I grew up wanting to be a writer and teacher, and over time, it became clear that I wanted to lead a classroom in the college level. I loved everything about writing—group workshops, discussions of craft elements, sudden moments of inspiration, impromptu writing exercises, and the deep reading of literary texts. I was convinced that getting an MFA in creative nonfiction would be the key to landing a tenured job as a professor (in my local area, of course), while helping me grow as a creative writer.
But I was so very naive. (Repeat: so very naive.)
Scoring a tenured position (or any classroom job for that matter) is extremely difficult, even with a terminal degree. You’re vying for positions against other writers with MFAs, as well as individuals with PhDs. You need to be published—and not just essays and short stories, even if you’ve published a ton. You need books. You need classroom experience (and how can you get that without being hired?) and you need connections. You basically need to be perfect (which I wasn’t) and willing to relocate (which I couldn’t). So, what’s a writer to do when she isn’t getting hired as a teacher?
She gets creative.
If I wasn’t going to teach, I knew I wanted to be a storyteller and inspire others to do the same. You see, I come from the early days of personal blogging. The time when a blog was a diary of sorts, and the best blog writers took their personal stories and made the lessons they shared relatable and applicable to an audience at large. So, how could I leverage my love of blog writing and my graduate degree in creative nonfiction?
At the time, I was fortunate to have a long career in human resources, which meant I wasn’t scrambling to land just any ol’ job. I could be picky and spend my time looking for the right one for me. I searched job sites for terms like “blog writer” and eventually found a start-up content marketing agency that was the perfect fit for me. After some time, I went off on my own to work as a writer and a content strategist, and I finally feel as if I found the perfect-for-me career. This is where I belong and this is where I’ll always be.
But for a long time, especially since I run my own business and work alone with no colleagues to share stories with, I’ve wondered how many other MFA graduates jumped into a content marketing career. Did they fall into it out of desperation for a job—any job—or did they embrace it, like me, with excitement? I interviewed five other writers on what led them to getting an MFA, how they evolved from creative writer to content marketer, and what advice they’d share with other creatives looking to enter the field. Here are their stories.
J. G. C. Wise, Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
Like me, writer J. G. C. Wise pursued a fiction MFA with the hopes of one day leading a classroom. He says, “I originally applied for an MFA because I wanted to teach writing and also because I believed I’d come out of it with a finished book ready to publish.”
Becoming a content marketing writer wasn’t something in his line of vision. Wise says, “Content marketing was not something I was considering during the MFA program.” Later on, though, he eased into it as a way to earn more money and flex his creative muscle. He says, “I picked up a content gig on the side while I worked my full-time job, then upon getting laid off, I took on more content projects. It’s still very much a part-time thing for me, but I’m hoping to get more into it.”
And while he is new to the freelance content marketing world, he’s already heard the opinions of both industries. Wise says, “I’ve met a few people in the marketing world who didn’t feel that an MFA was enough qualification for content writing, which was a little discouraging. Equally frustrating, and a little ironic, are the writers who feel that content marketing is something like selling out, as if there are so many writing opportunities outside of journalism that pay. Even so, I know my MFA has helped me with my content writing. Word choice, sentence structure, and brevity are all skills I honed during the MFA program and without it I wouldn’t be able to write the way I do for my content job.”
I asked him what type of advice he’d give to a current student or graduate of an MFA program. Wise says, “I would tell them to remember the fact that content marketing is a certain type of writing, not so much narrative as informative. In addition, working in content will probably require more than just writing. At the very least, a writer will be required to research topics and cite sources in an article or post, and oftentimes, writers will be asked to find images that can be used legally and sometimes they’re even asked to have skills in Photoshop and other image editing programs. So even if a job includes the word ‘writer,’ be prepared for requirements beyond putting words on the page.”
Image attribution: Brad Neathery
Heidi St. Jean, Poetry
While Heidi St. Jean, a senior copywriter, saw the value of a terminal degree and how it gave her the opportunity to teach, she chose an MFA program because she also wanted to immerse herself in a creative atmosphere. “I had multiple long goals,” she says. “I wanted a terminal degree that would allow me to teach at the college level, if I so chose, but I also wanted to be part of an artistic, creative writing community. I wanted to be back in academia, talking about literature, about craft with others to whom these things also mattered deeply. I already had been working for many years professionally as a writer but very much wanted my Master’s in Creative Writing, as a validation of the artist, the poet, within me; it was about bringing my personal writing work to the next level.”
