Jessica Max Stein

Advice to a Young Writer

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | January 11, 2012 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: how to write


A former student recently emailed me to ask, "What should an aspiring writer do at this point with a Bachelor's in English Literature?" This is what I told her.

I appreciate your asking my advice.

My short answer to what ANY aspiring writer should do: Write.

Any aspiring writer should write, find your voice, find what you have to say, write because you enjoy it, because that enjoyment is what makes you a writer. Practice it like any other skill. Write, and start looking around for magazines, journals, newspapers, websites or what-have-you that publish pieces similar to what you write. Look for their submission guidelines, and when you feel ready, send them your work.

I have an M.F.A. in creative writing. However, you don't need school to become a writer. Sometimes writing programs can make you self-conscious about your work, less free to simply do the writing you want to do. Writing programs are better once you feel relatively secure in your writing voice.

The writer/teacher life is a trade-off. I teach part-time, which leaves more time to write. Full-time college teachers are often expected to have a Ph.D. I don't think this is worth it: 8+ years and too much debt for not enough job security. I know many people who have gotten a Ph.D. and not found work as professors, or found work only in places they'd rather not live (and sometimes live there anyway, unhappily). But some writers do get Ph.Ds, and teach, and write on their breaks. This is probably more suited to those who write scholarly work.

Alternatively, any number of jobs are delighted to have someone who works in words. Editing, copyediting, proofreading, freelancing... Even a receptionist or assistant is more valuable if he or she can dash off a clear letter or email or memo, etc..

Finally, even if you love writing, it need not be your day job. Writers need to have something to write about. If someone is only a writer, do they write about writing all day? Everything you learn and experience makes you a stronger writer, gives you a more developed mental model with which to understand and describe the world.

I hope this is helpful. Keep writing!

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