Monday, January 24, 2011

Is All Writing The Same?

Happy Monday, everyone!

I'm asking for your advice today. As you may or may not know, I've been in the throes of job hunting over the last few months as my current job comes to a close (I have an official ending date of June 30, 2011). I work in science, and I considered the possibility of running my own lab as a college professor. In the end, when application season arrived, I only had the nerve to apply to three schools. I got down to the final four candidates with one of those schools, but in the end, I didn't get the job offer. I'm more or less okay with that--though I was depressed for a few days. I figure, if I had really wanted that job I would have applied to 50 schools instead of 3. Now, I'm satisfied with that effort and am open to the possibilities of a more dramatic job switch.

Which brings me to the question at hand. Is all writing the same?

Over the last decade plus, I've been dividing my energy between scientific research and fiction writing. Needless to say, this is often tiring. Both jobs take up as much time as one is willing to give them. I've always wondered what would happen if I focused on one job with 100% of my effort. That could be science, with no fiction writing. Or, that could be fiction writing with no science. (It could also be perfecting the perfect caramel corn recipe, but let's leave that aside for now.)

I'm not the type to just go for broke with fiction writing, though. That feels far too risky for me. I've got three kids to feed. I've got alimony. Okay, I don't, but I still want food and a place to live. I'm not ready to dedicate all of my time to fiction since the payoff will probably be zero dollars and zeroty-zero cents. So, I asked myself if maybe there were other writing-related paths I could take. Things like technical writing, or science journalism, or grant writing. I wonder if these fields are related enough, to fiction writing that I would get some relief. If I were to pursue technical writing, would that really allow me to focus my attention more? Or, is technical writing (or science journalism or grant writing etc.) so different from fiction writing that I would get anymore relief than I have now?

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? And, I know I'm not the only one who deals with this issue. Probably all or at least most of you have jobs and/or kids that suck up take as much time as my current job does. Have you thought of aligning your efforts more? Do you have any good ideas on how to do this? Perhaps--and I'm only thinking out loud--you could raise your child to become a literary agent.


  1. Pee Domey, you know how much I wrestle with this frustration every day. That clearly suggests I have no particular wisdom to offer on managing it. However, no having wisdom never stops me from mouthing off about something.

    There are certainly core things that tie writing together, and if you have a general love of written communication and the crafting of information in a way that is tight and powerful, you can find some degree of pleasure in all writing.

    If you're a storyteller, though, it's not really the same thing, and at the end of the day, from my limited experience, you end up feeling the same way.

    There are people who just love words and written communication enough that they get a charge out of writing, whatever-it-may-be. I know a few folks like that who write fiction and pay their bills by writing editorials, technical manuals, devotionals, cook-books, book reviews, etc. I sometimes envy their satisfaction.

    But, for me, all the technical writing in the world, just isn't the same as telling a story. At the end of the day, when I've tried that approach, I still feel like I'm splitting myself in two, hoping that either my creative mother or my practical mother will stand up and tell Solomon the what-ho so I can get on with one life or the other.

  2. I disagree with CN. I do freelance writing in the communications/fundraising fields, mostly for nonprofits (although - quick commercial - I'm also a very good & reasonably priced copyeditor, writer friends!) and write fiction with the mindset that it's spec work that may or may not pay off.

    It took me a few years to get my head round the fact that what I really liked about all of the jobs I'd ever had was the writing component, and therefore what I really should be doing to earn money is writing.

    Now, my jobs involve more than writing just because of the nature of one of my contracts, which also involves responsibility for the content of an entire website, and all the related administration. Also, I work with designers and other creatives on print projects, and both of the above involve a lot of administration, i.e. endless emails, meetings, etc. But the writing is the main focus.

    This works very well for me, partly because successful communications and fundraising both involve the telling of stories. So my fiction work strengthens my abilities as a storyteller, while my commercial work keeps me sharp and professional.

