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Part-Time Writer: Leverage Your Skills

Overlooking the University of Alberta Mechanical Engineering workshop.

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

“We see that you’re a fiction writer,” they say in the job interview. “That’s a lot of work, probably a lot of great experience. We have big challenges ahead of us, and we want that sort of experience on our team.”

Exactly the moment every part-time writer is waiting for –– to finally have a potential employer see a list of published titles on your resume and immediately offer you a fantastic gig. The dream.

I mean literally a dream. Possibly a feverish one. Because it’s almost certainly never going to happen.

Well, I suppose it might happen if you’re applying for a ghost-writing job or a seat in a writer’s room on a television show, but for the purposes of this part-time writer series I’m thinking of jobs outside the literary and entertainment industries. I’ve worked in research, finance, and politics, and in each of those fields the fact that I write science fiction and alternate history has been treated as a neat fact about me –– same as if I played in a band (nope), or liked fishing (nope).

When employers hire, they’re sifting your past work experiences for hints about how you’ll handle future challenges. Unless the people doing the hiring have a deep familiarity with how writers work, they probably won’t be in a position to unpack the professional value of fiction writing. Without elaboration, it’s extraneous information.

Under the planets at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS).

Today I’m part of the executive team of the Future Energy Systems research program at the University of Alberta –– a $75 million initiative supporting more than 80 projects involving 126 of the world’s top energy researchers and more than 440 of their students. We’re examining humanity’s transition to new energy sources, and our researchers come from a wide range of disciplines –– from engineers and scientists inventing new technology to the social scientists exploring their political, economic, and environmental impacts.

It’s an understatement to call this a dream job for a sci-fi writer.

I don’t think I could do this job properly if I wasn’t a sci-fi writer.

But being a sci-fi writer had nothing to do with me being brought onto this team.

I’ve worked in the field of communications since before Iceberg Publishing existed. Iceberg is on my resume, but I certainly don’t list any book titles, make claims about sales, or invoke kind words from media stories or book reviews. As much as they matter to me, Alex and Stephanie aren’t relevant to a research institute.

What is highly relevant are the skills developed in the course of writing novels. I don’t think those skills are unique to writers, but since we spend so much time developing them for the sake of our fictional worlds, we might as well leverage them in the real world too. Because knowing how to build worlds, do detailed research, and understand people’s motivations can come in handy in many professions.

I’m going to save talk of understanding people for next week’s post. This week we can focus on world-building and research.

If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’re doing one or both of these things: creating a fictional universe or researching our world so that you can credibly place a story within it.

In world-building, endless days can be spent inventing new social systems, imagining viable-sounding technologies, or mapping out future histories. In research, countless books can be read, documentaries watched, and expert interviews conducted.

In the bullpen at the Vice-President (Research) Office.

Those skills directly apply to my work with Future Energy Systems. I enjoy the uncommon privilege of having full-time access to incredible researchers and graduate students, and it’s literally my job to interview them and write stories about the new world their research could help create.

Positions like this don’t come along often, and when they do you don’t get them by putting a list of ISBNs and the words ‘Excellent world-builder’ on your resume. You get them if you’ve used your world-building and research skills as a foundation for professional growth over the course of your career, so that you’re ready when the dream job appears.

And while I recommend the communications field to many part-time writers (more on that in a future post), it certainly isn’t the only discipline where this applies. Fiction writers create complete parallel worlds demanding all sorts of research and imagination, so depending on the kinds of stories you tell your aptitudes and skills could be applicable in countless professions –– from psychology to the military, from teaching to the trades.

What’s most important is that, as a writer, you’re accustomed to asking questions of yourself and others, then using the answers to build a coherent vision. You constantly analyze and interpret information, becoming aware of how seemingly-unrelated factors can influence each other. You can’t afford to unthinkingly follow dogma; writing fiction requires you to constantly engage with and test constructed reality.

That ability to think –– to repeatedly ask and answer the question why? –– is the sort of skill many employers are looking for.

So if you’re a part-time writer applying for jobs, don’t be shy about your writing experience –– but also don’t expect employers to immediately recognize the value it provides. They shouldn’t have to interpret your abilities for you; help them understand that you possess analytical and research skills, that you value the process of identifying and interpreting the connections between unrelated factors, and that you can form coherent narratives and plans.

Say things like: “While developing this writing project, I established an understanding of…” or “During research for this writing project, I worked with experts to…” Tell a potential employer stories about how writing-related research and world-building has prepared you to tackle challenges in your chosen profession. I can’t promise that it will make anyone hire you, but it might help –– and most importantly, it’s true.

And next week, I’ll talk about another more important and more universal fiction-writing skill that you can leverage: understanding human motivations.

Outside my old CCIS office. We had a dinosaur skeleton.