My career path has taken a slightly different turn, for the time being anyway, from what I imagined when I was in graduate school finishing a master’s degree in counseling and development with a concentration in community/agency counseling. Back then, I had plans of becoming a college career counselor and completed all of my field experience, practicum and both semesters’ internship, in the career services office of a community college. It was important work, I felt, and I took some pride in the fact that the discipline of counseling had early roots in vocational guidance. It was also work I could relate to, having experienced a measure of career indecision throughout my adult life. I went on to receive the National Certified Counselor credential.
Now, I find myself doing something seemingly unrelated to all that preparation. I am working as a freelance writer, publishing personal essays, feature articles and profiles in my local newspaper and anywhere else I can. I’ve written a style column several times, but most of what I’m doing at the moment would be termed “community journalism” – lots of very local “good news” stories about individuals with interesting hobbies or jobs, or people who are doing good deeds in their neighborhoods and community. I’ve met interesting people and received positive feedback.
At first glance, it may seem like a big leap between the two fields: counseling and freelance writing/journalism; however, the two have more commonalities than you might think. The essence of both counseling and writing is communication, even if the purpose and “audience” are quite different. Here are a few similarities I’ve observed that I believe these fields share:
Genuine curiosity about other people and their lives is essential to both counseling and writing. It’s not just an idle curiosity, either – counselors are supposed to be empathic. Hopefully, writers are empathic, too. I try to be considerate of sources, respectful of the fact that they are sharing their knowledge, and something of themselves, with readers, and they are under no obligation to do so.
All counselors are familiar with the importance of informed consent. A basic part of securing informed consent is reviewing confidentiality – and the limits of confidentiality – with a client. While there may not be any formal process for informed consent in interviewing someone for an article, I don’t want them to ever be unclear that they are speaking “on the record” for a newspaper article that will appear in print and online where it may be seen by many people – perhaps thousands of people, and that their real name is going to be used.
Skill in interviewing other people is important to counseling and to writing, although the goal, of course, is different. Interviewing clients in a counseling setting is ultimately for the goal of meeting a therapeutic purpose. Interviewing a source for a newspaper article is to learn information that will inform, entertain or perhaps inspire. In either case, you must have the ability to gain someone’s trust and build rapport with that person, whether they are a client or a source. Skillful listening is necessary – counselors and writers should both probably be in the habit of listening more than talking.
There is a certain amount of resourcefulness necessary to counseling and to writing. In counseling, you try different strategies and techniques, borrowing from relevant theoretical orientations appropriate for the client. You must think on your feet, generating ideas, but you don’t want to be so caught up in what you are going to say next that you fail to listen to what the client is telling you. In writing, you must constantly be generating ideas, too. There are editors to answer to, and you must be a veritable font of ideas for compelling stories of interest to a particular audience of readers.
I’ve always loved writing in some form or other, so I suppose the realization that I wanted to try, at least, to earn a living at it should have come as no real surprise. If and when I make counseling my emphasis, maybe as a career counselor, what I am doing now should not be bad preparation for it.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina