Writer's Life, Writing Classes

Advice From the Pros (And How to Take It)

Last week, my duties as an intern took me to various classrooms. Several designers were visiting for SCADstyle to give lectures, talk on panels and meet students. I attended the events and shadowed some of the visitors, taking notes on how they interacted with students and the advice they gave.

I had the opportunity to follow Dana Thomas around as she spoke with fashion students designing their senior collection and I sat in on a short lecture she gave to a Writing for the Arts class. When I took that class, Ms. Thomas came and gave similar advice to what she did now. I know I had the same glassy-eyed, “how the hell am I supposed to do all that” look on my face as the students I visited. Advice from successful people is great, but it can be hard to digest. Hopefully this is makes it easier to swallow.

Advice: “Read every day!”

You want to write for the arts? You better be reading the arts sections of The New York Times. You want to write or review books? You better be reading the latest reviews (also in The New York Times). You want to write anything even slightly relevant to what’s going on? Read The New York Times. Every day. Front to back.

How to do it:

If you’re a student, here’s where you take a deep breath. You won’t be shooting yourself in the foot by not reading NYT every day. You can stay up to date by listening to the news, checking Flipboard, skimming your local paper, checking out the homepage of nytimes.com, and clicking on the list of trending topics on Facebook. As a student, your primary goal is learning and getting your degree. If you want to submit an article to be published on Huffington Post but you haven’t been reading it religiously, give yourself a crash course on what they’ve published over the last few weeks.

If you’ve got a job or an internship in some field related to your career, there’s a good chance the time to catch up on the news is built in to your workday. No matter where you work, they probably have an office subscription to newspapers and magazines related to your field. They have these subscriptions so employees can read them and be up to date. You’ve got the publications there in the office, it’s part of the job to read them and know what’s going on, and you don’t have to panic.

Advice: “Join the student newspaper!”

Get professional experience in an environment where it’s okay to mess up, plus you get your writing published. And if it’s an online newspaper, you don’t have to be a writer; they’ve got photography, videography, graphic design, social media, marketing, editing, etc. And it looks great on your resume!

How to do it:

That was Ms. Thomas’s advice to students in the Writing program, but the idea works for everyone. Join the student newspaper/debate team/architectural society/whatever they have in your field of study. There’s the constant fear of having too many obligations, too much work, too much stress, not enough time for eating, sleeping or socializing. The great part about student organisations is that they know you’ve got that going on. Seriously. Everyone on the team has the same struggle, so they’ll understand if you have to quit halfway through because your classes got really intense.

And it really is okay to mess up in these organisations. Most likely, you’ll walk away with nothing worse than a bruised ego (unless you don’t play well with others, in which case no amount of skill will save you from being voted off the island).

Advice: “Fake it til you make it!”

You claimed to be an expert with Photoshop and now you’ve got a huge project to turn in by the end of the week? Just don’t let anyone catch you Googling how to do all the stuff you said you knew how to do.

How to do it:

Start by being honest about your abilities and open to a challenge. Bragging and making up skills might help get you the job, but actually having the skills will help you keep it. If you don’t have them, be willing to learn. Pretending otherwise is frustrating to everyone involved. I’ve sent out reporters who claimed to know what they’re doing only to see their work later (and sometimes get an unhappy email) and find out they don’t. I’ve also been asked to do things I didn’t bother telling anyone I didn’t actually know how to do. It’s a lot of extra work on both sides.

No one will think less of you for not being an expert, especially if you’re fresh out of college.

Advice: “Get an internship!”

Employers love if you’ve had an internship prior to applying for an entry level job, so get as many internships as you can. You might have to do unpleasant tasks like filing, making copies, or the dreaded coffee runs, but it’s a small step on the path to a better paying job and a stable career.

How to do it:

Just like working for a student organisation, an internship is a place where everyone knows you’re inexperienced and want to learn. It’s okay to mess up. You know you’ll work for a set amount of time, so there’s no need to wake up wondering if today’s the day you’ll get fired. Do your best, learn what you can, and take it easy. If you do well, it may turn into a paying job when your time is up. If not, you’ve still got the experience on your resume.

As for filing, making copies, or getting coffee, all that falls under the “stuff you’ll have to do anyway” category. Everyone I work with gets their own coffee, but filing and copying things for other people shows you how to do it when you’ve got your own things to file and copy. Basically, you’re the Karate Kid.

In theory, advice from successful people is scary. And then you find yourself actually doing it and you laugh because it’s not as hard as you thought. So take a deep breath, friends. You’ll get through it.

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