Writing

What do you do with a BA in English?

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What do you do with a BA in English? That’s the title of a song from the great Broadway play Avenue Q. In the song, Brian laments, “Four years of college and plenty of knowledge/ Have earned me this useless degree.”

If you studied literature or some offshoot like “Medieval Poetry” in college, you’ve probably felt like Brian at some point. That’s not to say that business and engineering majors have it easy, but for us humanities majors, the transition from the classroom to the workplace can be particularly rough.

Thankfully, there’s hope. As it turns out, the ability to analyze complex information and write clearly DOES have value in the job market!

There are a few things you should keep in mind, though, when pursuing jobs.

The connection between your major and career choice is often indirect

It took me a long time to figure this out.

When it came to literature and writing classes, I excelled. My teachers were constantly praising my essays.

Finding someone willing to pay me for said essays, though, was another story. Upon entering the “real world,” I learned a hard lesson:

“Ability to write profound literary analysis essays” isn’t a job description

As it turns out, the job market doesn’t have much use for flowery metaphors and obscure literary references.

Fortunately, writing all those English essays does help you develop other skills. These include:

  • Generating ideas quickly
  • Being able to identify the “big picture” in everything
  • Performing deep research (ideal for uncovering a company’s Unique Selling Proposition)
  • Making connections between unlike things

These skills will help you in a variety of writing jobs.

How do you find work, though?

First, let’s get one thing out of the way.

Where NOT to find writing work

Writers are often advised to avoid content mills, but I’d like to add another item to the list: Craigslist. I’m sure some people have had success, but from my experience, every writing job either requires a million years of experience or a willingness to work for practically nothing (euphemistically referred to as a “resume builder”).

“Writer” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “broke”

Thankfully, two books changed my outlook on the viability of becoming a professional writer. These were Secrets of a Freelance Writer by Bob Bly and Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer.

Both these books break down the process of landing copywriting work into precise, simple steps. You should definitely check them out!

Discovering copywriting opened the gateway for more money-making writing opportunities:

  • Self-publishing. Hearing an interview with Annie Bellet, a fantasy writer who makes a 6-figure income through self-publishing her fiction on Amazon, convinced me that I, too, can go this route. No more competing for an editor’s attention in a massive slush pile! In this post, Bellet breaks down her numbers. Btw, if you’re at all interested in pursuing self-publishing, I’d highly recommend following Nick Stephenson’s 10K Readers Blog. Additionally, Bob Bly’s excellent and affordable e-book offers guidance on everything from genre research to covers to copyright. I’d highly recommend it for getting started with self-publishing!
  • Blogging. For years, I’d thought blogging was something I should do if I wanted to sell my fiction or get work as a copywriter. But, I reasoned, who’d want to read stories about what I ate for breakfast that day (which goes to show how little I knew about blogging)? Discovering blogger Michelle-Schroeder-Gardner, who’s earned over a million dollars through her personal finance blog, completely changed my perspective. I discovered that blogging was a way to write about topics I cared passionately about, make money, AND help people.
  • Writing for major platforms. It used to be that if you wanted to get featured in a major publication—say Newsweek or The Huffington Post—you’d have to pitch your article ideas via a query letter. While getting this type of exposure is certainly valuable, it can be a lengthy process. Thankfully, you can avoid the hassle thanks to websites like Medium and Quora. Because both websites have millions of visitors, they provide an excellent opportunity to gain more exposure. Many writers such as Tom Kuegler have used Medium to jumpstart their careers. Plus, it’s fun to interact with other writers and get instant feedback. Quora can allow you to research items for your next blog post (the most searched-for questions would make ideal topics) and drive traffic to your website. This article details how you can use Quora effectively.

So what DO you do with a BA in English?

 Choose options that maximize control. Despair often stems from a perceived lack of control.

The job search process is a source of dread for many—and no wonder. Your résumé is lumped into a (digital) pile with thousands of others and if it doesn’t contain the right phrases, it’ll get weeded out by some algorithm. If you’re lucky enough to make it to the interview process, the dreaded “experience” question will inevitably come up.

Why not take all that energy you’re putting into the job search and channel it into starting your own writing business?

Now, if you have a humanities background, the word “business” might conjure up mountains of paperwork filled with abstract lingo and scary math formulas. It certainly used to for me.

Thankfully, business ownership doesn’t have to be complicated

Today, it’s cheaper than ever to get started. You can go on Fiverr and have a logo and website done for you in days. As far as filling in knowledge gaps, books and Udemy courses are great places to get started.

To recap, you can use your writing skills to make money through:

  • Freelance copywriting
  • Self-publishing
  • Blogging

Of course, all of these options are still somewhat dependent on external factors. In freelance writing, for instance, the prospective clients have to A) respond to your emails/phone calls, B) have the need for a copywriter, and C) have the budget to pay you what you’re worth.

Still, though, you can easily modify your approach if you aren’t getting results. You can alter your message, the way you approach prospects, or the types of prospects you reach out to. For me, changing the last factor had the most dramatic result. I had been reaching out to tiny companies in the hopes that they wouldn’t already have a staff writer, but as it turned out, they had neither the budget nor the time to work with a freelancer.

But what if you still can’t find work?

 Self-publishing and monetizing your blog have considerably less barriers to entry than freelance copywriting and put you in the driver’s seat more. There are still some external factors at play. Customers have to actually buy your books. People must visit your website.

Again, though, you can make adjustments as needed. For self-publishing, you can modify your ads to better resonate with your target audience or connect with book bloggers to expand your reach.

For blogging, there are countless articles on SEO and using social media to drive traffic. The bottom line: if you’re determined and adaptable, you will find a solution.


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The brave new digital landscape

As James of Sell Out Your Soul puts it, “There is a real sense of freedom in doing an English degree. You can be so many things, work in so many industries, and find a rewarding career in an industry you may have never expected.” In fact, you should check out his article, which provides a comprehensive list of jobs for English majors beyond just writing jobs.

Yes, the world is changing. Unemployment is rampant. Job stability’s a thing of the past.

But here’s the good news. The Internet is an infinite pool of opportunities, especially for creatives. Somebody needs to write/design all that content, right?

The digital world is constantly evolving. Once someone proclaims that Facebook/Snapchat/whatever is dead, another social platform pops up in its place.

Some of the great writers of the 1800s—Thoreau and Jack London—wrote so stirringly of the sense of discovery as explorers encountered the Wild West.

We’re entering that time once again, only now we’re digital pioneers.



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4 thoughts on “What do you do with a BA in English?”

  1. Well, as someone who majored in French (plus lots of English lit and political theory), I wanted to share the advice I got during my university days–from my academic advisors. They told me: study whatever you want, just make sure you do an internship. Boy were they right. Probably the educational experiences I draw upon the most were the 2 internships where I got to polish my writing and use it in ‘real life.’ In the interview for my first full-time job after college, where I’d be called on to write and edit, the Executive director asked me, “What makes you think you can do this if you studied French?” I pulled out my portfolio…and got the job.

  2. Loved this post, Kate. It’s so true that an English degree equips you to succeed in so many different careers. There’s always a demand for writers who can craft compelling and persuasive content.

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