6 Lies (and 6 Truths) About Writing

As I probably mention every time I forget I’ve already mentioned it before, I write for a living.  I write book reviews.  I ghostwrite blogs.  My web page content brings all the personal injury clients to the firm (and they’re like, “your firm’s better than theirs.”  Damn right, it’s better than theirs).  Etc.

I didn’t start out as a writer, per se.  I did get an undergraduate degree in English, but then I went to law school.  I got a J.D., and then I practiced law for a while.  And then I said “screw this, I want to be a writer,” and started my own freelance writing business.  And, in doing so, I learned that a lot of the things I was told as a kid about being a professional writer are total crap – and some of them are actually true.

So: here are Six Things That Are False About Writing for a Living (and Six Things That Are True).  

1.  You can’t make a living as a writer.

False, but with a catch, which is this: you probably can’t make a living writing nothing but novels, unless you are lucky enough to be Stephen King – and even Stephen King was not lucky enough to be Stephen King at first.  Same with J.K. Rowling – she was living in a garret with no heat and an infant when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel.   It’s not impossible to make novel-writing a significant part of your life, if that’s what you want; just don’t expect it to be your only day job.

Also, you definitely cannot make a living writing nothing but poetry.  Don’t even try.

Despite these, however, it is true that one can make a living – and a good one – writing things all day.  Think about it: everything from the user’s manual to your car to the directions on your shampoo bottle were written by somebody.  If you’re sufficiently motivated and can make a simple declarative sentence, there’s no reason that somebody can’t be you.  Which brings me to Lie Number Two:

2.  Running your own freelance writing business is so much harder than being employed that you will never succeed at it.

This, you may have guessed, is false.

It’s also lies that were never said to me in quite this way.  Rather, I usually heard something like “oh, but running your own business is hard!”, in a tone of voice that clearly meant “so hard you won’t want to do it.”

It’s the tone part that is the particular lie.  Because it is true that running your own business is more work than simply working for someone else.  Especially if you’re a one-writer show, because you’re solely responsible for everything.  Out of printer ink?  You get to run to the store.  Cat barfed on your desk?  You get to clean it up!  Internet shut off for failure to pay the bill?  You get to call the phone company!  And so on.

3.  Anything with “freelance” in the title – including freelance writing – isn’t a “real job.”

As you may have guessed after #2 above, this one is also false.  Freelance writing can be “a real job” in every sense: it pays the bills, it requires your full-time attention, it involves doing competent work and selling your abilities and meeting deadlines and improving yourself so as to earn more money and take on more responsibilities.  You may not commute, but most of us see that as a perk.

While I was with the law firm, my normal work week was 60 hours.  Now, my normal work week is 40 to 60 hours – but I can do nearly all of them in my pajamas.  (I recently had a Skype meeting while wearing a blouse, a suit jacket, and my pajama bottoms.  Shh!)

It is true, however, that you need greater focus and discipline when you’re a freelancer than you do as part of a standard workplace, especially if you’re the only one working.  Sticking to a work schedule of some kind is important, as is figuring out where and when you can – and cannot – work.  It’s not for everyone.  But it’s not impossible, either.  And folks who are suited to freelancing generally find that they wouldn’t go back to standard employment for any amount of money.

4.  There are no jobs for people with English degrees.  There are especially no jobs for people with graduate degrees in English.

This one is false.  Falsity falsity false.  So false it makes me lolsob, because I went to law school – and don’t even want to talk about my student loan debt as a result – on the premise that it was not-false.

If you can communicate well, people will hire you.  You may have to dig a bit harder to find a job, and be willing to capitalize on your experience from non-English-related jobs, hobbies, student organizations, and other doings in order to get yourself a job with your shiny new English degree.  But it’s simply not true that you will be relegated to scrubbing the toilets at Wendy’s for the rest of your professional life.  If you love working with words, you can find a job that lets you do that all day long – even if you have to start your own business to get it.

It is also true that there are jobs to be had with an M.A. in English – in fact, there are many jobs you can’t get without this coveted bit of paper.  Next time someone tells you that an M.A. in English is a waste of your time, point the naysayer to the job listings at MediaBistro – there are about a dozen new ones a day that require an M.A. in English.  You’ll almost certainly have to move to New York City, but even in this economy, the pickings are hardly slim.

5.  The only thing you can do with an English degree is teach.

If you’ve read this far, you don’t need me to tell you this one is false.  You can teach, and if you have any interest in teaching, you should definitely look into it.  Teaching isn’t what it used to be in a lot of places – budgets are falling, adjuncts are replacing (and being worked much harder than) tenured professors, and so on.  But there are still good institutions out there, and you can still be happy in the profession if it’s where you like to be.

Don’t overlook non-standard teaching options, like teaching abroad, teaching or tutoring English as a Second Language, or getting a teaching degree in order to write curriculum materials or study guides.

It’s true that an English Education degree can be more valuable than an English degree, especially if you’re considering teaching or writing materials for teachers.  If I could give my 18-year-old self one piece of advice, it’d be to stick with the B.S. in English Education – it opens up a lot of writing-related career doors that a B.A. in English doesn’t, and many of them aren’t in the classroom.

6.  Nobody reads anymore/nobody needs to write in their work anymore/English is a lost art.

This one earns not only a “false,” but an “O RLY”?

O RLY? Owl says, "O RLY?"

…Yet, ironically, I heard it more often during my years as an undergraduate English major than I have anywhere else.

Here’s the scoop.  Curmudgeonliness aside, people do still read books – and user’s manuals and FAQs and advertising copy and warning signs and and and – and they do still communicate in English.  True fact: people worldwide communicate in English now more than ever (another reason to consider that English as a second language teaching certification!).

As for “nobody needs to know English in the real work world,” well – you try going to to work and not reading, writing, speaking, or listening to anything or anyone.  (Also, how do you plan to ask for a raise?)



  1. euphqueen1 says:

    “As for “nobody needs to know English in the real work world,” well – you try going to to work and not reading, writing, speaking, or listening to anything or anyone. (Also, how do you plan to ask for a raise?)”

    Simple. I will ask for my raise via the seldom-used art of semaphore flagging. Um, but I’ll still need to say “Everybody, duck!” first.


  2. Dani Alexis says:

    As a former Girl Scout, I “like” this comment a billion billion times. SEMAPHORE!


  3. Candice says:

    This is great. I’ve fallen into spreading the lies about an English major, which I’m sad to say! I think that unless you major in something that has an obvious career path, you almost have to look outside the box for jobs, no matter what you’ve gotten a degree in. Honestly though, if I had to do college all over again if I didn’t go a boring, practical route and major in accounting or business, I’d major in English – it was always my favorite subject.


  4. This is an inspiring and informative piece. Nothing rings louder in any form of communication than truth and I can not help but feel that some truth was revealed here.


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