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Part-Time Writer: Communicate By Day

I do communications good.

For more posts in the ‘Part-Time Writer’ series, click here.

If you’re a part-time writer, what’s the best day job?

Every writer’s answer to that question will be different. Some people will want to spend their days away from the keyboard while others will want to leverage their writing skills at every possible opportunity.

I tend to fall into the latter camp. I prefer to spend my days telling stories if I can, and keeping my writing instincts as close to match-fit as possible. The downside to this is mental fatigue: if you’re writing all day and then you want to work on a book in the off hours, you can find yourself out of steam. That’s arguably why the final full year of Champions is taking a while.

If you’re a part-time writer who foresees immovable deadlines, staying away from mental fatigue might be advisable –– find a day job that doesn’t tax your writing abilities. This could be in any field: I know fiction writers who run call centers, work retail, and do deep data analysis.

But if your deadlines aren’t set in stone, I can definitely attest to the merits of writing by day. You find new ways to tell stories and learn things that can inspire your fiction. Your next books might come along more slowly, but they’ll probably end up being better. That’s certainly been the case for me.

So what sorts of day jobs let you tell stories? The obvious candidates are in media: a career in journalism or in the entertainment industry. I have minimal contact with the latter sort of position, so if you’re hunting a gig in a writer’s room I’m afraid I can offer no insights.

Much more familiar is the news industry: it’s a great place to learn what ‘the story’ is, and how to write quickly. There’s a lot of variety –– different stories daily –– but the problem is this kind of storytelling is now taken for granted. Few people want to pay for news content, so the media is having a tough time keeping writers employed.

To be paid for storytelling you need to find well-resourced organizations that need help articulating something about themselves. This, fundamentally, is professional communications. I followed my mother into the field –– alternately known as public relations, or spin-doctoring –– and I’ve done it for varsity sports teams, politicians, and as I recently mentioned, for researchers.

My current post is where everything’s really clicked: one of my main responsibilities with Future Energy Systems is to tell stories about 126 researchers and more than 440 graduate students. It’s a more interesting cast of characters than I could ever have imagined, and fortunately my writing brain can be of use to them.

Thanks to a recent-ish Pew Institute study, we know that long-read news stories are far from dead. Indeed, in the era of people reading on their phones, substantive long-read stories do very well. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, the internet hasn’t cut attention spans, just focused them. People don’t pay less attention, they just read less about things that don’t interest them.

Armed with the Pew data, I surmised that anyone who wanted to know what’s really going on in energy research would appreciate substantive content about our researchers. Formats like video tend to be costly, but stories only cost keyboard time and bootleather, so in 2018 I wrote roughly 24,000 words of profiles in a variety of styles. This worked: by themselves those stories were responsible for a quarter of the time users spent on our site, with only our research section attracting more attention (as it should).

I show researchers how to do communications good.

The researchers are the reason these stories performed well –– if they were fictional characters, each of them could easily lead their own novel. For me the work is as easy as it is rewarding: I spend hours hanging around in labs with some of the smartest people on the planet, marveling at the way they think and what they do. My contribution is identifying a narrative structure that captures the important (and accessible) aspects of their work –– the same process I follow with any fictional story, just with real people.

So I get to know people like Lawrence, a genius who commutes from Alberta to Ghana and teaches groundbreaking machine learning research techniques in both places.

I get to talk about people like Calynn, Jason, and David, who are designing and building engines that can generate electricity from the temperature of a coffee cup.

I get to recount the adventures of people like Kylie and Maggie, who are bringing together expertise from opposite sides of the Earth to figure out how businesses and communities can cooperate on environmental projects.

And I get to explain how people like Irum and Muhammad are refining a process that turns ground chicken feathers into the ultimate agent of water purification, saving people worldwide from things like arsenic contamination.

No doubt spending time with these people equips me to write better fiction. Next week I’ll trace some of the impacts my day jobs have had on fictional plots, but for now a focus on the discipline: is communications the right field for you?

Maybe. Being in professional communications is like being a driver: the skills are less important than what you use them for. An Uber driver, a battle tank driver, and a getaway driver are all drivers, but obviously their day-to-day lives are very different.

If you come to communications looking for great stories to tell about people, you’ll need to find an environment where that makes sense. Many comms roles emphasize areas other than storytelling –– graphic design, events, and crisis management come to mind, and while all leave some room for good writing, they aren’t necessarily story-centric.

Research communications is often about understanding and explaining, but opportunities are rare. Other communications environments may offer similar chances to talk about a fantastic cast of characters –– for instance, if you’re a military sci-fi writer, check out the various defense news organizations –– but those opportunities might not be obvious when you’re searching for jobs.

Look into sectors where the work interests you and figure out who’s telling their stories. Make sure you’re qualified to tell those stories –– keep your desktop publishing, media relations, and event planning skills honed (fortunately these are all skills that overlap tidily with independent writing and publishing). Be certain these skills are obvious in your resume –– consider attaching an abridged portfolio to every CV you send out, so potential employers can immediately see that you’ve done these things before.

Most importantly: if you do land a good communications role, don’t just assume that every problem is solved with a story. We all know that every problem looks like a nail when you’re a hammer; know that just because you’re a writer, every problem can’t necessarily be solved by a story.

But sometimes it is, and when you find the right post where telling stories is literally your job, I think you’ll have some fun.