This past Friday, the Writing Fellows program held its first Ongoing Education (OGE) session of the semester, on the topic of “professional writing and writing professions.”
The program’s goal for these meetings is not only to help Writing Fellows develop their peer tutoring skills, but also to think through the value of being a Fellow, the importance of writing to most careers, and doors that are open to Fellows because of their experience with the program.
As the Writing Fellows assistant director, it’s part of my responsibilities to coordinate OGEs, and when Emily Hall, the program’s director, asked me to brainstorm ideas, I knew immediately that I’d want to organize one around the topic of writing professions. Here’s why: When I graduated from college with my B.A. in English, I took the logical next step: I moved to New York to become a fashion designer. What was behind this move more than anything was an utter lack of knowledge of anything I could do with an English degree that I’d like as much as fashion. There wasn’t an English department career services office at the University of Florida that could help me find a placement in the field. I did not have connections at magazines like I did in the fashion business. Essentially, I was overwhelmed and taken in by the hundreds of exclamations I’d heard over the years that the English degree was worthless.
Jump ahead many years, and I found myself working in the Office of Admissions at UW-Madison while working on my Ph.D. And this is when I realized that vast number of jobs open to people with strong writing skills, such as, but certainly not limited to, English majors. I was astounded to find that on a university campus alone, each office and unit hires writers and editors, and not just people with journalism degrees. I learned that the university has a central media outfit, University Communications, that staffs a large number of writers and editors. And that is saying nothing about the writing jobs available around Madison, over 120 at Epic Systems alone. I see it as part of my life’s work to help people who like to write to find work that is meaningful to them, and our Fellows are just such a group.
For this OGE, I recruited three guest speakers:
Sarah Karon, a University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, current journalism graduate student, and published writer; Sara Phillips, graduate student in English and developmental editor at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press; and Lindsay Woodbridge, former Writing Fellow and current writer and team leader at Epic Systems. Here are some of the insights these writers shared during the OGE:
Sarah Karon did not major in English in college or even consider writing as a career. It wasn’t until she landed an internship at a magazine in San Francisco that she realized how much she likes writing. What she loves about graduate school in journalism is how creative this discipline allows her to be and how many connections she’s made. She’s found herself working on a “beat” that surprised her: consumer trends. She’s written about trends such as the “momshell,” designer agriculture such as the designer chicken coop, and popular cocktails. Some other highlights from her talk:
-She cited the importance of fostering connections and going after internships and similar professional experiences.
-She expressed her love for her work and said that when she meets naysayers who try to tell her there are no jobs in her field, she asks them, “Do you love what you do?”
-She talked how writing is a part of her core identity, that she now sees herself as a writer.
-She talked about the difficulty in finding out about the kinds of work that writers can do.
Sara Phillips is currently working on a Ph.D. in English and has been working for a number of years as a developmental book editor. She has worked on projects as diverse as children’s historical fiction and books on Korea and Vietnam. Like the other speakers, she mentioned how finding this job was something of a fluke; a friend passed her resume on to the editor of the press, and she was hired the next day. She, like Sarah, said that each morning she wakes up excited to go to work. Highlights:
-Sara, too, commented on the relationship between one’s work and identity. Sara sees herself as more of an editor than writer. She likes manipulating other people’s writing and helping them to get published.
-A highlight of Sara’s job is working with colleagues and experiencing collaboration on a daily basis. She likes being part of a team.
-Sara implied that when choosing work, people should think about their natures: for instance, she likes being behind the scenes, knowing that she’ll work hard on other writers’ projects, but in the end, they’ll be in the limelight. This is different from, say, being a journalist.
Lindsay Woodbridge, a former Writing Fellow, joined Epic’s team with no previous experience in technical writing, and now she has been working at Epic for a couple of years. She’s part of the implementation team, and for work, she not only writes and edits, but travels across the country to see the software she writes documentation for being implemented. Although she often works 50-hour weeks at Epic, she cited several strengths: echoing Sara, she mentioned value of working with colleagues and being part of a team. She also referenced the casual work environment, as well as the amazing and cheap food that is available on Epic’s campus. Highlights:
-Lindsay talked about the value of the skills Fellows learn. She cited, for example, the importance in her current job of knowing how to praise others’ work and how to talk with people about their work.
-Lindsay talked about how wonderful it is to live in Madison while not in school, how cool it is to work in this city.
-She emphasized the training Epic gives; you don’t need to come to Epic with particular backgrounds.
-Lindsay estimates that Epic has about 120 writers on staff, and its writers do various kinds of writing.
All three writers shared samples of their or applicants’ resumes, cover letters, and curriculum vitaes. Some tips they shared:
-Sarah reminded Fellows to showcase their writing abilities in the cover letter; she argued that well-placed and used creativity can go a long way.
-All three emphasized the importance of tailoring cover letters to the job and doing a little bit of research on the job and company in order to tailor the letter in relevant ways.
-Sara and Lindsay stressed the importance of tone and presentation. The greatest cover letter sin might be coming across as too smug, telling about oneself instead of showing through one’s experience.
I was struck by the theme that emerged of how close the relationship is between one’s identity and work, and that over time, we begin to see ourselves as writers or editors or whatever it is that we are actively doing. It was great to hear people talk so passionately about their fields and express the desire to inspire others to find their life’s work. I want to thank our guest speakers once again for participating in this session and helping me take the first step in achieving one of my own life goals as a professor, which is to show strong writers in all fields that there is meaningful work for them as writers, no matter what discipline they are situated in.
Oh, and for the gastronomically inclined, some meeting food pics: