Higher Ed Turned Me into a Copywriter

Antique typewriter with paper, glasses, and book on wooden desk.
Photo by RetroSupply on Unsplash

Almost by accident, higher ed turned me into a copywriter. It’s surely not the usual path, but I’ve found copywriting to be a rewarding, if challenging, second career.

Writing Like a College Professor

Most college professors don’t know how to write. Don’t believe me? Check out a scholarly article in nearly any field. It will likely be laden with jargon, convoluted sentences, and tortured arguments that would leave Sherlock Holmes perplexed.

I quickly became adept at such writing because that’s how you survive in the academic, scholarly game. By the time I finished graduate school at The University of Chicago, untranslatable German expressions marched through my papers like so many Teutonic knights.

It was not always thus. In truth, I had benefited from undergraduate professors at Wabash College who were devoted to helping students communicate clearly in any setting. Their inspiration resurfaced during my own teaching career when my classes filled with students who lacked basic writing skills. I eventually devoted more time to improving my students’ writing than to other instructional chores.

I trace this passion to my first month in college when my English professor returned my initial college paper. To my dismay, red marks obscured the first page. Words, phrases, entire sentences were crossed out. Scribbled suggestions appeared in the margins along with the comment, “This effort is so poor that I have ceased correcting subsequent pages.”

Of my 150-word opening paragraph, my professor retained only 49 while expressing what I intended more forcefully. After this blow to my ego subsided, I devoured a copy of Strunk & White’s, The Elements of Style. Improvement followed.

Years later, when approving my Ph.D. dissertation, one of my readers (British) scrawled on the evaluation form, “Barnett has butchered the Queen’s English.” Several years of graduate study had trained me in academic writing, complete not only with jargon but also with passive voice and systematic ambiguity.

Teaching Students

Teaching students how to write, however, did not go smoothly. I developed a reputation among students at Le Moyne College for being a stickler about grammar, logical structure, and evidence-based argument. Only a few took advantage of my offer to permit submitting revised papers for a higher grade.

Out of frustration one year, I invited a recent alumna and former student of mine to speak to one of my classes. She related how she had been fired from an unpaid internship because her boss became annoyed with correcting her outgoing email messages before they ruined the company’s reputation.

After her presentation, you could have heard a pin drop. And it suddenly dawned on me: she had given these students a reason for learning how to write well. We all tend to learn something, even if distasteful, when we see a reason to do so.

Upon becoming a dean, I also had to take another look at my own writing. I soon recognized that the lingering effects of scholarly writing impeded my communication with others. Things had to change. Jettisoning jargon happened easily. Next came ambiguity: deans should speak and write clearly (though not all do). Eliminating passive voice, however, continued (and continues!) to require sweat.

My Pivot to Copywriting

My final position as a graduate dean at Trinity College hurled me into what today is called content marketing. The usual duties of hiring and supervising faculty, advising students, and revising academic programs were familiar.

In this instance, the college also charged me with increasing revenue but without the support of additional resources. That meant raising enrollment for current programs that had withered for lack of any serious marketing attention. I was on my own.

Promoting our graduate programs required me to create website copy, content for printed promotional materials, radio scripts, data-driven reports (along with other internal documents), fundraising appeals, grant proposals, and thought-leader articles.

One brief example involved a series of short pieces that were published in local media. I especially like “What Are You Reading?” as published in the Hartford Courant.

Surprisingly, these activities sharpened my understanding of the challenges that our adult learners encountered. They also allowed me to develop my communications skills more broadly. With the help and advice of professionals in Trinity’s communications office, the work paid off: enrollment doubled in less than three years.

Upon retiring from academia, I faced the challenge of doing something to avoid boredom and earn some money. I decided to start my own copywriting business. Honestly, I had become hooked on writing engaging pieces that also carry practical value.

To date, I have been privileged to create promotional materials and other documents for attorneys, physicians, dentists, transportation service firms, Veterans’ support groups, not-for-profit organizations, and educational institutions. Sometimes a struggle but not boring.

That’s my story. What’s yours?

Have you switched careers to become a writer? Why do you do what you do? What do you find most satisfying (or not)? I really want to know. Add a comment or get in touch at https://barnettwriter.com/.

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I have a background in higher education as a professor and administrator. I now run my own company, Barnett Writer, LLC, and provide curated content marketing.

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William Barnett

William Barnett

I have a background in higher education as a professor and administrator. I now run my own company, Barnett Writer, LLC, and provide curated content marketing.

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