Saturday, December 13, 2008

A bit of whiny, self-involved context.

(NOTE: Belowas best as I can reproduce it using the functionality available on Bloggeris an article I did for The Writer in 2006. It provides some answers for those of you who may have read yesterday's post and quite reasonably wondered, What do colleges need a guy like Salerno for, anyway, if they've got all those learned PhDs to teach the kids how to write? Realize, also, that The Writer is a magazine for writers (duh), or would-be writers, so much of the material herein may be of limited interest to others. I present this merely as further evidence for the overall case I'll be making in this series of whiny, self-involved posts.)

Welcome to the
Real World
by Steve Salerno

10 things college writing classes don’t teach
you about the writing life—but should

They came to me in panic, the students did, typically at the midpoint of their final semesters. Many of them weren’t even my students, but I was “writer in residence” at a small Eastern liberal arts college, and I had a reputation for expertise in mainstream publishing thanks to my work for Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, a succession of airline magazines and just about any decent-sized monthly willing to pay my going rate. (That made me a rarity among writers in residence, who tend to be hermitic, countercultural types, forever in danger of having their heat shut off.) What the students wanted to know—were desperate to know—was how they might find work that allowed them to use all those skills they supposedly honed as “writing concentrates.”

Perhaps they assumed all along that they’d graduate and slide
neatly into careers having something to do with writing, but now, after surveying the marketplace, they had yet to find any jobs requiring intimate knowledge of Beowulf or even Virginia Woolf. “What jobs can I get?” they implored. Or, alternatively: “How do I go about landing a writing assignment for, say, Esquire?”

I’m fairly sure my more permanent colleagues in the
English department saw me as a de facto placement office, though that was a self-deception on their part, and something of a fraud perpetrated on the hapless students. I could not offset in a few weeks what all those years of academic indoctrination had done to their shared understanding of writing and the publishing landscape as a whole.

I did try. I helped students craft cover letters devoid of the precious
phrasing that always elicits groans from the editors I work for. I encouraged them to shed the effete perspectives on “good writing” that my fellow English professors tirelessly pounded into them. Among other things, I told them that if they hoped to do well at job interviews, they might start by toning down their distaste for “consumer publishing,” a phrase my colleagues would speak as if it described a strain of Ebola.

And at the end of it—after all their importunate letters of inquiry
were mailed and ignored, after all their interviews had taken place without successI would ask myself the same questions:

Why did we keep doing this to our writing students?

Why were we setting them up to fail?

A simple truth: College writing
courses, as they are presently designed and taught, have nothing to do with the real world. The students who emerge from them think writing is all about self-expression and unfettered creativity and “pushing the envelope of the genre.” Now, if you are intent on becoming the next great experimental novelist, and you don’t want people corrupting your artistic vision with their crass commercialism, and you don’t care what anyone has to say about writing ... that’s fine. On the other hand, if you don’t care what anyone has to say, you wouldn’t be reading this magazine. Would you? And you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting to profit from writing.

Therefore, I will assume here
what I always assumed as a teacher: that most of you would like to earn at least some small portion of your living via writing and related activities, rather than by asking questions like “Paper or plastic?”

Of course—and forgive the
pun—what we have here is a matter of more than mere academic interest. Many writers aside from those formally trained in college operate under seriously flawed beliefs about the writing profession and “what it takes.” In my experience, almost all young writers have at least one crippling misconception.

Following is what college should
teach people about writing. Consider it a few thousand words to the wise.

1. This is a business, folks.

College may not be vocational
school, but writing most assuredly
is a vocation. Part of me
admired my colleagues’ febrile
attempts to kindle within students a
deep, abiding love of their own
words and thoughts; Lord knows
there are few enough young people
today who give a damn how they
come across in print or in person.
Yet ultimately it’s hard to fathom
why writing would be portrayed as
if it were a huge intellectual exercise
that unfolds in a vacuum. It’s
one thing to ask students to strive
for a personal voice and a modicum
of invention. But to teach writing in
a manner that divorces it from its
real-world uses—and even imply there’s
something vulgar about those
uses—is another matter entirely.
Not too many landlords accept
“artistic merit” in lieu of rent.

