Scripting your career

September 07, 2004|by CHRIS COPLEY

In this digital decade, when everyone communicates by keyboard, everyone knows how to write, right?

Well, yes and no. Sarah Bigham, director of career services for Hood College in Frederick, Md., said a teenager who writes well has one foot in the door of a future career. But potential employers want more.

"Just having writing skills isn't enough," Bigham said. "Organizations that are looking for writers want to see that you have experience in their area. First and foremost, have the writing skills. But also back that up with knowledge of the industry you want to work in."

Good writing is a skill needed for many jobs, often as a way to communicate within a company about a product or service. But for some workers - such as computer game developers, journalists, TV show scriptwriters and greeting card writers - their product is their writing.


Pete Hines is vice president of marketing and public relations for Bethesda Softworks in Rockville, Md., developer of computer games such as "Morrowind" and "Call of Cthulhu." Hines said writing is involved in Bethesda's game development from start to finish.

"In the beginning, it's a lot of high concept stuff - what is the world, who's in it, what are they doing, et cetera," he said. "From there we break it down into the main quest, the factions - like the fighter's guild - and what overarching story is taking place there, who are the main characters, what are the quests that the player will have to complete, and so on. Obviously, for individual quests there's, a lot of dialogue writing involved."

But Hines confirmed Bigham's point: Bethesda Software hires experienced game developers, not just good writers. And they've got examples of their work to show.

"All of the designers on our team are accomplished writers. Most of them do not have a degree in writing, but nevertheless that's what they spend a lot of their time doing," he said. "So, we want good writers who (can show us) examples of mods or plug-ins or game-related things they've done on their own that show us they 'get' what it is we do here."

Play to your strengths

Doug Lawrence, co-creator of "SpongeBob SquarePants," is primarily a writer for "Rocko's Modern Life" these days. He also provides the voice for Filbert the Turtle on "Rocko."

But Lawrence didn't start out to be a writer. He just happened to develop a career with his knack for being funny.

"I started in (Los Angeles) as an animator, but I really started out as a comic in clubs on the West Coast," he said.

Stand-up comedy led to voice acting for cartoons, which led to writing scripts and drawing for shows, which led to collaborating on an oddball story about a sponge and his friends on the sea floor. Now Lawrence has a career in the TV cartoon industry.

He has an artist's perspective on pursuing a career.

"First of all, there's the whole thing of finding out what you really like to do," Lawrence said. "You don't want to go to work and really hate it. So if you find yourself liking drawing, you probably should be doing it. But if you don't like it, don't force it."

Being funny takes a knack

Peter Koechley is a staff writer with The Onion, a satirical print and online newspaper based in New York. He says the six staff writers for The Onion have a knack for seeing things as funny.

"Of the six writers, four of us graduated from college. But there's a common perspective," Koechley said. "We have to know what jokes make sense and what jokes don't."

Koechley said he got his start in writing satire by creating his own satirical newspaper while he was still in high school in Madison, Wis., the original home of The Onion.

"I started my own monthly humor newspaper in high school," he said. "We put out about 20 issues that were eventually distributed citywide. We sent about a dozen issues to The Onion and eventually they wrote back and said we should drop by."

Koechley interned with The Onion while he attended college. He did graphics for the newspaper and whatever else needed doing - all for no pay - and eventually he got to write headlines.

He was hired on a fluke: An Onion staff writer quit the week before Koechley graduated from college. His experience gave him a leg up on other applicants.

A poet turns to doggerel

For 24 years, Jim Howard has worked as a greeting card writer for Hallmark Cards Inc. in Kansas City. Although he has written thousands of cards and touched millions of lives, Howard says he was not an immediate hit when he was hired.

"Some people come here and they have a knack. They write tons of cards and get them accepted," he said. "I didn't have much of a knack when I got here. I had to learn by failing. I do think some people are born poets. But I am more a 'made' writer."

Howard says card writing is not easy. Writers at Hallmark spend their days coming up with ideas for particular lines of cards, as assigned. Ideas are submitted to editors, who accept or reject them. A thick skin is helpful for writers.

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