How To Get Work as a Writer

I have worked as a television screenwriter for most of my adult life, and currently I’m working as a video game writer. Some of WOS’s readers have asked me how to get work as a writer, and I was reluctant to write a post about that because it’s such an individual question. My story is specific to my education, location and vocation (though if you’re curious, I’ll include my story at the end of this post). But, I do know a lot of writers of various disciplines (screenwriters, journalists, magazine editors, game writers, copy editors), so I decided to put that combined knowledge into a general post on how to get work as a writer. Here goes…

Work as a Writer

1. Education

Professional writers, myself included, have all met aspiring writers who say, “Oh, I already know how to write. I got A’s in English class. I just need someone to hire me!” Or, even worse, “I don’t need to go to school for writing because creativity can’t be taught.” But regardless of your stance on creativity (born with it or learned), everyone must educate themselves on the craft of writing. Why? Because each writing discipline is a little bit different and has its own format, structure and rules.

Acquiring a writing education doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get a degree or a masters, though those things may very well help. If full-time school doesn’t fit into your life right now, there are lots of continuing education courses you can take. Also, if you are good at teaching yourself, the plethora of writing craft books out there are a fantastic resource.

However, take note that the one big advantage of formal education, be it full-time or part-time, is connections. When looking at schools, choose one where the professors are working writers. Not only will your professor be a good connection when you graduate, they will know people in the business to introduce you to. Even better, befriend your classmates because they may very well be in a position to hire you or let you know of job opportunities in the future.

2. Writing Samples

To get a job as a writer, you need writing samples of the type of writing you want to be paid for. I stress that point because I’ve met people who have short stories and want to get a TV gig. Well, you can’t get a job writing television without a television spec script. If you followed step one and got an education in the type of writing you want to do, you should have writing samples from class assignments. Even so, you should write more and continuously improve your craft. Education is the step that never really stops.

3. Contacts

Next, make connections with people who can hire you. This is the step that frustrates most people. I bemoaned this myself when I was young and inexperienced, because it seemed as if people got jobs because of who they knew. And guess what? That’s absolutely true! So get out there and meet people. Again, if you went to school or took some writing classes, you’ve already got a few contacts. But the best way to make more is to simply approach people, either writers you admire or people you’d like to work for. You can find these people at industry events, conferences or online. Then ask if you can take them out for coffee and ask questions about the industry and their line of work. Do NOT ask for a job. This is not the time for that. If you’ve met a really generous person, they may request your writing samples, but don’t hand them a stack of paper on the spot. It’s the 21st century; email it. Afterwards follow up with a thank you. If you’re really lucky and you two hit it off, the other person may add you to their social network. Congrats! You’ve made a connection.

But what about the introverts? Some writers don’t feel comfortable talking to strangers. Well, luckily it is the Age of Internet and many connections can be made online via Twitter and blogging. Though I would still recommend meeting in person if possible.

4. Patience and Persistence

Finally, it’s important to note that once you finish the first three steps, the job offers won’t come promptly rolling in. And this seems like the appropriate time to tell my story…

> My Story

RyersonUniI attended Ryerson University for Radio & Television Arts and focused on screenwriting. Ryerson has a great program with professors who work in the industry. And I made even more contacts by interning at a small production company that produced great kids shows. I also went to some industry events Ryerson hosted where I met a writer who grew up in the same area of rural Ontario that I did. And I graduated with a television spec script that was okay but not great (as is to be expected from a 22-year-old newbie).

Then for the next four years I worked grunt jobs in the television and film industry (production assistant, driver, security – aka guarding pylons, etc.). During that time I read more screenwriting books and wrote another script, one that was much better than the one I wrote at Ryerson. I asked a few of my writer contacts if they could give me feedback on it. One of them was the writer I mentioned above. Another was a former professor at Ryerson who was now a full-time screenwriter. They both agreed it was a very good sample script.

Soon after that, I applied to the Canadian Film Centre for the Television Writing program. I don’t remember how I heard about it. My former professor might have told me. Either way, the deadline was that month and I had a spec script and letters of recommendation from my mentors, so I sent in the application. After paying off university, I had no plans to pay for more education (didn’t I already know how to write?), but the CFC program is prestigious and responsible for launching many screenwriting careers, so I gave it a shot.

And I got in. It was a six-month, full-time program. I quit my job and went back to school. I learned some stuff about writing, but the most important thing I got from that program was that our tiny class of eight was introduced to everybody in the entire TV industry in Toronto. We met all the agents, all the producers, and all the broadcasters.

So when we graduated, we all got jobs right away, right? Not exactly. This is where the patience comes in. I was actually the first person to get a writing job in my class, but it wasn’t from a connection I made at the CFC, it was from that writer I met years ago. He finally got his own show greenlit! Which meant he could hire who he wanted, and he wanted to give me a shot at my first writing credit. Yippee! And my second job also came from a contact made years ago while interning at that small production company that was quickly getting much bigger. Now, this is not to say the CFC didn’t have a big impact on my career because it certainly did. Graduating from the CFC  gave me more credibility in the eyes of the contacts I made years earlier.

And then the ball just started rolling. One writing job led to another job which led to another. But that only happened because I had the education, the writing samples, the contacts, and the patience and persistence not to give up during those years working grunt jobs.

And now you all know my story! And even though I quit my career years ago, the contacts I made while I was a full-time screenwriter continue to come through with part-time writing gigs here and there. That’s how I ended up writing a video game this summer.

What about the rest of you? Are you paid to write stuff? How did you get that work? Share in the comments if you feel so inclined.