2. There are no jobs for writers.

OK, I’m purposely being
provocative. I’m also overstating.
What’s more, if you’re committed
to full-time freelancing or
writing that great American novel,
you might want to skip ahead. I
invite everyone else to perform the
following exercise: Walk into your
neighborhood bookstore and grab a
half-dozen of the most familiar
magazine titles at random. (Note:
Exclude the newsweeklies, e.g.,
Time, Newsweek and U.S. News.)
Take a close look at the mastheads.
Collectively—among all of the publications
you’ve picked—how many
names do you see listed under
some variant of the heading
“Writer”? Not too many. Depending
on the luck of the draw, you
may not have selected a single magazine
that lists a single staff writer.
The opportunity in today’s magazine
world—the “way in,” as it
were—is through the side door
known as editing. Either that, or
you have to be successful enough as
a freelancer, over a period of years,
for a magazine to put you under
contract. Such arrangements are
not offered to graduating seniors.
College writing curricula give
almost no formal attention to editing.
What students learn about the
craft, they learn informally as a
result of classroom workshops or
their labors on behalf of a scholastic
publication. Tip: Take a job on a school
newspaper or magazine. Edit
somebody else’s copy. Get yourself
an exalted-sounding title. It looks
good on a resume.

3. You’re going to need a clip

file. And while you’re at it,
find an internship or two.
Take some of that time you would
normally spend honing your ethereal
voice and devote it instead to
getting something—anything—in
print. It’s never too early to start lining
up publication credits. They’re
essential for English/creative writing
majors, who’ll be competing for
a very small pool of available positions
against all those pesky journalism
grads, with their years of
service to the college newspaper. As
for internships, writing students
may have trouble landing the real
plums, which tend to go—again—to
journalism students. But if you’re
lucky enough to live near a local or
regional publishing company, you
may dramatically improve your
odds of getting considered for one
of those internships. The top j-school
students want the slots in
New York, not Nashville.
Tip: For clips, try the op-ed section
of your local newspaper. For
internships, try magazines. They’re
more interested in overall savvy
and talent, less interested in—are
you tiring of this?—those j-school
bona fides you don’t have.

4. You won’t be writing cover

stories for The New Yorker.
That particular magazine,
of course, is a coveted “all
star” market. Even most professionals
who’ve been at this for
years never get their bylines into
The New Yorker. I myself have
written for many prestige titles,
but in 20 years of on-and-off querying
I’ve yet to crack The New
Yorker. Yet college-level instruction
is exclusively geared to magazines
of that ilk. During my years
in academe, I found myself surrounded
by professors who clearly believed that no magazine
but The New Yorker, Harper’s and
The Atlantic was truly worthy
of being read.
And trust me on this: You will
never see professors teaching out
of Glamour or People.
There’s nothing philosophically
wrong with aiming high. The problem
is that training young writers to
write in one high-brow voice fails
to prepare them for more mainstream
assignments, or for the tonal
flexibility that will be needed to
work for a variety of markets.

5. There is such a thing as a

service piece.
College writing
classes place a premium
on originality, free expression,
“finding one’s voice.” They emphasize
critical thinking and tackling
the important issues of the day
via long, searching essays. The
notion of communicating personally
useful info to the reader seldom
seems to occur to anyone.
The writing professors I knew
were uniformly scornful of those
short “front-of-the-book” magazine
pieces on how to lose those love
handles or cook a roast in that
new, low-fat way.
The service piece may not be
your cup of tea. Learn to drink it
anyway, because it’s another excellent
way in. A friend of mine is a
good case study: After being laid
off from his editing job for a major
self-help publisher, he began writing
short service pieces for Better
Homes & Gardens. Gradually the
pieces got longer, while the pay got
higher. BHG now trusts him to
stretch out a bit, so he’s writing
more of the kinds of articles that
make most of us want to become
writers in the first place.
It behooves me to point out that
what you’re reading right now is, in
fact, a service piece.

6. Editors will faithfully read

your manuscript—until the
moment you lose their
Let me put that another
way: As soon as you lose their interest,
they stop reading. My students
were always shocked to learn that
there is no generally accepted covenant
that binds editors to reading
what you wrote in its entirety. Not
if what you wrote takes way too
long to get started.
Writing a salable manuscript is a
step-by-step seduction. If few college-
level wordsmiths get this core
truth, it’s because the average
teacher is willing to receive and
evaluate their work as a collection
of parts, rather than a cohesive
whole. Thus students never learn
to view a manuscript as an orderly,
pointed flow of information that
impels the reader steadily forward.
They expect a random, trenchant
insight buried on page 7 to redeem
an otherwise rambling, undisciplined
piece of work.
In the real world of publishing,
no editor will stick with that piece
until page 7. The trenchant gem
remains buried.