But did her MFA prepare her to be a better content marketer, or did it simply fuel her creative desires? “I didn’t directly consider the MFA as a way to enhance my content marketing skills at the time,” says St. Jean, “although the current desirability of (and growing emphasis on) storytelling in business has helped increase the value of what I bring to my marketing team. In the content marketing world, one needs to be able to think strategically, but write laterally, or even vertically. If you can think creatively, can foresee multiple outcomes, you can create content that addresses multiple scenarios or options for your clients.”
St. Jean also has advice for creative writers who are interested in creating content for brands and businesses: “If you think you are interested in content marketing, consider an internship—try it out. Digital marketing is only growing; if you find it’s a good fit for you, it could help you create a solid career. However, it will be that much harder for you to maintain that connection with the academic world, the world of big ideas and deep literature. If you can manage to straddle that divide successfully, it can only benefit your work, in all directions.”
Deborah Ager, Poetry
While it may seem that most writers are interested in an MFA because it opens the doors to teach in the college level, that certainly isn’t the case. Deborah Ager wanted to fully immerse herself in studying the craft of writing in a scholarly program. “I applied for the MFA so I could improve my writing. At the time I applied, I was not considering teaching college,” she says.
Being a content marketing writer wasn’t something she thought about in school, either. Ager says, “When I was in the program, I didn’t consider content marketing. I went into marketing because I’d done nonprofit direct mail fundraising work before grad school.” That said, she does credit her study of craft in making her a better marketer. “I think the MFA helped my content work,” she says. “The degree helped lead me to create my own books, and that helped me in creating books for other people.”
She’s also noticed mixed reactions when people learn of her educational background. “I think some people found it strange I studied poetry,” Ager says. However, there’s been a shift of how people view her studies in comparison with her career. She continues, “More recently, people have expressed appreciation for my interest [in poetry]. In the current time, it’s ‘in’ to show vulnerability and to mix the personal and professional.”
Ager does have some suggestions for any creative writers who want to specialize in content marketing. She says, “My advice would be to decide if you prefer to work for yourself or a company. If you prefer to work for yourself, consider how you’ll focus your work. You can focus by services offered or by industry. Will you specialize in white papers or blogs? Which industry will you serve? The answers to these questions will save you time in the long run. You’ll know where to focus your own marketing efforts and experience success more quickly. If you choose to work for a company, you may be required to handle all sorts of content. Some people thrive with the variety, and some dislike it. So be sure you know what will be expected and if you’ll want to do that work.”
Kate Vogel, Fiction
Like Ager, Kate Vogel searched for an MFA program because she knew it would help her grow as a writer and she wanted to immerse herself in the study of her craft. She says, “I wanted to be an author and publish short stories and novels,” and she knew that dedicated time spent working on her writing would lead to more opportunities for publishing down the road.
Throughout her studies, the idea of a career in marketing never came up. “Content marketing wasn’t even on my radar in my MFA program; I don’t even think it was on our program’s radar. The only career they really pushed as possible with an MFA was teaching at the college level, something I soon learned was pretty far out of reach unless you wanted to live as an adjunct with no security. Without at least one published book, it’s basically impossible to teach college full-time. Even then, the competition is fierce. I tried to pursue college teaching for a long time after graduation, but it felt like banging my head against a wall. So I pulled back and began to look for writing jobs instead of teaching jobs, and found there was a huge demand for content writers and managers.”
But when she began applying for those jobs, she noticed the hiring managers didn’t pay much attention to the education section on her resume. “I found my MFA was less interesting to employers than my experience with content creation and social media, but such experience was only possible through my MFA program. I had built up a pretty serious ‘side hustle’ business, editing manuscripts for small presses run by faculty members and running social media and websites for other professors. The connections I made as an MFA candidate paid off in that way.”
