The Dirty Little Secrets of Internships

intern_headerDear Midwest Writers Interns,

This week,  your internship at the 40th annual Midwest Writers Workshop begins.

  • On Thursday, half of you will assist Roxane Gay in her “Building a Website/Blog” class, and the other half will assist Jane Friedman in her “Creating an ebook Class.”
  • On Friday and Saturday, six of you will staff a Social Media Lab where attendees can get hands-on help and advice, and five of you will work as assistants to the literary agents who will be hearing pitches.

I thought I’d give you a few words of advice about internships. Here’s why:

  • I’ve been on both sides of the experience. I’ve been the intern, the outsider trying to get inside, and I’ve been the employer, the insider trying to train someone coming in from the outside.
  • Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of former students complain about bad internship experiences, and I think that half the time, the students’ gripes are probably valid and the other half, the students’ gripes are the product of unreasonable expectations.

Internships aren’t classrooms (although they’re supposed to be)

In this particular internship with you, I am a college professor (a teacher) who is also on the planning committee for the MWW (the employer, although it’s my grant that’s really paying you). I’m used to explaining things. But most of the time, internships aren’t coordinated by teachers. They’re coordinated by busy people who are under no real obligation to you. You can’t give them a bad eval or complain to their department chair. You are almost completely at the mercy of the internship coordinator, and your generation is not used to this scenario one bit.

Most of the time, the “intern coordinator” is someone relatively low on the totem pole who is told that they must train you in addition to a bunch of other responsibilities. Understand that fact, and you’ll be better off.

(Later in this post, I’ll talk about how this situation might be changing for the better.)

Even “failure” is a victory

I’ve had two internships in my life. I was an intern at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine (I wrote a short story loosely based on my experience) and at a small-town newspaper. Neither of these experiences led to a job (although both offered me a position). What I learned was that my temperament wasn’t suited to writing for magazines or newspapers, because those jobs required me to be “on” and extraverted and forceful in a way that was really, really hard for me. Yes, I knew it was supposed to be hard, and so I soldiered on (with the help of a lot of cigarettes) because I’d spent years envisioning myself in one of these two careers. But finally, I was forced to admit that I just couldn’t do either of those jobs for the rest of my life.

I left each internship feeling depressed, like I’d failed, although in retrospect, I know that I saved myself a lot of time by figuring out these things early.

It’s not about you

The most important thing I can tell you about most internships is that (with exceptions, of course) no one really has time for you or whatever it is you think you need you need to derive from the experience. Does this indifference bother you? Too bad.

It’s scary isn’t it? Realizing how completely indifferent the world is to you. I remember this as being a pretty terrifying realization.

From an employer’s perspective, it’s almost always easier to do a job yourself than to explain to an intern how it should be done. The reason that most interns get stuck doing relatively meaningless duties is that these are the only tasks the intern coordinator can assign relatively quickly and with low stakes. Because what the coordinator really needs to do is give you something to do so they can get back to their job.

If you approached college from a position in which you were trying to “get your money’s worth” because you were the “consumer” and your professors were “working for you,” then you probably won’t respond well to most internship environments. Because you think the situation is all about you, and it isn’t even remotely about you.

You will make mistakes

When I worked at that small-town newspaper, the editor told me to do a story about a new shopping center in town (a Wal-mart and a bunch of smaller stores). I called all the little stores and asked how business was, typed up the story, and it ran. The next day, the publisher came into the office fit to be tied. Apparently, this story was supposed to have had a particular angle. The shopping center owners had promised those little stores that the complex would be anchored by a Walmart on one end and an Aldi on the other end; however, the Aldi had never come, and I should have asked questions to prompt the store owners to speak to that. But hey, I didn’t live in that town–I was a college student visiting for the summer–so I didn’t know that backstory, didn’t ask those questions, and the editor forgot to fill me in. He didn’t even THINK to fill me in.

It was a major screw up, but also sort of unavoidable. Things like this will happen.

My cousin Mark says “A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved.” That’s a major freaking truth.

Be indispensable

If you want to get a good recommendation out of your internship, maybe even stay on in a paid position, you must learn how to be indispensable.

