I know very few people who have their dream careers. But it seems some of us are gaining ground toward our dream careers inch by inch as time passes, while others of us seem… stuck. I was stuck once. This is how I got out.
I have a basic formula for getting where I want to go in my career. It is this: emphasize, layer, request.
First, I had to take a look around me. I had a degree in English, and wanted to be a writer and editor, but I don’t live in New York, and there just aren’t a lot of entry level positions in this field, either. Plus, the reality of the cost of my education means that I can’t afford to take freelance writing positions that pay piddling wages in order to “build” my portfolio, rather than a full-time position with benefits and a salary. I think that’s a great way for many people to go, but I’m literally drowning in student debt, so I needed to find a more lucrative path.
At the time, I was making coffee for a living, which might fulfill someone’s idea of the Romantic starving artist’s career but, I think for anyone who’s done that job, it’s obviously neither Romantic nor super lucrative. And not great for the writing resume, either. So I started applying for jobs. Priority number one was benefits and salary; priority number two was finding a role that allowed me to start building up my wordsmithing resume. In all of my job applications, cover letters, and on the resume I submitted, I emphasized my writing and editing skills, and listed references who could attest to them.
I landed a position that was half administrative, half marketing-oriented. I spent a lot of time doing work that was completely unrelated to writing or editing, but I did get to handle the majority of the company’s proofreading on formal documents, and I made sure that, when I moved on to my next position, that was emphasized as the number one skill I developed in that position. I also made sure I negotiated a higher salary than the one I was doing. And in interview talks, I mentioned that I wanted to continue building on my writing and editing skills.
The position I moved into currently is half office management and half marketing, which sounds initially like pretty much the same thing I started doing, right? Sort of. In the mean time, before this position, I’d been also doing a lot of freelance writing for free, in order to be able to point to publishing credits. I took on some contract editing gigs to bolster that side of my resume. I started and have maintained a blog about books, which I’m able to point employers toward. And I asked all of my references, when called, to emphasize my writing and editing skills if they felt comfortable doing that. (They did.) Layering all of these various side projects allowed me to add several bullet points to my resume (and interview talking points) about the work specific to my interests that I’d been doing, and allowed me to show that I was incapable of burning out on this type of work because I so enjoyed having it in every aspect of my life.
So in my current position, though half is “office management,” that role includes writing the company’s blog. So already a chunk of my non-writing 50% is actually writing. And in the marketing half of the role, I am writing social media features, editing other people’s work, and managing an online community. All of this has been great. It isn’t enough.
So, I approached the chief editor of the original content my work’s website pushes out, and requested more. She asked if my hands were full, and I was able to tell her honestly that I have more bandwidth in my weekly hours to handle some work. I asked her specifically for more editing, and came prepared with detailed records of how my time is spent and what can be juggled to allow me more room to take on additional duties. Finally, I reminded her (kindly) that I was hired in large part because of my existing editorial and writing skills, and that I really wanted the company to use me for them.
She was overjoyed and offered me more work.
I am not a famous editor yet, nor a famous writer, and I might never be, but the basic combination of emphasize, layer, request has allowed me to take on an increasingly greater percentage of work in the field I want to be working in. And while I started out having to edit and write about stuff I didn’t care about (insurance, finance), it stretched me as a writer, so I was able to come to a company that covered things I did care about and say, “Hey, look. I’m flexible. I can write eloquently about things that are outside my sphere of influence, and I’m a quick study who can edit in a field I don’t know much about.” That’s appealing. And I think there’s a cross-topical lesson to learn from my experience. Regardless of your field of interest, take the scraps for now and keep asking for more once you get your foot in the door. Inch closer to your dreams. I’m now spending about 60% of my workday writing or editing, on topics that I find interesting and appealing. The job is interesting enough that I don’t feel burned out at the end of the day, so I’m able to do even more writing (here at Persephone, on my blog, and on private projects), and have taken on more freelance editing contracts.
One day, these things will add up. And I have them on my resume and under my belt now because I asked for them. I have been lucky in some ways, but it’s not like I’m working my dream job yet or anything. I just wanted to offer you hope, you who have a bachelor’s degree in a field with few job prospects. Boil it down to your most essential skills, and build that career from the dirt on up. And don’t let anyone tell you you have to take the “crappy” jobs to begin with. Take the job that feeds you and find a way to make it work for the resume you’d like to have. Get creative. You can do it.