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

26 thoughts on “How To Get Work as a Writer”

  1. I can second about formal educational being a great opportunity to meet contacts. I met a lot of great people through Ryerson’s Publishing program that have led to some editing opportunities for me. In my case, I was taking the courses online, but I participated a lot in discussion boards and reached out to the people I enjoyed chatting with to continue the connection. As you say, sometimes the opportunities come up a lot later, but they do come! Thanks for sharing your story with us. 🙂

    1. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Ryerson’s Publishing program. Enough to make me consider taking it myself. So glad you had a good experience and made connections there. Also, congrats on your new editing business!

      1. Thanks very much! I appreciate you coming by. 🙂 If you ever seriously think about taking up the Publishing program, let me know and I can provide some course recommendations. As with all of these programs, some aspects of it were better than others!

  2. You have really great advice here! I’m teaching myself the craft of novel writing (I’m currently taking an MA in English Literature so I might move onto an MA in creative writing, depending on how I get on). I always wondered about how to make connections (I never thought of looking for conferences), and I have read a lot of remarks about how learning how to write well is a waste of time, which knocked my confidence. It’s good to know that this a journey that will take several years too and that you have done so well!

    (Also, I’m from the UK and agree that asking to meet up for a coffee may seem strange, but mainly if you are asking the opposite sex and/or don’t make it clear your intentions e.g. that (a) I like you work and (b) I only want advice).

    Thanks again for the great post! 🙂

    1. Learning to write is never a waste of time! That implies a “you’re born with talent or not” kind of BS that discourages new writers and, even worse, lulls experienced writers into complacency. So go forth and learn! And pick people’s brains over drinks not coffee. Unless you find yourself in Canada. 😉

  3. This is such an interesting post, I’m glad you did decide to write it, because it really isn’t something that is often talked about. I think that this post proves that while it is certainly an individual process, you can definitely offer some insight into the process in general. As someone who is very interested about writing as a career, I think this is a brilliant resource, so great job. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Emma! Glad you found the advice helpful. And it’s true that people don’t talk about getting work in creative fields enough, and when they do make it sound like chance, as if they were just in the right place at the right time. Which may be partly true, but is never the whole story. 🙂

  4. I like this advice – it’s a lot more pragmatic and realistic than a lot of stuff you read on topics like this. I’ve read so many things that seem convinced formal education is a waste of time – despite the fact that many people in the industry have some. I suppose they reason you can technically get the information yourself but then ignore that one ever does.

    I was a bit taken back by the advice to ‘ask [industry experts] if you can take them out for coffee and ask questions about the industry and their line of work.’ but I think that might be a cultural thing. In the UK I might ask someone if they wanted to go for a drink at the pub but asking to go for a coffee outside of a workplace canteen or lunchbreak seems so odd. If somebody that wasn’t my close friend asked me to get a coffee with them outside of work, without some kind of justifying context, I’d assume they were asking me on a date.

    1. Thanks, Scott! I understand the skepticism around expensive writing programs too, especially since there are so many, far more than there is work. The key is finding a program that provides contacts as well as lessons. Like you wrote in your blog, the other benefit of a writing program is actually writing! It’s get-off-your-butt-and-do-this motivation. I like how you compared a writing course to a gym – if you’ve paid for something, you’ll do it.

      And wow, that’s an amusing cultural difference re coffee/drinks, because in Canada a midday coffee is a common professional meet-and-greet. If someone asked me out for an alcoholic drink, I’d be more inclined to wonder if it was a date.

      I will keep your comment in mind if I ever find myself meeting industry professionals in the UK. 😉

  5. Thanks for this post – it seems hard to find the “doors” into screenwriting, but I wonder how many people say that about journalism or photography or all kinds of creative fields. You were smart to keep writing – it gave you a script that you could put forward when the time came. I feel like that’s where a lot of people give up – I struggle to stay motivated to keep writing when it feels like it’s not going anywhere!

    If you write again – and I really hope you will! – I’d love to hear more about the CFC program.

    1. So true. The doors to any competitive, creative industry always seem hard to find before you know where they are. But people are willing to give newbies directions. And a good script is key. And if the first or second or third script doesn’t open the doors, then write more. Perseverance! 🙂

  6. Point four is where it’s all at. I’d say personally the most difficult part of working as a writer is being patient and pushing through when things take longer than expected to work out.

    Thank you for sharing your story- it’s always awesome to read about people who pushed through, didn’t give up and are now doing amazing things.

  7. I can add how I built a career as a business writer (although I also write novels now and am published but that’s another story). I had chances to write articles at work. We were business consultants and often newspapers would print our advice. So I started doing that. Then we had an offer to co-publish with our statewide business newspaper and I volunteered to be managing editor. This meant I decided on content areas, wrote a lot of articles, and edited other writers. Eight years ago I went out on my own and a good chunk of my income is from writing pro level business articles. My point: look for opportunities where you are .None of my co-workers saw the opportunity but I guess that’s why I’m a writer and they aren’t Oh, and i don’t have a writing degree. Two degrees in business.

  8. Going through your post and your story, the only thing I’d add is the number of times other people gave up.

    Some didn’t pursue the degree because it’s hard to get a job in that industry – and they gave up on their dream instead. Some went to school but didn’t graduate. Some struggled after school and took a job in another line of work and never went back. Some weren’t brave enough to quite their job and go six months full time at school again. And some won’t network or any of the other things you mentioned. It all looks easy now but none of it was guaranteed when you had to make those choices. I’m sure a lot of the time you doubted your decisions, but you were strong enough to forge ahead anyway.

    That may be the most important part of your story – the not giving up part.

    1. That’s true. I know many people who decided the artist’s lifestyle wasn’t for them, so they pursued more stable employment. Creative careers are volatile, whether you’re a writer or a musician or a photographer. Not giving up is key. Though for me it never seemed like much of a choice; I didn’t want to do anything else! So I made it work.

      Thanks for the comment, Dan!

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