>Education for freelance journalists

>There’s a great blog discussion at Lisa Romeo’s site, with experts giving their opinions about the value of an MFA, a master of fine art’s degree, in writing. Is it worth the effort and money? Does it give you a boost in your career?

I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, earned in 2003, so I can address some of those questions myself, but first let’s start at the beginning. Do you need any kind of degree at all?

I also have a bachelor’s degree in journalism, with a newspaper reporting and edting concentration. I grew up wanting to write poetry and fiction, but I had a strong enough practical side to see that I might need to earn a living and it wouldn’t happen in creative writing. It was a good choice. It got me working on newspapers for years, and I can still always go back to that if I need a job. If you want to be staff writer for a newspaper, a journalism degree is the most direct route. If you majored in something else, all is not lost as long you can prove that you can write. But you do need a degree in something to get a newspaper job.

As a freelancer for newspapers, it’s extremely helpful to have had training and experience in journalism. You’ll learn newspaper style, learn to meet deadlines quickly, and be required to complete an internship in the business to get the degree. You’ll make contacts that will help you find work. My curriculum also included classes in freelancing that I could apply directly to my work. Earning my BA in journalism was one of the smartest things I ever did.

I never got a postgrad degree in journalism because the curriculum seemed to be all theory and minimal writing. Really the only use for it seemed to be if one wanted to teach. For a long time, I didn’t have any interest in that. Now there are MA programs in creative nonfiction or literary journalism that can be quite helpful, but you certainly don’t need them to be a freelance writer.

I did want an MFA however, mostly to get back to that creative writing I had been doing all my life. The degree was good for me in a lot of ways. It did get me back into poetry and fiction. It forced me to read great works of literature, and it forced me to take a new look at how I was writing. After decades of journalism, my prose had gone a little stale. I had also changed my mind about teaching, and the degree launched my teaching career.

But has the MFA helped me sell more articles or books? Nope. Has it paid for itself yet? Not even close. As you will see if you read Romeo’s article, editors really don’t care what degrees you have; they just want you to be able to write well and produce the kinds of work they need.

Now, a secondary degree in a specialized subject might be very useful in allowing you to write specialized articles in a particular subject such as business, science or law. But do you need an MA or MFA in writing or journalism to freelance? No. It’s nice to have, but not necessary.

Just write. That’s all it comes down to. Find out what they need and write it.