Updated: Feb 6
by Bryanna Gary
Three years ago, when I was just starting out as a freshman in college, I was a computer science student. I didn’t like computer science all that much, but I wasn’t terrible at it, so I convinced myself that it was the best path to take because of what a lucrative field it is to get into.
I regretted it almost immediately. The only path that sounded right to me was writing, any sort of writing. “But Bryanna,” I’d tell myself, “you’re never going to make any money if you try to go into writing. It’s so competitive! You’ll never make it as a writer.”
It’s true that it’s not easy. But as a student, there are so many things you can do to get your writing noticed and to find opportunities to involve yourself in both creative writing and professional writing fields. I only wish I’d thought to take advantage of them earlier!
Here are five things I learned as a creative writing student.
1. Don't be afraid to put your writing out there
This might sound dumb and obvious, but hear me out.
When I first took a creative writing course, I noticed that while some of my classmates wrote fiction, none of them wrote science fiction, fantasy, or any of the other kinds of writing that I preferred.
Because of this, I felt almost ashamed of the writing that I most enjoyed creating and usually submitted any realistic fiction or essays that I had lying around for workshopping instead. The feedback I got was immensely helpful, but not for the kind of writing that I wanted to do. As a result, I found my creative writing classes boring and unhelpful, not because they were, but because I allowed my own self-consciousness and the expectation of what I should be writing to get in the way of me taking advantage of the workshopping process and improving the writing I actually enjoyed.
Being a writer means putting your writing out there and allowing your beloved work in progress that you treat like your own child to be (constructively) ripped to tiny little pieces. It might feel uncomfortable, and maybe sometimes you’ll end up in an environment where the kind of writing you do isn’t exactly the one most people in the room prefer. But you can’t explore your style, voice, strengths, and weaknesses as a writer if you aren’t trying to get feedback on the things you actually write about. Have confidence in what you write, and don’t be afraid to accept the criticism of your peers. A lot of times, I would come to the realization that the criticism I least liked to hear bothered me so much because I knew deep down it was what I needed to hear the most to make improvements.
2. Go to office hours
This is applicable to all majors and fields, but dear god, if there’s a professor who you think can provide you with unique opportunities or is just generally someone you’d like to know when you start your career, office hours is by far the best way to go about it. According to countless professors I’ve spoken to about it, office hours is the most boring part of their job, mostly because few people actually take advantage of it.
Those few hours that the professor is sitting there just waiting for a student to come in and have a conversation doesn’t necessarily just have to be if you’ve fallen behind on your work or if you can’t understand an assignment. Do you have an idea for a project outside of class and feel there’s a particular professor who might be able to give you advice on it, or even help you work on it? Is your professor an expert in an industry you want to be involved in? Are they well-connected in their field and can provide you with networking opportunities? Or does your professor just have an interesting story that you’d like to hear more about? Office hours.
This is such an underrated way to work your way into an industry, especially if you're an awkward noodle like myself and need a way to get to know someone you admire that doesn't necessarily require you to be the loudest one in the room.
I regret to say that I very rarely took advantage of office hours in my time in college, and now that it’s coming to an end, I can’t help but wonder what kind of relationships I could’ve made and opportunities I could’ve found if I’d taken advantage of the fact that very few people actually use this incredible resource.
3. Find or form a writer's group
I’m sure all writers can relate to the struggle of coming up with ideas. Whether it’s an essay, a press release, a short story, or a screenplay, it’s not uncommon to be “too close” to your own work, to the point where you’re limiting the kinds of ideas you can have. That’s where a writer’s group comes in.
What makes a writer’s group so great is that it’s a group of people you (ideally) trust and feel comfortable with, but they are all removed enough from your work that they can look at it from a perspective that you might not be able to see. During one meeting with a writer’s group I started with some friends, I had an idea for an urban fantasy but was concerned that the only plot points I could think of were too cliché and predictable. Once I presented that idea to the group, however, they provided all kinds of alternatives and creative ideas that could help my writing stand out without drastically changing the foundation of the story itself. I was astonished by how easily those ideas came to them, until I realized that they all had their own unique perspectives, preferences, and experiences that gave them ideas that I never would have thought of.
Something as simple as gathering in a coffee shop for a few hours and brainstorming ideas could be the difference between being stuck on your writing for days and being flooded with fantastic ideas that you can’t wait to execute. I also happen to go on little field trips with my writer’s group friends to The Fountain Pen Hospital to obsess over pens for an hour, but that’s just a bonus, really.
4. Take advantage of networking opportunities
Part of what makes career writing so difficult is the fact that a lot of writing-oriented jobs are so competitive that networking becomes an important part of breaking into the industry. When I changed majors and set my sights on the publishing industry, for example, I went to a panel in which fantasy and Afrofuturist author Sheree Renée Thomas was speaking. When asked how she got into publishing before becoming a published author, she explained it as luck: she happened to have a chance encounter with someone in the industry who ended up helping her break into it. According to her, it wasn’t about the school you went to or even the experience you had, but the people you knew. Resumes won’t necessarily be enough to get you hired.
I took that advice to heart and sought out internships to have references within the publishing industry prepared for when I graduate. I now stress that advice to you: do internships, submit to publications, get involved in social media and connect with other writers, connect with the professors of your writing workshops, and make friends with the other students. There are plenty of ways to network as a student, some of which I took advantage of, some of which I did not and came to deeply regret it. Don’t be afraid to meet people, because unfortunately, one of the reasons you may be told not to major in creative writing is that it can be so competitive that it's not always just about how skilled a writer you are; it's also about the people you know.
5. Find time to read whenever you can
While this one may also seem fairly obvious, it’s something we often tend to forget as students: to be a good writer, you have to read.
When you’ve got a ton of writing assignments, exams, internships, and clubs to worry about, you may not be focused on picking up an interesting book, sitting down, and reading it. Growing up, I’d always considered myself an avid reader, but once I started college, leisure reading became less of a priority and I admittedly even ignored the readings for classes sometimes because I was too busy focusing on the assignments that would actually be graded. But whenever I did find the time to read, it always gave me inspiration to write something of my own.
Really, it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading. Knowing the kinds of things you like can help you discover your own style of writing, but that won’t happen unless you’ve consumed a wide variety of different styles and found what you like/dislike reading for yourself.
Bonus: Read bad writing
This one seems counterintuitive, but it's one of my favorite pastimes.
While reading good writing will undoubtedly improve your own, reading terrible writing has opened my eyes to the mistakes that writers often make. And there are many, many possible mistakes, from (unintentionally) unlikable characters to poor plot lines to plot holes to straight up racist or sexist writing...the list goes on and on.
Of course, the quality of writing is subjective and no one is a perfect writer, so I'll put it this way: sometimes it's good to read what you don't like as much as it is to read what you do like. What don't you like about what you're reading? What mistakes are you seeing frequently that bother you the most? By noticing the things about someone else's writing that you dislike, you subconsciously teach yourself to avoid making those mistakes yourself.
Hell, people who read my writing--including this post--probably can't stand how much I love commas and how often I sprinkle them all over the place. Now they'll know not to overdo it with the commas the way I do.