The numbers didn’t add up: Ten years of writing soap operas on network television. Four Emmy Awards. One Writers Guild Award for script of the year. Then four months out of work. And zero job offers.
Craig Heller in his home office in Los Angeles.
The soap opera genre, it turned out, had begun its descent into irrelevancy, and the situation wasn’t going to improve. After years of honing my skills to become a television writer in a very specific niche, I had to find a new way to employ my writing talents.
In 2006, I was coaching my nephew on his college application essays. I had done it before for family and friends. It’s something that professional writers do, like foot doctors answering their relatives’ questions about plantar fasciitis. When my nephew was accepted to Tulane University, my brother-in-law casually mentioned to me, “You know, people do that for a living.”
That got my attention. That and the Visa bills I was increasingly afraid to open. I began to investigate the college adviser industry, trying to determine whether there was a place in it for me.
The application essay, I learned, was becoming an increasingly important aspect of the admissions process. Parents and students were unsure of what a good one looked like. I had written books, worked in corporate communications, headed a writing staff of 14. I knew that I could write and edit. I had been through the college application process myself as a parent, and I have always enjoyed a rapport with young adults. It seemed a natural transition.
I began my new endeavor by sending postcards to the parents of seniors at local high schools, offering my services as an “essay tutor.” My response rate to these and similar strategies was typical for direct mail: under 3 percent. But people did call, and I soon had a few clients.
I had decided to work with students exclusively online and by phone, and the students seemed relieved not to have another adult in their face. Following some initial brainstorming in which we identified a compelling topic, I encouraged the students to create a comprehensive outline before the first draft, an approach I had always used in my own writing. They sent me the outlines, I suggested adjustments, they revised. Once their first draft was done, I offered detailed notes, which they then had the option of applying, rejecting or using as a springboard for their own ideas.
From the beginning, I made it clear that they must remain the author of the essay; I was not going to write it for them. The process continued, back and forth, until the essay was as good as it could possibly be.
ENCOURAGED, I continued my marketing efforts. I put fliers on cars in high school parking lots. I called school counselors, asking them to recommend me. I drove from Los Angeles to a college fair in San Diego and handed out fliers as people entered. Since I was not a registered exhibitor, the fair’s management asked me to stop. I moved to a different location and continued distributing the fliers. A security guard escorted me from the grounds.
I worked hard to become an expert in the field, steeping myself in information, interviewing college admissions directors and reaching out to private counselors. These dedicated professionals often work with students for years, guiding them to the ideal college. Many of them recognized that I brought an elevated level of skill and creativity to tutoring students on the essay. They wanted their students to benefit from that and began to recommend me.
In television parlance, I had become a “show runner” — only the show I was running was called College Essay Solutions, the name I had given my new business. In 2009, I took the next, inevitable, step: I put up a Web site.
Today, College Essay Solutions is a growing business, with students all over the country. I blog and tweet about the essay process and have the requisite Facebook page. Everything I’ve learned in a 20-year career as a writer — from pitching ideas to working with difficult producers to revising, editing, even inspiring — is now being applied in a different way.
Though I rarely meet them in person, my connection to the families I work with is meaningful. I see myself as trying to help them through a stressful time. Hearing from students who’ve been accepted to their first-choice college brings a feeling of satisfaction that stays with me for a long time.
My career, it turns out, has become a lot like the soaps I used to write. It’s a continuing story.