Writer And Editor Jean Mills, Artsci'78, MA'80

Writer and editor for curling.ca

Q: You graduated from Queen's with a BA and MA in English. Did you always know that your career would involve language and writing?

Jean MillsA: I've always been a writer, so yes, I always knew my career would involve writing.  I can't imagine working in a field that doesn't involve some kind of writing component.

Currently I'm working as an online content writer/editor on a full-time basis, but over the past twenty years I taught writing skills at three community colleges in Ontario. I've also freelanced my writing and editing skills to various publications, organizations and businesses.

Actually, my writing life started with fiction. I had two novels for young readers published about twenty years ago. Since then, I've done a bit of self-publishing, but mostly I've moved away from fiction and into freelance writing and editing.

Q: What other activities (including extracurricular activities, summer internships, and jobs) were you involved in while at Queen's that you think helped prepare you for a career as a writer?

A: I was deeply involved in CFRC Radio during my years at Queen's, and that experience has played a huge role in my development as a writer and editor. (It was also fantastic fun with great people!) I was involved in the sports department, and for two years I was Sports Director. The job involved a lot of on-air commentary, of course, but I was also responsible for putting together our weekly half-hour sports news program. I wrote news pieces and feature stories, and interviewed athletes on air.  I also wrote sports reports for The Queen's Journal on occasion, since I was on the road with the hockey and basketball teams.

The written requirements of my course work also played a huge role in helping me develop as a writer. Writing an essay involves preparation, planning, research, analysis, and – of course! – a command of writing style and grammar. I approached every assignment as an opportunity to exercise my writing muscles. And writing something for a professor is exactly the same as writing something for an editor: you have to meet the expectations and deliver clean copy on time.

Q: During the course of your career so far, you've worked for an employer and you've also run your own businesses. Having experienced both ways of working, what's your preference and why? (Note: your preference could be a combination of the two)

A: Tough question, because every situation is different. When I ran my own training business (business writing workshops), I found the marketing side of things quite difficult. It's just not my skill set. Put me in front of a group of people to work on writing skills – great. But trying to hustle up business? Difficult.

That challenge applies to my years of freelance writing as well, but I did develop strategies over time, mostly to do with networking and being part of a professional organization (such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada). That support was valuable when looking for new clients and writing gigs.

Working for an employer means you don't have to hustle up the work yourself, but it also has its challenges - chiefly that your schedule might not be as flexible as it is when you're "the boss".

In my current job, as writer/editor for Curling.ca (the website of the Canadian Curling Association) I have the best of both worlds. I mostly work from home and have a flexible schedule. I also have demanding deadlines from time to time, but that's just part of the job.

Q: How did you get your current job?

A: Ten years ago, I self-published a young adult novel called "Abby and the Curling Chicks" and, with the help of a well-connected curling contact, asked the Canadian Curling Association if I could sell it through their online store. Through that connection, I got to know the CCA's Director of Club Development. I was teaching writing at Conestoga College at that time and freelancing on the side, so I asked the CCA if they needed any writing help. Nothing happened at that point, but we stayed in touch.

A few years ago, I decided that freelancing was fine, but I really needed a niche – and curling is sport I love and know a lot about. So I started a blog called Grassroots Curling. It got some attention within the curling community. For instance, a curling club celebrating its 175th anniversary asked me to write their commemorative book, which I did. Shortly after that, the editor of The Curling News newspaper, contacted me to see if I wanted to do some writing for them. I did that for two years and actually spent a year as Associate Editor.

When the CCA was looking for people to write regular blog posts for their website, they approached me, thanks to my past connections. I blogged for one year, and my role with the website gradually grew to the point that I became the editor of online content, as well as writing and assigning stories to other writers.

So, how did I get my current job?

I built up my reputation as a reliable and skilled freelance writer. I got some credibility in the curling community (books, blogging, freelancing)I connected/networked with people in the curling community. I worked hard and said "yes" to practically everything anyone asked me to do – within reason, of course!

Q: What's your favourite thing about what you do?Jean Mills

A: This is a dream job for me: writing and curling. Heaven! Most of the time I work from home, but this season I had the chance to sit on the media bench at a couple of major curling events, watching the athletes in action, interviewing them and writing about their games. It does not get any better!

I also love that I can work from home and, for the most part, make my own workday schedule. Having that freedom and flexibility makes my work life very satisfying.

Q: What's the biggest challenge?

A: Deadlines. Deadlines are the biggest challenge and the best friend of any writer. They're what keep you on track and focused. Of course, as an editor, I'm also challenged by people who don't meet the deadlines I've set for them. Negotiation, understanding and flexibility are all part of the job.

Q: Ideally, where do you see yourself in five years' time?

A: Doing exactly what I'm doing now. I love this job and the team I work with. And if that's not possible, I will be writing a novel. Or two.

Q: What advice would you give a young graduate who's interested in a career that involves writing or editing?

A: First, develop your skills. I'm talking about basic skills such as grammar and style. I am astounded at the number of high-profile communicators who have lousy writing skills and, clearly, no editing skills either. It reflects so badly on the organization they represent. Learn how to write for different audiences and different purposes. Learn the difference between subject and object pronouns. Learn how to use commas and semi-colons properly! Learn how to proofread. Read a lot; write a lot.

Second, make connections with people who can help you. Join a professional organization (Professional Writers Association of Canada or the Editors' Association of Canada). Take advantage of professional development offered by these organizations, or others. Meet people, exchange contact information, get a profile on LinkedIn. Be aware that you need to be practical: writing for magazines may sound like a fun job, but it's increasingly difficult to make much money at it. Corporate writing – such as writing annual reports or in-house newsletters – is a growing field with lots of opportunities. Educate yourself about the options out there, and give them all a try. And when you do land writing gigs, feel free to ask your editor or communications director for a reference once the job is done.

Third, if you have a "niche" you want to focus on, start a blog. I know more writers (including myself) who landed writing gigs because an editor checked out their blog. A blog provides an opportunity to showcase your writing and build a platform for launching yourself into the type of writing you're most interested in. And you can direct potential employers or editors to your blog site if they want to see your work.

Fourth, once you land a writing job – no matter how large or small – make sure you deliver clean copy, on time. Editors and communications directors will love you.