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01/10/2017 02:55 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2018

What Can You Do With a Creative Writing Degree?

What are good careers for creative writing majors? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Brad Porter, on Quora:

What are good careers for creative writing majors? When you're talking about being able to make a career out of doing your own creative writing, that's a hard thing to manage, and very few do, if what you're talking about is essentially being a paid novelist or screenwriter or poet or whatever. 10% in fact seems high to me, in terms of the percent who make a living at it -- I'd have guessed closer to 1.

However, if what you're asking is just "what are good careers for creative writing majors," there are many where you can earn very good livings from writing all day long and where your degree will have at least some value/pedigree. There is a lot of written word out there (even more when you expand out to include other mediums), and somebody has to write it. And that person can be you!

I myself earned my degree in Creative Writing, and make an upper middle class living writing professionally. I write all day long, in addition to doing a lot of what you might more broadly call communications work (strategic messaging, institutional marketing, speech writing, etc.). And similarly, I work with a lot of writers in varying degrees of employ, from professionals to freelancers and everything in between. And I think it sometimes surprises Creative Writing majors to know that their skills and degrees can be put to good and lucrative use in ways that don't involve either: 1. being a successful published author, or 2. being an English professor. There is no need to box yourself into that paradigm if you don't want to and are open minded about ways to support yourself with your talents and experience as a writer.

You'll notice I'm going well beyond just "creative writing" here because that's a fairly reductionist label that isn't really used outside of the college major paradigm. Really what I'm talking about are people who are skilled writers and storytellers.

So just a few big buckets worth mentioning:

Journalism / freelance article writing: I am using the slash because I think most people, when they hear "journalism," think "newspaper reporter" or some variation of that. But in truth, think of all the many many platforms you encounter on a daily basis - from websites to newsletters to institutional publications to content aggregators to whatever - and for every one of them there is a huge need for content to feed the beast. I wound up starting, in all places, by picking up work at my university's alumni magazine, and from there expanded out to other institutions and organizations who did their own institutional publications, dabbled in some media publications or like free City View papers, and it was great fun and once you're plugged in a little, can be pretty lucrative. Of course, in some cases it is actual journalism, writing for newspapers or magazines for the sole purpose of public information, and in other cases it is much the same kind of work but towards a different end (i.e. an institution hires you to write a good article about it for their own use). But there is a constant need in the world for good freelance writers or stringers who you can say "hey, this guy at our organization just made a great breakthrough in such such field and we'd like to write a story about it and feature it in our channels" and who know how to do it and do good work. And, like journalism, it typically involves interviewing, doing research, crafting a compelling narrative, etc. Sometimes it's bylined sometimes it's not, sometimes it's freelance or sometimes it's agency-related or sometimes it's an actual staff position somewhere, but if all you wanted to do in life was to be handed subjects and go off and write compelling articles about them, you certainly can do that in thousands of ways in basically every field and subject area.

Marketing / advertising: The prior category was a lot more about long-form narrative pieces, but the world is also awash in marketing and advertising, and behind all of it there are incredibly creative people doing the conceiving, the writing, the design, the production, etc. I do a lot of institutional marketing myself, and I am constantly working with writers, illustrators, graphic designers, multimedia specialists, photographers, videographers, boutique programmers, etc. They come from the professional world but they also come from art schools from random passion backgrounds from writing programs from all kinds of places. And, while it's institutional in nature and marketing in form, it can still be fun, creative, and rewarding stuff. Sometimes this is an in-house capability for a particular product or company, sometimes it's in an agency that does that work on contract basis, sometimes it's freelance or for-hire work, but there's a lot of it, and many people who make great careers doing it.

Strategic / institutional communications: Typically, just straight writing - as in being a writer, that's what you do all day - maxes out at some point as a career path. Above it on the totem poll will be the people who manage communications for institutions and organizations. Name any company, nonprofit, associations, whatever, and chances are if they have more than 20 people, they have a staff member devoted to helping managing the communications needs. It could be a single individual, or it could be a 100 person shop, but being a communications manager or executive is a career path unto itself. It involves some writing, or it involves managing writing projects, and it also entails thinking strategically about how to position an organization or what kind of stories to tell about it or how to articulate its vision. This is basically the sort of work that I do for a living, and it is wildly varied, challenging, and exciting. You have to think of great stories but also ways of talking about things so that people hear you through the noise, or ways of differentiating your organization or product from everybody else's. And it goes beyond just writing, although there is a lot of that too. It can involve crisis communications, media placement, marketing, fundraising, all kinds of stuff. I might be writing a speech for a public figure one day and directing a video shoot the next, or I might be creating a fundraising appeal one day or overhauling a website the next. I might be pitching something to media in the morning and helping problem solve some new initiative in the afternoon. It's all over the place, but every organization needs a good, creative, nimble person who oversees or assists their communications. Note, similar to marketing, there are also plenty of agencies that just do this, just work as for-hire communications experts.