Do what they tell you to do, and do it right the first time. We had some difficulty early on in this internship when I was charged with the task of creating the copy for this webpage. I sent all eleven of you an email with directions which included a sample bio and a link to a similar webpage. Easy, right? No. I got eleven different kinds of bios. Some straightforward (what I was looking for), some more whimsical. Some people hyperlinked to their website. Some didn’t. Some people put their photos in the right folder, some didn’t. Some of you spelled things wrong. I spent many hours rewriting those bios. What upset me about this was that I sent you samples of what I needed, but I didn’t say “Do it like this,” because I didn’t realize I needed to say that. And honestly, I shouldn’t have needed to say, “Do it like this.”

Following directions is–seriously–half the battle in real life.

Be independent. A good intern is one who the employer rarely has to talk to but who still accomplishes a significant amount of work. Don’t wait for direction. See what needs to be done and do it. And when they give you something to do, ask a few good questions so that you won’t have to ask a bunch of followup questions.

Think like your boss. The best kind of assistant is the one who knows how their sponsor thinks and knows what they need before they need it. It takes time to get inside someone’s brain, but it can be done.

Seek out resources. Find out who does have time to talk to you and absorb everything they have to give you. If this person happens to be your supervisor, be grateful for this.

Write well. The first time. Every time.

I’ve met many students lately who have gotten internships as social media assistants–running a company’s blog or social media presence. If you get an internship like this and you cannot write clear, graceful prose, you will be sunk.

Here’s what needs to happen: your supervisor says, “We need a blog post about Topic A.” You write said post and give it to your supervisor. S/he reads it over and posts it. The end.

Here’s what you don’t want to happen: your supervisor says, “We need a blog post about Topic A.” You write said post and give it to your supervisor. S/he reads it over and spends a half hour or more that s/he doesn’t have editing the post and/or explaining to you how it needs to be done. You do it again. S/he reads it over and posts it. The end.

Every time the second scenario happens, your chances of staying on at this company diminish. Nobody needs more work to do. When you become more work for someone, they decide it’s easier to just do something themselves or to find someone else. End of story.

I say this to my students all the time, and I don’t think they believe me: You must disabuse yourself of the notion that it is anybody’s job to fix your shit for you. If anyone has consistently said to you, “Your writing doesn’t make sense,” or “You’re too wordy,” or “You have problems with grammar,” thank these people and learn how not to do these things anymore. Once you are out of school, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone with loads of time on their hands eager to edit your work for you. If, on the other hand, if you can become someone who can be depended on to write clearly and well, you will become indispensable.

Internships in the News

The subject of unpaid internships is very much in the news these days. Last month, a judge in New York ruled that interns on the film Black Swan should have been paid at least minimum wage.

These are the Department of Labor’s criteria for unpaid internships. Notice how much these criteria are intended to benefit you!

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

In an ideal world, employers who take on an unpaid intern should understand that they are taking on the task of teaching that intern. However, most of the advice I’ve given you assumes that employers are not abiding by these criteria, but they might, however, if a lot of class action lawsuits continue moving forward.

The dirty little secret about internships

  • Unpaid internships are a stepping stone to important careers.
  • Only some kinds of people can afford unpaid internships.
  • Hence, some careers might seem completely out of your reach.

Maybe you’re geographically and/or economically at a disadvantage, but in this case 1.) Midwest Writers Workshop brings New York to Muncie, and 2.) the Discovery Group gave me a grant so I can pay you.

I know you all work a job or two or three. You take care of your aging grandparents and great grandparents and kid sisters and brothers. You don’t know people in New York City who you can stay with while you do that big internship at Whatever House. You don’t have a trust fund or a safety net to live off of like some people do.

But I firmly believe that with the right attitude, skills, and resources, kids from Middle of Nowhere, Indiana can achieve whatever they desire. This week, you’re making an important step in that direction, and I can’t wait to get started.

CW Programs Literary Citizenship Teaching


  1. Alice Elliott Dark says:

    Excellent and useful post. The advice about turning in clean copy is crucial. Thanks. This advice is worth all the grunt work of an internship.

Comments are closed.