job skills

Writing to Improve Non-Academic Job Skills

Confession time: I’ve started applying for jobs again. (If you know of any, send them my way, willya?) Yes, I’m still writing and editing, but I decided that I wanted a more stable income and regular paychecks. The people who will tell you that freelancing is either feast or famine ain’t joking.

I’m applying for non-academic jobs, from corporate administrative assistant positions to do-gooder non-profit work. I’ve read hundreds of job descriptions in the last few months. After reading so many job descriptions, one thing stands out to me:

Almost all of the job descriptions I’ve read list excellent written communication skills as an important qualification.

As a person with a PhD, I know that I need to show employers how my academic skills are relevant to them. Writing is one of the most obvious transferable skills that people with PhDs already have. Think about that. If you have a PhD, you’ve already got one of the most important skills that employers want.

Now for the less rosy news: employers are not interested in jargon-laden academic prose. Few, I wager, care about edgy deconstructionist theories or dense arguments about cultural hegemony. I suspect that many employers think that PhDs don’t know how to write in a non-academic style that won’t scare people. What academics think of as writing and what the rest of the world thinks of as writing are often two different things.

Employers want people who can can write clearly in plain English. Writing clearly and concisely for broad audiences is an incredibly important skill for anyone to develop, but particularly academics interested in working outside academia.

Because of my blog, I’ve become a much better writer. I want a wide audience to read and understand my writing. My blog is now my online portfolio of writing samples, written for both general and academic audiences. Some of my posts, such as those that talk about my research, are academic. Others, where I write about the emotional struggles of writing, are for anyone who finds writing hard. I want employers to see how I tailor the content I write to different audiences. I’ve started to mention my blog on my resume and in my cover letters. Potential employers are welcome to read my posts and decide for themselves if I have the kind of writing skills they want. I now hope that potential employers who Google me find my website and blog, rather than read my academic writing.

Over the past year, I’ve taught myself to write in a non-academic style. I found it scary at first. When I started blogging, I thought that no one would read my writing without big words. I realized that I was wrong: the clearer my writing, the more people read it. Learning how to write again over the last year has taught me how to let my ideas stand on their own, expressed in good, clear English.  

I’m convinced that re-learning how to write has been an important step in my journey out of academia. Interested in the non-academic job market? Learn how to write again. Show potential employers that you know how to write with short words. Blog. Write novels. Write freelance articles for general audiences. Write non-academic non-fiction. Write short stories.

Practice writing clearly for broad audiences. Write in a way that people can understand.