Name: Judi Ketteler
College & Majors/Minors: English Major/Anthropology Minor (B.A. from Northern Kentucky University); I also have an M.A. in English from Miami University of Ohio
Current Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
Current Form of Employment: Freelance Writer
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I’ve been self-employed for 14 years. I work as a full-time freelance writer. That’s meant different things throughout the years. At one time, my focus was primarily writing for magazines. Now, I do mostly content marketing writing and copywriting, working for corporate clients (and some small businesses). I’ve been able to successfully support myself through writing all these years! Not only that, my husband is a stay-at-home dad, and for nearly eight years, I’ve been supporting the whole family!
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job.
My first job out of graduate school was a sales job at a trade industry magazine. I found it through a newspaper listing. Searching for jobs online wasn’t really much of a thing yet (this was 1999!). I only took the job because I thought I could work my way into editorial. I HATED the job. I didn’t want to sell banner ads for web sites (remember, this was 1999, and banner ads were all the rage). I only stayed six months. Everything about the job was terrible, except for the people I met! I made friends at that first job that I still have today. So, in the end, something good came out of it!
I started freelancing in 2002, after I got laid off twice in row, six months apart. I had been working as a copywriter at a design firm. I liked the job a lot, but when the economy took a turn for the worst in the summer of 2001, I got laid off. I found another job right away, helping a start-up nonprofit in the tech world with marketing. That job only lasted six months, because after 9/11 happened, the tech world was devastated. Non-profits definitely didn’t have any money!
When I lost that job in spring of 2002, I was 27 years old, and about to buy my first house. I was crushed and had to pull the offer for the house (my layoff literally happened the day after I made an offer)! It turned out to be a blessing, because I was able to take the money that would have been my downpayment, and use it to start freelancing. I had no idea what I was doing at first! I had been writing on the side for the local newspapers. I kept doing that, but then also started pitching stories to national magazines (which paid exponentially better than local publications).
I felt my way along, and soon was writing for many women’s magazines (SELF, Shape, Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Better Homes and Gardens, plus, a smattering of web sites). I also had some agency connections because of my time working for the design firm, so I landed some good freelance copywriting gigs. When the magazine industry took a big hit around 2009 - 2010, I moved away from magazine writing and focused most of my attentions on copywriting. That’s where I am now! I partner with lots of content marketing agencies and web design firms. I have small business clients, too, and I help with everything from social media to branding to advising on web design. I’ve also written a non-fiction book, Sew Retro (2010), and I partnered with a company to co-write another book, The Spoonflower Handbook (2015). I’m currently working with my agent on a young adult novel.
It’s been a really great ride so far, and I never imagined that I could make such a good living by writing, including years when I've made six figures. I had no idea that “freelance writer” was a job when I was in school. I didn’t really have any model either. I just made it up as I went along, and found the resources and mentors I needed as I went.
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
I mentioned that I worked as a copywriter at a design firm. That was a really crucial thing, because it’s how I learned the ropes of copywriting. The only writing experience I had coming out of grad school was academic. So, I knew a lot about 19th century women’s fiction, but I didn’t know much about how to write for everyday consumers. I had to learn by doing. Copywriting really is an art. Not all “good” writers can do it. You have to set aside ego and figure out how to clearly communicate to a target audience. I learned to do this by working at that design firm. I never could have freelanced without learning those basics!
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
Honestly, I wasn’t much concerned with preparing for post-grad life when I was in college, or graduate school for that matter! I concentrated on learning as much as I could, and getting as much out of every class that I could! Looking back, I can see all kinds of ways that I was building skills in college. For example, deadlines! In my world, I wouldn’t get repeat work from clients if I didn’t know how to meet deadlines. In college, I learned the importance of turning papers in on time—and that skill has served me well!
Also, the ability to research, to follow a footnote or a thread of something—that curiosity has taken me to some fantastic places, professionally-speaking. I had such great professors in college. They encouraged me to follow my interests and work on developing my own ideas about books, characters, theories, etc. I still use the critical thinking and discernment skills I learned by reading texts and criticism (and then writing about texts and criticism). Critical thinking is a big part of any story or project: knowing what to include (and why), what to leave out, what to edit, when to dig deeper into, when to push back, etc.
In terms of the craft of writing, my college and grad school classes definitely taught me the importance of voice. One of my strengths as a writer is my voice—specifically, my ability to craft the right voice for the project. How could I have learned that if hadn’t been exposed to such a diversity of voices, from Virginia Woolf to Herman Melville?
I think there is a social aspect, too: learning to have intelligent, respectful discussions with peers. I was very shy in college, so I probably didn’t really bloom in this area until graduate school. But the ability to contribute to discussions in a thoughtful way—that’s been so important in my career, and it’s helped me network and develop really key business relationships.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
You may stumble upon the perfect job right away, or, like me, it may be a series of stops and starts, and then a bit of luck and timing and going for it. Try to take something from each experience. No time is ever wasted if you are learning new things. Sometimes it’s a seemingly small thing, but you never know how it may play out in your career! Also, do as much networking and connecting with other people as you can. I’m talking face to face conversations! I love social media (especially LinkedIn), and have made quality connections that way, of course. But never underestimate the power of showing up in person and having a good conversation. Sometimes, I think I owe the success of my career to my ability to have a really good conversation with someone.