An Unexpected Dream Job: Building the First Workplace Writing Center

An Unexpected Dream Job: Building the First Workplace Writing Center

My summer after grad school was typical, I’m sure — endlessly dredging up job opportunities with decreasing interest and increasing anxiety.

My search totaled two cases of strep throat, one car accident, three offers (one taken back shortly after I was deemed “overqualified,” one I am convinced is still tied up in HR awaiting “a few more signatures,” and my current job), two missed trains and the breaking of a high heel while running after said train in New York City, in what was one of the most miserably cliché moments of my life.

After earning a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Composition and Rhetoric, the job  I ended up with is “Examination Report Review Analyst II,” which may be the Least Sexy Writing-Related Job Title Ever.

When I tell friends I work for a federal agency, their response is often, “Oh…what happened? I thought you liked writing.”

And no one is more surprised than me when I tell them I love it.

My informal job title should be more familiar to many of you: Writing Center Director.

Since 2013, I have developed the first workplace writing center recognized by the International Writing Centers Association. Essentially, I provide a professional development resource to highly skilled analysts and bank examiners who need to improve their communication skills.

My day-to-day looks a lot like the mixture you’d find at a traditional academic writing center — tutoring, writing resource development, marketing and designing and teaching workshops.  It is exactly what I have always loved to do, just in a surprising environment.

Here is some of the advice I’ve shared with others interested in similar opportunities.

1. Know yourself, but be flexible

I’ve known what I’ve wanted to be since grade school — never something as cut and dry as bestselling novelist or middle school teacher, but I did know that I wanted to do something involving writing and making other people’s lives easier or more pleasant, somehow.

I have always been more likely to focus on the tasks involved in a job than on the title. Cobbling together a formerly nonexistent job with skills I enjoyed and felt confident in made a lot of sense to me, though it’s tough to know exactly where to seek out these opportunities.

2. There ARE opportunities out there — we just need the language for it

After Josh Bernoff featured my writing center in the Harvard Business Review, I have heard from corporations and agencies all over the world that are desperate for something like a writing center now that they know they exist.

It’s no surprise that working in this field involves a lot of marketing yourself and your skillsets, but it may involve networking in surprising places to make a good match.

People need what you’re offering — it’s a matter of knowing how to appeal to them.

3. Meet people where they are

My initial job interview consisted of me asking more questions than I was asked: what problems they wanted fixed, what issues they’d experienced in the past, what the desired outcome was.

I was able to pitch the writing center model because I determined that some of their issues stemmed from a previously unsustainable editing model.

Even then, it took months for people to trust me with their work and to become comfortable with using our services; by emphasizing that services were not remedial and that everyone can benefit from writing instruction, we became more approachable.

4. Learn to love corporate work environments

There are definitely some benefits to working in a corporate environment.

Job security, for starters. I don’t have to search for freelance assignments and negotiate rates, or worry about whether a minimum class enrollment will be reached.

As someone who finds happiness in structure and predictability, I don’t mind office life. Plus: free pens! Dental insurance! And when work gets slow, I get to make up projects to meet whatever needs I’ve identified.

There’s something to be said about being the only expert in a department of very different people (e.g., bank examiners). There can be a lot of freedom and creativity if you find yourself working under more hands-off management.

5. Anticipate the disadvantages to working in a corporate environment

I absolutely felt out of place at first. I had no mentors from my own field that I could go to for guidance or to vent my frustrations. It became vital for me to seek out support from former colleagues at times.

I have had to very cautiously introduce more creative or unconventional ideas. But I have managed to push through some of those limits with success.

6. Prove your worth

Being an outsider in your work environment also means facing skeptics.

From day one, I started keeping a log of every writing consultation completed. By my six-month review, I had data to prove that my service was not only being used, but that we had improved writing quality and were saving reviewers time. This ongoing data collection has supported requests for more resources, opportunities, and staff. Keep careful lists of your accomplishments in any role that you take on—and if you can find a way to quantify it, even better!

Seeking out less traditional opportunities may involve more research, trial and error, self-marketing, and time than applying to preexisting job openings.

But it can be a rewarding, challenging and secure position once you find (or make!) it. Workplace writing centers hold a great deal of promise as the Next Big Thing for the professional world — and in the meantime, I’ll be doing all I can to continue paving the way there.