    I'd advise you to give professional writing a go. Getting the initial contracts can be hard, but once you've started building up a reputation for good writing (which you have) and professionalism (I'm guessing you have that too) then it gets much easier to land the work. As I'm not in the scientific fields I can't advise you where to start, but one avenue might simply be to hunt close to home among your professional contacts. For cash-strapped companies, hiring a freelancer for specific projects often makes more sense than taking on a new employee. Do mention that you write fiction, too. It's amazing how that impresses clients and brands you as a "real" writer. Go figure.

    I wouldn't say all writing is the same, but an intelligent writer will learn from every kind of writing he or she takes on. I've done everything from drafting contracts to translating for an aerospace magazine, and none of it has been a waste of time. Good luck!

  3. I think there are vast differences in writing for business and writing your own fiction. I write for business, ranging from case studies and whitepapers to proposals to web copy. It is nowhere near as fulfilling as crafting a story.

    They say about golf, "a bad day on the course beats a good day in the office." I would hold this to be valid on many levels when comparing personal writing to business writing.

    But like Domey, I also value food and shelter (as do my wife and two kids) so I try to find balance. My balancing act is more like a teeter-totter or pendulum than a finely calibrated scale (although I am a libra, go figure).

  4. Nevets has some sound wisdom there, I think. It's different for everyone. I love technical writing, but honestly, if I was doing that all day I don't think I could bring myself to sit in front of the computer at night, as well, and write stories. I'd feel like it was too much writing, even though I enjoy technical writing and editing immensely.

    To me, no, not all writing is the same. My day is pretty broken up with a kid, a husband, a messy house, and my writing. That's a nice diversity. I like diversity. Otherwise I get really bored. Fiction writing, for me, is like an escape, a treat. It's a lot of work, but it's also enjoyable and also provides a way to break up the other things in my days. Goes both ways, but that's just me.

  5. @Michelle - Exactly. I love editing, and I enjoy preparing marketing materials and press releases, as well as some forms of technical writing. But, at the end of the day it doesn't feel to me the same and I still feel torn, and not only that but that I feel like I've used up much too much of my writing mojo.

    @Jane - I don't think we really disagreed since I said that it's different for different people. :)

  6. Being a published nonfiction writer in the area of education, and an aspiring fiction writer I can tell you it is EXHAUSTING! I write scientific reports in my day job exhausting x three. I love it all so I do it all. For me, I set aside time and manage things that way - certain hours for technical writing (day job), followed by time for NF writing. Fiction is relegated to different times becuase for me, it is different - a completely different mind set. Good luck figuring out your own unique balance.

  7. I worked for years as a news reporter and then features writer for a good-sized newspaper. I found I didn't want to sit down at a computer to write fiction very often after spending so much time every day at a keyboard.
    We're all different, though, and jobs are different, too, so you may find non-fiction work that doesn't drain you. I wish you the best in your search.

  8. Nevets, thanks a lot for your thoughts. In general, I do have a love for writing of all kinds. I have to write technical articles and grants now, and I really enjoy it. Although, it's not what I do 100% of the time, so that would be a big switch.

    Jane, it's fantastic to hear from someone who is currently doing this. Thanks for your advice! It gives me some hope. I've been sending out a few feelers and do have one person who mentioned hiring me to write for her for a few months, so I'm hoping that's a good start.

    Rick, ah, the other side of the coin. Must you all keep alternating on me like this? I get the teeter totter thing. I feel like that's my life now. Maybe it's a matter of minimizing the amount of tottering and maximizing the amount of teetering.

    Michelle, that's a good point that it might be too much writing. I guess I would be staring a lot more at a computer. Although I do that a lot already as it is. Maybe I'm looking for something that has MORE writing rather than ALL writing.

    Nevets, you have so much mojo, though.

  9. Definitely not the same for me -- I love reading nonfiction but cannot write it and could never make a living at it. I learned this early on in my current job when my boss found out I "wrote" on the side, and asked me to write the department newsletter. It was awful and I hated it and got rid of it as soon as possible. The inspiration just wasn't there.

