Around this time of year—as new college graduates are hitting the cold reality of the working world—I start getting questions about how to find work as a writer. How did I get started? What advice can I share?
When I got my undergraduate degree in English, I had no idea how to get a job. None. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, so getting the degree was the big goal for me. Nobody gave me much career counseling, and I didn’t know enough to look for it myself.
I struggled to find a job, and I was really close to having to move back home to live with my parents. I worked in direct sales for a while and then landed a job at an insurance brokerage owned by a friend’s father. They were nice people, and I was incredibly grateful to have a job, and I liked working there, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.
At the same time, I had a friend who had just graduated with a political science degree and had started working for political groups and writing pieces that were getting placed in newspapers. I was astonished. I mean, I was the writer. I was the one who had written for the school paper in high school and college.
Find a Niche
Pick a niche and look for an opening.
Upon reflection, I decided his biggest advantage was that he had a niche: politics. He had something to write about, and I didn’t.
It took me many more years and a roundabout path, but I finally ended up with a masters in biology and as much work as I could handle as a science writer and editor. Learning to write about something complicated turned out to be an especially great edge because not many people can understand medicine and biology and write well.
You actually don’t need an advanced degree to become a science writer or, I imagine, a writer in any complicated field, but if you’re just starting out, immersing yourself in a difficult field so you can write about it intelligently and with insight is a path I recommend. You will have less competition, and these tend to be smaller universes, so once you get a little experience, it will be easier to network.
Identify Opportunities That Make You Attractive
When you’re just getting started, you need to look for an opening. For me, a laboratory fire at UC Santa Cruz was my first big break—it got me my first freelance writing assignment for the magazine “The Scientist.” I heard about the fire from a friend on campus, and I immediately cold called the editorial offices at “The Scientist.” Because I already read the magazine, I was…