Education: Beyond joining the academy, there is a lot of need in education for people who know how to write and how to communicate effectively and can help teach, tutor, or mentor others in that regard. You might not think of this as "creative writing", but sitting with a student and helping them learn the rules of writing and then learn how to start putting themselves into it is something that is very rewarding, and very marketable. My sister, for instance, teaches English abroad, and makes a great living at it despite not having a background in either language or teaching. It could be private tutoring, test prep, writing center sort of stuff, continuing education, whatever, but people who can help others gain a fluency and mastery of written communication are always in demand somewhere.

Content specialists: A sort of a grab-bag bucket, but in essence if there's a topic or subject area you are particularly taken with, you can often earn money by being a sort of roving expert, a sort of professional explainer. I work with a lot of people who just specialize in writing about medicine, for instance - they might freelance for a medical school one day, pitch an article on the subject to a local newspaper the next, or offer their services to a trade publication or whatever another day. They might come in as ringers to help script or consult on a television project, they might be hired to be a talking head, they might be in the rolodex of people in the field as a possible ghostwriter or collaborator. But really, for basically any subject you can think of, you can find a way to scratch out a living simply learning everything you can about it, telling great stories about it, translating it for the common man. Often times, of course, the people that fill these roles are actual working experts in the field, but you'd be surprised how often those guys kind of suck at explaining in a compelling way what it is they do or why it matters. If you're somebody who can, you can make a good living selling that expertise and storytelling ability, in anything from medicine to ornithology to politics to tupperware, you name it.

Being You: A final bucket perhaps worth mentioning is, depending on how good you are, it is perfectly possible to essentially build a brand around yourself and start profiting from it in a myriad of ways. In this day and age, everybody has a platform, and everybody has at least the potential to reach anybody else. If you have a strong voice and something of value in your creative writing to add, you can just start shouting into the wind and, with any luck and a lot of hard work, might start catching some ears. Maybe you start a blog about a baseball team, maybe you start publishing fan fiction about Doctor Who that starts morphing into an original voice with actual fans, maybe you start creating YouTube videos about makeup, really the possibilities are limitless. But if you are a good writer - especially if you are a good storyteller - you can always essentially just try and blaze your own trail, create your own career. Note, the odds here aren't any better than being a bestselling author, at least in terms of "hitting it big", but there are tens of thousands of people who find ways of making money just by, in essence, being themselves and sharing their passions or insights in compelling ways to audiences who are interested in it.


Ultimately, it's less about what the degree immediately suggests, and more what you want to do and how you want to/have to make a living. Creative Writing, like many artistic majors, isn't so much about directly training for a career; rather it's about giving you the protected time and the space to engage exclusively in the work you're passionate about and develop and hone your skills as a writer. And, ultimately, like many artistic majors, coming out of it you should not only have the degree itself but also the beginnings of some kind of portfolio or a string of impressive samples.

Creative writing is both bad and good in that it in no way operates on an apprenticeship sort of model, or where you get such and such degree that leads to such and such graduate degree that leads to the standard "ground floor" position that you work your way up from (in the way that law, or business, or medicine might). After you graduate with a Creative Writing degree, there is no standard career template - which is why working writers have to learn not only to be good writers, but also to be good entrepreneurs. You have to make your own way, and you have to find ways to both save some creative space for yourself but also get along in a world where things like income and health insurance are important. I'd encourage any Creative Writing major though to be open minded and not box yourself into the "I'm either a successful writer or a writing professor and if I'm not one of those two things my degree was worthless" trap.

Because make no mistake - creative writing is everywhere, and wherever you find it, there's a writer behind it somewhere, getting paid (mostly).

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