    Now, if you are inspired and strongly motivated to write nonfiction as well as fiction, then sure, why not?

    I lucked out in having a mentally non-taxing job that pays decently so that I can focus on creative efforts. Though honestly, I've never cared about having a "career" of any sort, so that probably makes a huge difference. I just care about making enough money to support the house, the car, the Hounds, the vacations, the books, and the chocolate addiction.

  10. Christine, Yes, I'd really have to get organized if I go this route. Especially if I'm working from home I'd fear that I'd only do one thing and ignore all the other stuff. Thanks for your advice!

    Tricia, thanks. Yeah, you and Michelle bring up a really good point. I'll have to think harder about that. Why must I do all this thinking???

  11. I have no advice! That is, I haven't had any job that required or allowed me to write for money. My day job is all spreadsheets and web portals and databases and forms. I will say that because I stare at a couple of computer monitors all day, I am hesitant to even turn on my computer at home. Which is why it's nice that I write longhand.

    I will say that I'm beginning to enjoy writing nonfiction (especially essays) a lot more of late than I used to do.

  12. Well, I don't think all writing is the same. For one thing, the approaches can differ significantly between fiction and say... academic essays.

    Still, I enjoy writing for the sake of writing.

    Regardless of the type of writing, they always have one thing in common. There is always some sort of creation involved.

    And that feeling of creating an essay/story/description is one of the biggest reasons why I love writing.

    Still, writing fiction gives me the biggest high of them all.

    Good luck with finding a job.


  13. @Domey - Ponce De Leon did think he found the fountain of mojo when he found my pile of writings, but, unfortunately, the fountain is not bottomless.

  14. Mizmak, That's the hard part for me. It does make me sad to think that I'd be giving up a career, especially after I've been at it for so long. I don't want to give up science, but at the same time, I want to shape that part of my life more so that I have some control over what I do.

  15. I am always interested in such discussions because I will probably have to make such a decision soon enough. I'm in the last leg of my science-related PhD and will have to figure out how to weight my love of writing and science. Like you, the part I really enjoy (which many in my lab dislike) is the writing - paper, proposal etc. Since I will first be applying for post docs , I probably have more time to decide how I want things to shape up- though right now I'm thinking I want to be in academia.

    I do find however, that each type of writing feeds the other- I find that when I'm writing fiction, my technical writing gets easier and better and vice versa.I actually like having to do similar things in different fields and drawing connections between the processes in each one. Plus, I like having two different major interests/loves - it makes me more excited about life..:) (I have more than two though,and have decided that I need to master these two first, seeing that my contribution to either field is near zero.). Like you, I try to reconcile what must seem like two very different careers. The way I look at it is: Science and writing are two different ways of understanding life- why we do what we do etc and righte now, I think I want both.

    Crossing my fingers for you- whichever decision you make will be the right one..:)


  16. Domey, dear man, I have limited personal experience with this but will chime in with what I can and something from a friend that might help a teensy bit and so is worth mentioning.

    When I did non-fiction writing exclusively for awhile (non-profit promotion, for example along with other stuff that may or may not qualify for your purposes...) it just was not the same.

    There's something about crafting people and places and events that is unlike any other writing to me.

    Your experience, as others have said, may vary.

    Now, I'll tell you something a friend said to me recently, as he renewed his involvement in my small writing group. He said that for the past year he'd had little time to contribute because his job involves technical writing pretty much all day every day. He was burned out- and thought writing less in his off-time would help. Turned out it was the opposite- and now he's back to writing fiction to help free up his mind for his 'work' writing. And he's writing better than ever, IMO.

    Maybe it can't be an either-or proposition- perhaps you just need a little hiatus from heavier fiction projects while you focus on finding the best job situation? That is very stressful so if it's sapping your creative soul it's little wonder. With all the stress going on in my life right now I've had to go to working on shorter projects for the time being.

