Allena Tapia recently conducted a useful discussion on her About.com blog about freelance writing. She asked what major is the best major for a fledgling freelance writer. She asked those of us who make a living by freelancing to weigh in on what advice we’d give to a young person who wanted to follow in our footsteps.
Interestingly, many of the people who responded said they’d recommend an English major. I was an English major myself, once upon a time. My small liberal arts college didn’t have a journalism program, so most of us who wanted to pursue careers in journalism chose a major like English or political science and then worked on the school newspaper and got internships at outside publications. I chose my major based on two things: 1) English was my best subject and I adored it, and 2) I wanted to major in something that would teach me to think critically and write well. Since I didn’ t get the chance to take any formal journalism courses, I learned most of what I knew about journalism from internships and the school paper. But I developed good research and writing skills from writing a regular series of papers for my English classes, from Advanced Essay Writing to Shakespearean Tragedy.
Would I recommend the same course to a young person today? Maybe. I think there’s definitely value in studying a particular subject, like history or English or psychology or international studies, in great detail. You become much more familiar with a particular area of study, which can only help you in a writing career; you actually know something about a particular specialty, not just how to write about it.
Meanwhile, journalism is a wonderful course of study in that you learn a lot about the trade, including the laws that govern it. You also learn how to write and structure an article, and so on. But you don’t necessarily learn a lot about any one subject matter, which I think is useful for developing critical thinking skills. Is it going to hurt someone to major in journalism? Absolutely not, particularly if you’re attending a really good journalism school. It might be the best course of action for some people. And also, it helps in developing important networking connections, which can’t be discounted if you want to pursue a career in journalism. But ultimately, I’m glad I did what I did. And for the record, I went on to get a master’s degree in journalism, had an absolute blast doing it and learned a lot of things that have been meaningful in my career.
And frankly, I wouldn’t advise a young person to plan on being a freelance writer anyway, at least not right off the bat. I’d tell him or her to get a job working in journalism or publishing and get some experience* first. Work hard, work under some good editors, and build up a good clip file. Get some good online experience. Hone your writing skills and develop your resume and contacts. Then go freelance. (*Not that it’s that easy to get a job in journalism these days, but you can be creative.) If you’re a good writer and you’re persistent, that’s what matters in the end.