How to Make a Living

One of the best articles on the value of being able to write clearly and concisely that I have read in a long time.
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WSJ 8/30/2018
As a 20-year-old graduate student in creative writing, I asked a professor how to submit work for publication. “If you’re already worried about publishing,” he said, “you’re not a serious writer.”

I was serious—and desperate to learn how to make a living with the literary craft I’d been studying. But nobody in my program would discuss it. After two degrees in six years of higher education, I didn’t even know how to write a cover letter to submit the pages I’d spent years perfecting. It took decades of missteps and failures for me finally to figure out how to pay my bills as an author, freelancer and adjunct professor.

Later, teaching journalism myself, I wanted to help my students get on a faster track for success. I was disappointed by the administration’s dismissive attitude about helping students get bylines, jobs, literary agents or teaching gigs. My department heads pushed me to assign my classes 8,000word, third-person term papers instead of the shorter pieces editors wanted. “We don’t care about publication or payments,” one said. “We’re not a trade school.” Many in liberal-arts education cling to this lofty, elitist opinion that it’s sinful to discuss any remuneration. Top journalism schools and master’s programs in the fine arts charge as much as $60,000 a year for tuition—similar to that of business, medical and law schools. But unlike those other fields, they rarely teach their students how to gets jobs and income.

I remember how confused and frustrated I was by the discrepancy between what top schools offer and what’s needed to launch a profitable career. It’s a glaring gap, as if the faculty believe wanting to support yourself with the subject you study is greedy and shameful.

That’s why I began sharing practical information in my journalism, nonfiction and creative- writing classes. I found that helping a diverse group of students land articles, internships, jobs, agents, editors and teaching positions was empowering and transformative.

An African-American Navy vet landed a full-time job in a hospital after writing a poignant op-ed describing how he’d become temporarily homeless when he returned home with service-related injuries. A 21-year-old protégée of mine wrote an essay explaining why she dropped out of college after a sexual assault, and was able to help other young women with a book and paid lectures for the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network. A Latino mother’s articles about her prepartum depression landed her a literary agent and a teaching job. A Bosnian Muslim survivor of ethnic cleansing became a spokesman against genocide after his published articles struck a chord, earning as much as $7,000 for speeches around the country.

Learning to write succinct three-page essays, strong opinionated arguments and concise emails can be useful in any field. In all of my classes and seminars, I assign short cover letters, too. Every year it astounds me that top colleges neglect this simple art. An expensive university education should at least arm students with the skills they’ll need to pay for it.

Ms. Shapiro, a New School professor, is a co-author of “The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks.”

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