    Maybe just writing some flash or something will feed your creative monster while your logical self figures out the whole food-on-the -table thing (and you really had me going for a minute with the three kids and alimony...)

    Hope you find your balance, and if you do, please tell me how you did it...


  17. ...FWIW Domey, if I were you, I wouldn't give up on science yet. You're better off sticking with that in some way, in my opinion and experience. If no one else will tell you how the freelance writing market has dropped down jobs-wise really badly, I will. When you'd said to me about the other science-related writing jobs--I thought you meant full-time work, like in an office, not work-at-home freelance. Think of all the people you know making a good adequate living doing freelance nonfiction writing...very few are making this. I've seen more complaints from "full-time" freelancers in recent times; pay has decreased, workload has gone up, the types of "jobs" available are typically substandard compared to “yesterday,” making a living is very difficult now.

    I used to regularly check a bunch of freelance job websites, but then the number of jobs posted decreased down to almost nothing; they've gone up a bit again in the past few months, but I think too many of the jobs are mostly "dead-end jobs," one-offs by private people who need a writer/editor to do something one time. Too many of the jobs advertised also sound like scams/not reliable.

    I've done both nonfiction editing (for years) and writing professionally, and during there was always a decrease in fiction output for me. Only so much time in the day--and words in the day a single writer can put down. Plus, if you’re a freelancer/work-from-home writer, you’re usually actively looking for more work nonstop. That, too, cuts into fiction-writing time (not to mention any other time).

    If you can find a permanent science writing/editing job with a publisher or other company--THAT would be something. The pay probably would be low, but the work would probably be steady. That you have a PhD would help you greatly; some of the science writing/editing jobs list that as a requirement. I will warn you (or whoever) that it’s tiring, hard-on-the-eyes work. Writing test questions for standardized exams/working in educational testing are another job type that comes up quite often with actual full-time work--or at least where the jobs posted sound legitimate. And they usually require advanced degrees.

    Considering everything that’s happened to me with "giving up" everything to pursue writing, and then making no money, I would never recommend anyone else do the same, especially in the current economic climate. If you’ve got a day job with steady pay, keep it--or look for one as your top priority! Writing’s a huge gamble no matter the writing type, and there’s increasingly less money available for making. I actually did not choose to give up everything-but-fiction-writing, but I and everyone else except upper management got laid off when the publisher I freelance edited for was bought out, and I couldn't find other publishing work then, just spotty jobs doing other things. I found it all-too-easy to slip into focusing 100% on my fiction writing as a hermit in a backwoods mobile home, which would up being a huge mistake. Others shouldn’t make similar mistakes--unless they don't mind the potential consequences.

  18. For me, it's all about contrasts. My day gig is as physical as a job can get. I takes no brain power at all. In fact, an idiot can excel at my job. (Resist the comments please.) Sitting down and actually creating something is the exact opposite. It's relaxing.

    That doesn't address your question much; sorry. I'm just a firm believer in balance. If you love your current job, get another just like it.

  19. What Charlie says about balance is interesting.

    Back when I was doing stuff like field archaeology or forensic case work, life was very different. That work engaged my brain in a stimulating way, but was essentially physical labor. At the end of the day my body was tired, but my mind was racing and my creative engine on fire.

    That kind balance was an amazing experience and some portion of that again seems just about right to me.

  20. Scott, Yeah, I've gotten much more excited about non-fiction over the years. I used to always avoid it, but now I see the fun and challenging side of writing it. It's quite cool. I've also started doing historic research for my books. Who'd a thunk it.

    Misha, thanks for your thoughts. I think there are some differences, but there are perhaps more similarities than what I do now. Maybe even a little change would help me at this point.

    Lavanya, you probably know exactly what I'm dealing with. The different writing definitely feeds into each other though. That is the best part of this whole thing. I actually think science and fiction writing fit very nicely together, but at this point I'm just feeling like if I want to excel I need to focus my efforts more. For you, I'd say it would be great if you can make some decisions even before your post doc. You can start steering early on and it will make it that much easier for you when you're done.