7. You write to fit—the market,

the publication, the
format, whatever.
Because I taught upper-level courses, I
encountered my litterateurs late in
the cycle. They did not understand
(because no one had made them
understand) the importance of writing
within an imposed structure, no
matter how commonsensical that
structure’s “constraints.” When I
forced them to do it for specific
assignments, they manifestly resented
it, and sometimes mutinied.
In most of my classes I assigned
a work of researched nonfiction,
such as a top consumer magazine
might run. One semester a graduating
senior turned in her assignment
as a nine-page poem, which she
appeared to have written off the top
of her head. She sneered at me
when I told her she had two
choices: Either do the research and
rewrite the piece in format, or
receive an F for the course. She
relented, but not before carping
about it to her advisor, who was my
department chair. He later stopped
by my office to “just chat a bit” with
me about my larger goals for the
course. He suggested that I
should’ve given her a bit of praise
for the poem itself, which, he said,
“had some nice moments.”
Writing students naturally
assume that writing is author-driven,
not market-driven. Their
professors (and, regrettably, many
visiting celebrity writers) encourage
them to believe that if you write
what you want to write, eventually,
“if it’s good enough,” some important
publication will run it. As if!
If your voice doesn’t fit the publication,
guess who’s going to have
to adapt or perish? The idea is to
make editors like you and take you
under their wing, not hate you and
want to burn your manuscripts.
Tip: Always ask yourself: Does
my writing sound like the publication
I plan to send it to? This
sounds obvious enough, but you’d
be shocked at how seldom young
writers even think of this step.

8. The big-money opportunities

are in giving readers
priceless info ... not your
2 cents.
Because so many colleges
teach writing through the medium
of the personal essay—or heaven
help us, the “thesis paper” (see
#10)—academically trained
writers, like the student aforementioned,
often fall into the trap of

writing off the tops of their heads.
Post-college, the best-paying
writing jobs are in reported feature
journalism. I frequently encountered
resistance when I tried to get
students to imbue their work with
those inconvenient little items
called facts. They’d complain that I
was changing their tone or voice, or
that the factual material “just didn’t
seem to fit” in their stories. Even as
seniors, my incoming students had
relatively little formal training in
the use of research resources and
far less training in firsthand digging—
making phone calls, doing
interviews, checking court records
and the like. This is a deficiency the
young writer must learn to overcome
in order to land actual assignments
with viable frequency.
Tip: Invest in a good book on
the craft of reported magazine
journalism. Take a week you were
going to spend with Tom Wolfe or
Toni Morrison and give it over to
the journalism book instead. Sure,
some of it is going to seem pedantic,
boring, “anti-creative.” Trust
me, it’ll pay for itself a thousand
times over during the course of
your career, if only because it may
allow you to have a career.
Even novelists need to know
how to dig.

9. It’s a big, wide, unheard-of

world out there.
The American
Legion Magazine has
what you might call negative cachet
in academia (and in New York publishing
circles, for that matter). It’s
so politically incorrect, with its
right-wing leanings, that I actually
stopped mentioning my substantial
body of work for it during chats
with academic peers. But during
the decade beginning in 1984, I
sold an even 40 pieces of varying
lengths to Legion—for an aggregate
payday of more than $75,000.
Legion is just one of hundreds of
second-tier publications that can
provide a writer with an excellent,
albeit fairly anonymous living. It’s
the official publication of the
nation’s largest veterans organization.
Kiwanis, The Lion’s Club and
many other associations, industries
and even major companies also
have publications that need writing
help. You’d never know it from
what they teach in college, where
such markets are roundly scorned
for their “low-brow” content.
Shameless confession: I once
did an annual report for a company
that came to me in last-minute desperation:
10 pages of prose, six days
of actual writing. There are worse
ways to make $16,500.

