more thing I’m a firm believer in. Take action. Do something. If you can’t find the perfect job right away, start doing something that at least pays the bills. You’ll seem more professional.
Here’s what I did right out of college. I was jobless, with a wardrobe consisting of T-shirts and shorts. I’d finished my English degree, but I wasn’t certified to teach, and I had zero confidence in my writing ability — unless it was literary criticism or short stories — yet there wasn’t a job market for those skills!
So, I moved back in with my parents and found a retail job working nights right away. I started getting a paycheck, and I used that to buy me some professional-looking clothes! I couldn’t search online for jobs back then, so I just blabbed to everybody that I wanted to find a job as a writer. Finally, one of my high school friends said she knew the senior editor of a prestigious magazine in our area was looking for an intern. An intern! (But I’d already graduated.)
Still, I had this open door, this contact. So, I called and made an appointment to meet with this editor. I drove alone to a sleek, highrise building, and took the elevator way up. When I stepped out, the entire floor spanned windows overlooking the polish of the city. I wanted that!
Despite my jitters, I met with the editor and pretty much told her I’d do anything. I called some of my professors, and we put together an internship program. I learned SO much from this unpaid position: how to get started, how to find good ideas, how to research, how to write, how to fact-check, and how to copy-edit. And I learned to take criticism. Right away, she told me, “Your writing style is too stuffy and formal. That’s not going to work here at all.” So, I took home dozens of back issues and pored over them like a textbook.
Anyway, I eventually got an article published with that magazine and went on to do other things. But that was my training ground for what I’m doing now as a freelancer.
So, I encourage you to go for your dreams! You’ve probably written hundreds of papers — now look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I’m a great writer!” You are. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
If you need one more dose of insight, check out the world’s shortest speech from Sir Winston Churchill. He stood in front of a group of college students at a commencement address and said this before returning to his seat: “Never give up; never give up. I say, never, never give up!”
That’s the best advice you’ll ever hear.