  21. Bru, thanks for all of your thoughts. At the moment I've still been excited to write, but I just feel like I don't have the energy. I have so many ideas bouncing around in my head though. I just started working on the sequel to my nephew's book, which will go to his mother and aunt, so it does feel like a lighter project. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to it. Thanks for giving me two sides of the coin!

    FP, thanks you for saying all of this. I think I need to hear it all. I'm thinking of many different writing-related and science-related jobs, so some would be freelance (which scares me quite a bit) and some would be full time office jobs, which I would prefer. I guess I'm just considering all of my alternatives. I know I'd be stressed out if I was working freelance, and that's something I want to avoid.

    Charlie, this is something I think about a lot too. Sometimes I wish I just had a physical job, but I would somehow want it to incorporate my education. I once saw a job for a scuba diving water chemist that was VERY tempting.

  22. Take it from someone who has a degree in professional writing and has given it a go that, while it will definitely pay the bills, you'll probably be sitting there writing what you are SUPPOSED to be writing and dreaming of what you COULD be writing instead. I don't know about you, but when I'm forced to write, I don't enjoy writing for pleasure near as much.

    Therefore, I pretty much refuse to use my degree unless I absolutely have to.

    I wish you all the best, Domey. I know you'll figure something out soon. :-)

  23. I think it depends entirely on the person. I would never be content with technical writing. It would take most of the fun out of the process for me, plus I would still have to do creative writing on the side. Can you say carpal tunnel?

  24. "They" always say: never give up your day job. If you're into writing, don't expect it to provide you a living. Especially in today's economy where publishers are tightening their lists and budgets. I think having a technical writing job and then coming home to try to write fiction would be REALLY difficult, because you'd be tired of fighting with/using words all day. I think (my opinion only) that it would be best to have a totally unrelated job in the daytime, and come home to write in the evening (or whenever you get off).

    Gah--technical writing would be BOring, I think. I wouldn't consider that "writing." LOL It sorta depends on you and your personality.

  25. I have pondered this very question over and over many times lately, Domey. And honestly, if I didn't have a family to support, I'd probably take the plunge. But I have no problem living on Ramen noodles and Pop Tarts LOL.

    Seriously though, going into an area that is similar to writing may be just what you need. The only concern I'd have is that you'd get burnt out on writing for others to the point where you don't write your own stuff.

  26. Ashley, thank you for your advice and for sharing your experiences! I'll keep it in mind.

    Lois, carpal tunnel is a good point! I already have to be careful about that as it is.

    Carol, thanks for your thoughts. I really do like technical writing. I think I'm drawn to the "boring" aspects of writing as well as the exciting, LOL.

    Eric, thanks to you too. It is sort of freeing that I don't have a family to support. I'm willing to take the risk for maybe a year. But, I wouldn't want that experience to hurt my resume to the point where I couldn't jump back onto a more secure path if I needed to.

  27. Domey-

    I can understand your frustration to an extent, because I struggle with some of the same issues. I can't give an answer to your dilemma, but I can share my story in hopes that it gives you another perspective.

    I recently graduated from college, with experience in journalism and chose to give it up for a job that paid better, which happens to be technical writing. Everyone in my family, including myself, thought I was going to be a journalist because I worked as an editor at my college newspaper and even managed to find two paid newspaper internships. However, when the job offers came in, technical writing seemed to be the best option.

    At first, I was devastated because I felt like it was the end of creative writing and journalism for me. But to my surprise, it has been a really rewarding position so far and I am using my college degree. And, the best part, is I don't have to give up creative writing and journalism to have this career. I always have spare time and can make time for creative writing and journalism.

    The best advice I can offer, is to find a job you enjoy and keep writing on the side. You never know, it could turn into a full-time thing or it could not, but at least you'll always have something to fall back on.

  28. Argh, I want to talk about this, but ironically, I can't now because I'm writing an academic paper. I will comment later, if I can.


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