While Vogel’s deep study of story was focused on creative pursuits, it’s certainly paid off in her career. “My MFA definitely helps. The study of story is incredibly important and something that content marketers are all scrambling to learn how to do. I went to a massive sales and marketing convention recently in Boston, and so many of the seminars were about crafting meaningful stories as part of your content marketing strategy. In that way, I am well ahead of folks who come to content marketing from a less ‘human’ approach to it.”
Vogel is honest in admitting that it can be tough to juggle a career as a content writer with creative pursuits. She says, “It’s a challenge to pursue my creative projects sometimes, because I do expend a good deal of story-writing energy on my day job; the last thing I want to do when I get home at night is stare at more computer screens. But I am lucky to have found a workplace that allows me to be creative and take risks, and one that also supports my ambitions to be an author. I was recently accepted to attend a writing residency and had the full weight of my boss behind me to get away and write my own stuff for two weeks, since he knew that creativity would feed my ability to tell new and better stories at work. I’m so grateful for that and recommend other writers advocate for time to work on their own projects as professional development.”
She also has recommendations for creative writers who are looking to test the waters as a freelance content marketing writer: “Remain authentic. The stories we are able to tell with our creative-writing backgrounds are the ones people actually want to read. Advocate for this way of reaching people; integrity and authenticity are the wave of the future in content marketing.”
Shauna Mitchell, Poetry
It can be tough to face your final year of undergraduate studies, especially if you don’t know what you’ll be doing in the near future. Should you start a career or continue into grad school? Associate editor Shauna Mitchell was faced with that very choice when she was a senior in college.
She says, “I decided to get my MFA after I was faced with some big life decisions. I was facing my last semester as an undergrad and felt pretty lost, like I had no idea where to begin my life. All I knew was that writing made sense to me, but I wasn’t sure how happy I’d be doing that for a living. Long story short, I was offered a job right out of college as a head hunter, but I wouldn’t have even been able to write as a hobby in the position. After a lot of soul-searching and talking to mentors and professors, I decided that getting my MFA was the best thing for me. I wouldn’t have to pretend that writing was just a hobby, I’d be able to focus on it full-time (while working odd-jobs, of course), and it really forced me to get serious about my own work. It’s scary to call yourself a writer because people really do expect you to be this artistic, cerebral, sullen person, so it was a huge weight off of me to say ‘yeah, I’m going to get my MFA’ and still be the same me that I was before.”
Unlike the other aforementioned writers, Mitchell had considered a career in content marketing while still a student. She says, “So I’ve only had my MFA for a few months, and I got into content marketing just a month before I graduated, so it has all been very whirlwind, but I have noticed that there’s a wide spectrum when it comes to the relationship between content marketing and writing. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by how little content marketing feels like marketing. A lot of my experience so far has been producing informative content that can actually help people improve their lives. Is it different than poetry? Yes, of course. It isn’t exactly a ‘traditional’ career path for an MFA grad. But there is a connection there, skill-wise and value-wise.”
She continues, “A big draw for me was that I’d be working in a semi-literary world without the burnout of, say, the publishing industry. I’ve heard from people in publishing, who say they’re too exhausted from reading other people’s work, that it makes them not want to write at all. So far, I haven’t felt any of that burnout! I think my position is just similar enough that my skills are engaged, but different enough that my energy isn’t totally drained when it’s time to write.”
She admits to sometimes feeling hesitant when telling others about her MFA. Mitchell says, “A lot of people don’t know what it stands for, and when I tell them, I get the impression that they’re wondering what my place is in content marketing. I never want to come across as pretentious or anything like that, because really the only difference between me and a poet without an MFA is that I was lucky enough to have the time and resources for it. I also think it’s harder to be a poet with an MFA because a lot of people don’t read or interact with poetry, so they don’t have a lot to say about it compared to someone who has studied fiction or non-fiction. When I talk to people about poetry, I get really excited and try to show them that it’s not as hard to read as you might initially think.”
Are you a creative writer interested in content marketing? I’d love to hear your thoughts and am happy to answer any questions. Let’s continue this conversation in the comments.
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About the AuthorMore Content by Erin Ollila