Filed Under: Craft
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15 comments

  • Adam Berger says:

    Great article. I think I would be perfectly suited for this type of work. I’m a senior English major, and I’m about to get my technical writing certificate. I love editing other people’s work, and writing is a pure pleasure for me. Do you know if there are internships commonly available for the type of work you are describing? How would I best go about edging my way into the industry?

    • Caroline G. says:

      What kind of workplace?
      Rock?
      Newsletter?
      Fashion critiques?

    • Jessica Weber says:

      Hi Adam! Thanks for your kind words. I am working on a resource for people interested in the same time of work–so more about that soon. We offered our first college internship this summer. I hope to encourage more places to do the same. Best of luck!

      • I want to tag onto this comment. This is what I want to do. My thesis was on establishing writing centers. I cannot wait to get more information on this subject. It could also work to be a freelance consultant in this realm

  • I love this article, because it displays a wonderful ability to straddle the creative and commercial mindsets. I was surprised to find the same ability in myself when I opened up my editing business.

    Even though my primary work is still editing book manuscripts, I’ve found that I really enjoy some smaller gigs like ghostwriting About pages for websites. I can identify with the business owner’s passion for his or her business, and I have the skills to communicate that passion to potential customers who visit their website.

    Because most of what I do is editing other writers’ work, I sometimes have to remind myself, “Hey, I’m a professional writer, too!”

    Trish O’Connor
    Owner, Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Editorial Services, Writer’s Resources (and a certain amount of ghostwriting)
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • Jessica Weber says:

      Trish, it’s so nice to know I’m in good company! Flexibility is so important–never let go of that creative part. 🙂

  • Cool stuff. Great idea to log everything to make sure you have the evidence that you’ve been busy for the first six months. You can never tell how many naysayers might be out there questioning your position.

  • Hey Jessica, The pioneering spirit lives on!!

    More power and every good wish to you,

    Tony

  • Shaye says:

    That’s really cool, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to learn to love a corporate environment, but I like the idea of having a business writing center or something similar where I work. It’s tech, so they really need it here. Where did you go to find resources for your proposal? Would you be open to consulting out to help other business start something similar at their companies?

    Cheers!
    Shaye Bomar, M.A. Early Childhood/Special Education

  • Lynne D says:

    Hi Jessica and fellow writers: I absolutely loved this post! It was very inspirational especially because as a child I was always thinking about how I wanted to be a writer of some sort. I ended up going into teaching, but with all of the politics and red tape I just didn’t love it. I am sort of trying to live my dream career again now that I’m 40 and have managed to stay sober for 5.5 years. I have found a new side of myself. I was so discouraged because not only was I unable to make anything of myself until I began my recovery journey, but I was always told “you can’t be a writer..there’s no future in that…” I was also told that I was not a good fit in law enforcement which was another dream of mine. People said….”You are too short, you are a girl, you can’t do that….” Ultimately, if I can get sober, I can do anything. I enjoyed your heart and spirit in this post and am starting my own second career, albeit slowly…

  • Well done Jessica! A great information of value, thank you! I am still writing stuff and this is some good information I find rather inspirational too

  • Felix Abur says:

    Great Job Jessica. I wish I could get in touch with you for a very short brainstorming session. I’ve always wanted to set up something similar to a writing center. I didn’t even know that’s the name for it, lol.

    I’m from a country in Africa and I find that many businesses and institutions in my region (actually, the whole continent) don’t have any idea how to write, publish, package, and market their vision. I’d love to fill this gap and your article has really strengthened my faith in my dream.
    Jessica, if you can, please reach out on email (I’ve indicated my address in my comment submission). I promise not to take up too much of your time. Thanks in advance.

  • Megan Sharma says:

    What a cool opportunity! And thanks for sharing what you’ve learned from the experience!

  • Jessica, this piece and the concept of a writing center really resonates with me. It takes out the solitary element of a writers’ life – something that’s always bugged me – and brings our craft into a more ‘community centre”. I love it! You’ve got me toying with the idea of approaching a school where I do relief teaching (I’m also a school teacher) to see if I can work with their writers’ group to set up something along these lines for not just students, but teachers, too. Big plan, but I’m sure as I ruminate on the idea more I’ll find a smaller step first. Thanks again. Great story.

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