10. We don’t call it a ‘thesis

Your lede has a few problems,
but at least you didn’t bury the nut
graf this time. I’m gonna need a
one-line bionote; you can send it
with those cutlines I asked for. By
the way, I didn’t know you were
going to do this as a round-up, but
I think it works. I’ll let you know
more after we get this top-edited...
If you just emerged from a
college writing curriculum, you
probably haven’t a clue as to what
I just said.
Not only don’t they teach you
real-world lingo in college, but they
leave you steeped in an academic
jargon (like “thesis paper” instead of
“essay” or “think piece”) that fairly
screams “I’m a novice!” There’s
nothing more embarrassing than
getting lost during conversation
with professional editors because
you don’t know the terminology.
Find the time to learn. Talk to a
few actual writers. Attend a writers
conference or workshop (not an
academic one).
There’s money to made out
there and rewards to be had. It
just helps if you know what you’re
talking about. #


Stever Robbins said...

I have no connection to professional writing, though I've written several dozen, if not hundred, articles as PR for my business. (I don't count. Is that wrong of me?) I've even been paid good money for writing.

A few years ago, I investigated returning to get a DBA (Doctor of Biz). The woman in charge of the program read many of my articles and gave me the opposite advice you give.

"Your work is too accessible. It's too humorous. It's written to give people concise, usable information. It's written in the styles of business magazines... if you come here, you'll have to build a similar body of work like this..." And she handed me an article from an academic journal.

Shudder <-- can't say shudder in academic publications.

That was the happy end of my DBA aspirations.

Several years later, I've ended up working in the administration of Babson College. I'm very, very fortunate. Babson prides itself on a balance between and mutual respect between academics and practitioners. Both teach and design curriculum, and we strive to give students both perspectives as we prepare them for life, academic or "real world."

It's also resulted in some truly leading-edge classes, such as the "buying a business class," run by a practitioner, in which students actually buy a business they'll run upon graduation. At Harvard, they just discuss other people who bought businesses.

I didn't come to Babson for that reason; it's been an unexpected bonus. But what a great bonus it is! As far as I have been able to discerne, there are very few colleges that manage that balance.

Steve Salerno said...

The woman in charge of the program read many of my articles and gave me the opposite advice you give. "Your work is too accessible. It's too humorous. It's written to give people concise, usable information. It's written in the styles of business magazines... if you come here, you'll have to build a similar body of work like this..." And she handed me an article from an academic journal.

I don't understand why that advice is "opposite" to what I say here. I think you're actually making my point (i.e. about academia's detachment from the kind of writing that is valued in the real world). But maybe we're misunderstanding each other.

Yes, Stever, balance is the key here. (I know I'm making at least one of our regulars very happy in saying that.) By no means am I suggesting that academic programs should focus all coursework around preparing students to write for People or ESPN. I'd just like to see more recognition of the fact that writing is--as I say in the piece reprinted here--an actual trade. A livelihood. Apropos of that, I'd I'd like to see more of a mentality organized around serving the student. Kids who embark on writing programs usually have dreams of making their living (at least in part) as a writer. Maybe in an ideal world they'd all like to be Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe, but if they can't quite make that cut, they'd still rather do something "writing-related" than work as electricians or administrative assistants. Very, very few of the writing programs that currently exist are designed to service/facilitate the goal of professional writing.

Lana said...

Excellent article.

Having just read Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin, I think you need to continue being the maverick!

What a notion, huh? Notion is the word verification :-)

Steve Salerno said...

And please don't anyone tell me "well, there are journalism programs for that." First of all, as I say in the lede for the piece in this post, most writing students don't even realize till way too late that what they actually want to do is closer to journalism than to writing (per se)--or that if they want to "use their writing degree to make a living," they're going to have make some concessions in style and voice, and drift quite a bit towards the journalism side of the scale. Besides, even if you want to write nothing but books and short stories, most writing programs totally ignore the entire positioning, prospecting and marketing component of that endeavor. In fact, such programs tend to communicate the idea that any concessions made to marketing and "commercialism" are some kind of sin.

Steve Salerno said...

Lana: I flinched when you used the word maverick. Still a bit too close to this past election season for me to bracket myself that way. ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - As president of the authors & publishers association (, I've participated in quite a few conferences and panel discussions that focused upon helping new authors more effectively reach their target audiences. While our primary area of interest is the book industry, much of the advice you offer in this article mirrors the advice we typically give to authors.

