Though I gave up the teaching game two years ago, I am still in contact with some of the students I felt most connected to. Recently, one of them sent me an email, asking about what jobs there are out there for English majors, besides teaching. I have done almost everything you can do with an English degree: taught, tutored, wrote for a newspaper, published my own work, worked for a publishing company, edited, copywrote, and proofread. But it has been a long haul. I graduated with no real sense of how to get my foot in the door to any of these areas. Below is my response to her. I hope it will helpful to college students with similar questions.
If you love your English classes, if reading and writing are the activities that make you feel most alive, then you should take this seriously and not be daunted by people who claim there is no practical use for these skills. The key to getting jobs with an English degree is experience, either in an internship or a job and/or using even writing and editing that you do on your own.
Any business needs people who can think analytically and deeply and creatively about anything from marketing plans, to advertising, to communication.
However, the truth is that in a capitalist economic structure, your analysis and creativity can only support you if someone ‘buys’ what you produce. In a dark sense, a lot of it comes down to selling something to a customer. So, if you learn to think creatively and insightfully in your English classes, you will be able to apply these things to a job that is maybe more suited to you than, say, social work or plumbing. But at the same time, there will be restrictions of your thought and what you produce.
In my experience, true engagement with life and continual questioning and exploring are sort of at odds with any 9-5 job. The best thing for a free spirit and an expansive mind is either to continue on to higher education, or to hone a craft so well that you can do it at your leisure and spend the rest of your time exploring life as meaningfully as possible. This is the only way I’ve found I can live authentically. It is asking a lot, though, and for many years I have edited, wrote, taught, published, and just kept hacking away at what was mine and what wasn’t. As a novelist and a person who needs lots of time to myself to explore thought, I have found that freelancing through a talent agency works well, allowing for hiatuses between assignments.
Below I list only 10 types of work that being an English major can prepare you for and that can be challenging and fulfilling for an English major. I don’t want it to seem like the options listed below are going to be utopias for everyone who loves Proust. One of them might be for you, though. We all have our own calling. The key is going to be continuing to listen to yourself and use your engagement with art and with insight to look into your own truest self. Can you read yourself like a short story, finding the themes that recreate themselves, the lyrical passages that move you the most?
You can’t make decisions out of fear. You have to imagine the best life possible and follow that thread.
I’m going to list jobs and a brief description. Remember that any of these job can be done for corporate or for nonprofit agencies. They all need this type of work.
1)Proofreading– You will look over manuscripts to make sure things are spelled correctly and follow correct format. Have to have attention to detail and be willing to spend long hours in silent commune with words on a page that aren’t your own.
2)Copy Editing-Looking over manuscripts for spelling, but also for correctness of information, clarity of writing, structure, etc. You have to love correcting language and reading and know your grammar inside and out.
3)Copywriting– You will be writing anything from brochures to ads to eBlasts to newsletters depending on where you end up. Actually best to take a few communications courses, or even just one, along with your English courses to get a job in this. Writing gigs are pretty much all based on portfolio, so it’s good to start building a portfolio as soon as possible. It is good to do pro bono work and to just offer your services for free at first. The key is proving you can do it. The money you make afterwards will help make up for those unpaid hours.
4)Editing– I’m sure you’re aware of what an editor does: the oversee the scope of the projects a magazine or press puts out and take responsibility for fiscal as well as literary decisions. It is something to work up to: hard to get a paying gig immediately, but definitely possible once you’ve paid your dues. Requires vision and creative ideas, thinking creatively and strategically, knowing your audience, and being able to make hard decisions.
5)Marketing– You can work as a writer in a marketing department, which would fall under copywriting, or as a marketing specialist, which would mean that you would have to creatively think of ways to market products or ideas (for example, one could work for PETA in the department that helps PETA’s programs, brochures, getting the word out, etc.
6)Technical Writer– You learn about a niche thing and then write about it for trade magazines. Not my thing, but if you happen to love engineering or biology or business, you have a big head start.
7)Reporting– You write articles for a newspaper. I did this as a stringer for Ontario County’s Daily Messenger. Can pay a decent salary and allows you a voice in the community. Have to interview people and not be afraid to go to scenes and do research.
Freelance Writer– Writing articles for publications and getting paid per article. Not a great way to pay the big bills, but is something you can always do to bring in extra money and build a portfolio. Plus, you get to write about things that interest you and market your own voice.
9)Tutoring- A decent way to make money on the side without actually being a teacher. Have to be patient and care about the subject matter and generally want to help people learn.
10)P.R.– Doing public relations requires writing press releases, knowing a lot about the organization you represent, and liking people. English majors who are also people persons with a flair for the dramatic might be well suited here.
What I didn’t know when I graduated college, or even grad school, was that the key to getting these jobs I wanted was experience and a portfolio. But how to get experience if no one would give me a job with it? The answer has been to do the work anyway…for literary magazines, for nonprofits, to find ways to get the experience now, even if it’s nonpaying. Just keep taking steps forward. If you love to write, write. If you love to read, read. If you love to talk about ideas, talk about ideas.
And, like I say in my Web 2.0 philosophy, the best way to move forward is to start creating the things you want to see, to do, to be a part of. Look for ways to join the world and be open. And if you truly love literature, or writing, or both, trust that love and what is means about your potential value to the world. This world needs those who love literature and language in more ways than it knows.