Graduating with an MFA is both terrifying and exciting. The second it’s over, you marvel at how quickly the last two or three years went by. My past and prospective professional pursuits have never exactly hinged on a graduate degree. I got my start right out of college with a hokey copywriting job that wasn’t much more than an assembly line of fake job advertisements. Fast forward and you’ll find that my career has had many faces: human resources coordinator for almost 500 employees, marketing strategy manager for a startup company with tons of potential, and freelance writer with work published on too many indiscriminate topics. Gone are the days of my perennial neurosis about whether an MFA was worth it.
In the past, I’ve authored topics on staying sane in creative writing workshops and cracking open the science behind publishing poetry. Now, I’d like to share my experiences thus far as an agency writer. Before relocating to North Carolina, I thought writing for agencies was the stuff of folklore – especially in the heyday of Mad Men. Agencies were hard to come by in Orlando, so I thought they were these mythical establishments where creative minds would sit around long tables to brainstorm ideas for taking their accounts to unthinkable heights. Well, I’m no Peggy Olsen and agencies certainly aren’t as lavish as Sterling Cooper suggests. However, working for an agency allows you to collaborate with clients most people/creatives could never have dreamed of.
After packing all our belongings, pets, and memories, we traveled for a total of 24 hours to see a home in Durham (that we rented blindly through an online database) for the first time. My partner was without employment but on the hunt, and I traded my cushy, full-time position at the startup for a contractual agreement with a lighter schedule so I could make time for freelance writing. Those first couple months were scary, to say the least. Those first couple months in our new home should have been liberating – we were finally free from the Florida heat, lackluster housing options, and minimal career opportunities. Truthfully, those first couple months felt suffocating. Playing catch-up after depleting our life savings limited our abilities to explore our new environment at first. Adding insult to injury, freelance clients weren’t willing to pay what I thought I was worth. After readying my resume, compiling a perfunctory portfolio, and sending out a few applications, I finally got a call back for something worthwhile – a copywriting role for an SEO services agency.
The recruitment process took just a few weeks before my start date was scheduled and the paperwork was drawn up. I was shuttled to my office, trained for a few hours by a supervisor (who, ironically, worked from Florida), and left alone to start writing for clients I’d never met.
Here are some questions I asked myself in accepting a writing role that intimidated me:
- Am I writing too slow?
- Am I making silly grammatical mistakes?
- Am I saying this in the clearest way?
- Am I writing relevant content?
- Am I making a difference?
There’s a trend to these questions, and I wonder if you spotted it. Why am I apologizing before I’ve even begun? Reputations often take weeks, months, or, even, years to form. But agencies are often fast-paced. For instance, clients I work for choose from a select number of monthly content updates when they enlist our services. Content updates are the physical act of writing content to appear on the products or product categories of e-commerce websites. I’ve done the math and I write between 3,500 and 7,000 words per day. During grad school, I struggled to fill a 1,000-word essay with useful information. Without those grueling grad experiences, I’m not sure that I could push through six- to ten-hour sessions of writing for a sole client.
Part of my transformation in prolificacy was finding a loose content equation to stick to. So, I began many of my introductions, transitions, and conclusions in a comparable way to encapsulate all the good SEO habits of content without using too many buzzwords. “Google is God” is a phrase I like to employ, because every website in existence is crawled by bots to discover new or updated pages that need to be indexed for their records. If you produce content that’s too rich in keywords, your webpage will suffer consequently because you are “stuffing.” My agency does everything in its power to keep client websites at the top of search listings, and I play an integral part in that task. Some projects require me to rein in my impulses to digitally vomit beautiful words, while others require some seriously backbreaking effort to create a completely unique branding voice.
After one month on the job, I began telecommuting. Working from home is a slippery slope if you lack the focus. Luckily, you can train yourself to work productively and treat your home office as you would any other professional space. Wake up early. Shower. Get dressed in something other than a romper or yoga pants. Eat breakfast. Drink coffee. Refill. Refill. Refill. Take lunch. Tune out for a little while. Check back in. Get back to work until the clock strikes and you’re free to play with dogs, hike, restore furniture, binge-watch favorite television shows, send poetry submissions, and search for new freelance opportunities to expand your portfolio.
There’s a fine-lined whirlwind about an agency that you can lose yourself to if you’re not being careful. Me? I start any new role at arm’s length. I’m not married to my work. I’m married to my partner, the four-legged things that nap at my feet, and the few friendships to which I lay claim. Am I responsible for pulling my weight and keeping our home in livable conditions? Yes. Do I love what I do? Not every day. We all grow up with this funny idea that we’ve reached the pinnacle of happiness and meaning when we love what we do professionally. With a little bit of age and fair bit of upset, I’ve found that this funny idea is flawed. I hope that any writer can relate to the notion of growing up somewhat clueless. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I stretched all my creative passions as far as they could go in pursuit of being the ultimate Renaissance woman. With a paying writing job and two degrees under my belt, I’m still a little clueless and that’s okay.
So far, the agency life has taught me a lot about myself and my work ethic. I’m much more prone to distraction than I originally thought. I also realize that I’d prefer to communicate with clients directly and develop a marketing strategy as a collaborative effort. Agency life is not glamorous, but it’s a worthwhile experience. They say that everyone should work in a restaurant at least once. I say that every writer should work at the whim of a paying client at least once. As for the pursuit of happiness, I suggest that you sit down with yourself, spend some time together, and brainstorm ways in which you can make money while expanding your competencies. We aren’t created and molded to plateau. Make the most of your time. Spend it on people and employers that know your worth and are willing to invest in you.
Brianne Manning holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Central Florida and currently works as a copywriter in North Carolina. Her poetry has been published in over a dozen literary journals throughout the U.S., the U.K., and Ireland. Her photography has been published in The Sun magazine and by Vintage Books.