Our organization differs from the 100+ "writing" groups in the Houston area, in that we eschew reading & critiquing sessions, and focus more upon integrating one's work into the publishing industry and ultimately, the marketplace. The "real" world, where people actually buy & read books.

I have little patience for those who choose to "suffer for their art," which I interpret as being a rather grandiose demand for readers to assume responsibility for the author's failure to communicate. Unfortunately, that is exactly the attitude most typically fostered in the academic setting. That's why so many academic publications are ultimately little more than exercises in mental masturbation. Never read outside the realm of academia, but oh, so clever and well-documented! Instructing students in writing such works is useful only to those whose aspirations are limited to academia, IMO.

Perhaps rather than apply for an existing position within a department, you - and the students - would be better served by proposing the creation of a chair (or at least courses) specifically dedicated to the "real world." You might actually be surprised at the responses you get.

And by the way, would you mind if I forward a link to this discussion to our membership? I think it would be an invaluable source of information for man authors who cling to the notion of bending the world to their brilliance. :-)

Lana said...

Positive heretic? Positive deviant?

I'm sure you can come up with something you like :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Good to see that our stars are aligned in this matter. Forward away!

Lana: "Positive deviant"?? Now why do I think that might pose a few problems during interviewing? "Hi, I'm Steve Salerno, I'm a positive deviant and I'm interested in working with young people..."

Lana said...

LOL! The idea is NOT to show all your cards during the interviews.

I still think there must be progressive schools that would love to have you.

I like Ron's idea of doing your own workshops.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I like Ron's idea of doing your own workshops."

And if you bill yourself as a "progressive deviant," you'll be sure to attract every literary drag queen within a hundred miles. Talk about focused marketing! :-)

Stever Robbins said...

Er, by "opposite," I really meant "the same." I was writing very informally. See? It would never stand up to academic standards.

Steve Salerno said...

Nonsense, Stever. You'd fit right in!

Cal said...

Great post, Steve. I think your suggestions could probably be adapted for many fields. Someone should give this out to all those who want to be "writers". I wish I knew how to do it, because the colleges won't. They'll just keep up their charade, and continue to receive tuition money.

RockitQueen said...

Bravo on these tips, Steve. I wish I'd heard these while I was in journalism school. I spent the first 7 or so years of my writing career beating myself up because I couldn't get published in Rolling Stone. I've since found that I enjoy doing corporate writing (horrors!) nearly as much as I like writing my own missives...I leave those to my blog! Plus, I can actually live on the salary.

Nyctotherion said...

I loved this piece! I'm one of those people scared away by academic creative writing courses. Really, my teacher couldn't have been nicer or more supportive; my angsty poestry was a centerpiece of the literary magazine, she clearly loived my work more than anyone elses, and could not understand that at the time all I wanted to do was be HP Lovecraft or Clive Barker.
Your essay actually reminded me that maybe I wasn't wrong to want that. Might be too late now, though-- I write quite a bit still, but the idea of allowing anyone -- my closest friends, even-- to read my work terrifies me.

Steve Salerno said...

Nycto, thanks for weighing in. Let me just say this: Terrified or not, you must ask yourself: What is the point of writing, if not to be read?

You can't imagine (or maybe you can) how many people I've encountered at writer's workshops where I've made presentations, and they'll come up to me afterwards, and once we've disposed of the pleasantries, I'll ask, "So what do you do for a living?"

And they'll announce brightly, "I'm a writer, of course!"

And I'll ask, "So where have you published?"

And they'll pause a moment, then say, "Um, well, I haven't actually worked up the courage to send anything out yet."

At which I usually say, "Well, until such time as you send something out for the consumption of at least one other sapient human being, you're not really writing. You're journaling. Please don't take that the wrong way. I'm just telling it like it is."

Stop being afraid of having people read you, Nycto. Writing is a highly subjective enterprise (duh), and even if all of your friends hate it, that doesn't necessarily mean your work lacks merit. There's the famous story of Mario Puzo, who couldn't even sell The Godfather until the second round of submissions, after being rejected by dozens of publishers. On the other side of the coin, there's, well, me. When I was young and just starting out, I was too stupid to realize that Harper's doesn't usually buy work from novices, so I sent in my long first-person story about selling mirrors in Harlem...and guess what? They bought it. Point being, you never know till you try. And that story, that submission, is why I'm doing what I do today. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. But at least I can safely call myself a writer. ;)