You Don’t Need a Journalism Degree to Be a Successful Freelance Writer

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Do you have to have a journalism degree to be a successful freelance writer? Nope. I don’t have one and I’ve done okay for myself.

But a lot of people still think going back to school and getting more education (and more student loans) is the only way to be successful in this and other freelance businesses. And frankly, it’s not true!

So if you’ve been wondering, “Do I need a journalism degree to be a successful freelance writer?” today’s guest poster, Cole Nemeth will clear it up for you once and for all!

Why I Went to School

It was around this time three years ago that I sent in my application to college. I’ve always loved writing, preferably non-fiction, so I decided to go to college and study journalism.

My choice to go to “j-school” or get a journalism degree was highly influenced by my dream to be a writer, rather than by a fascination with the news. Back then, I had no idea what kind of writer I wanted to be, but I loved to fantasize about working from home on my own schedule and my own time.

I figured, at least if I have a college education I can always get a job writing for someone else to support myself.

Of course, things didn’t work out that way and I’ve been writing for myself ever since my first term at school.

I realized something though. As much as I benefited from school, it wasn’t at all necessary to get a post-secondary education in order to become a successful freelance writer.

What I Learned

My program was only two years long, with a strong focus on news writing.

Our professors wanted us to be well-rounded, so we had to learn about a lot of different topics related to writing. Here are some of the main ones:

  • Research
  • Interviewing
  • Law
  • Ethics
  • Radio
  • Videography
  • Photography
  • Writing for blogs
  • Writing for newspapers
  • Writing for magazines
  • How to create a portfolio (online and offline)
  • Networking

Clearly, I learned a lot.

What I Didn’t Learn

I started freelance writing in college as soon as I could.

My first gig was for a blog called, The Young Mommy Life. There was a blog post calling for writers to join their team for six months, and it was paid! So when Tara, the founder of YML, replied to my email to offer me the gig I was beyond ecstatic.

I was finally living the dream!

However, when my six-month contract ended I was at a loss as to how to continue freelance writing.

College provided me with a lot of skills when it came to writing for someone else, but I never learned how to work for myself.

In my magazine writing class we had to write a pitch to magazines, but other than that the freelancing world was a mystery to me. I didn’t know:

On top of that, we were taught how to write for a variety of publications, but never once taught how to pick a niche, advice that you find all of the top freelance writers talking about.

Selecting a niche as a freelance writer has been one of the most difficult things for me – someone who knows a little about a lot – and yet it has been one of the most beneficial lessons to my success as a writer.

Not sure what niches you can specialize in as a freelance writer? We’ve done some research and brainstorming for you, and we came up with over 200 niches to choose from. Here’s the list:

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Although I already had two paid freelance writing gigs under my belt, it wasn’t until I finished Gina’s course, 30 Days or Less to Freelance Writing Success that I started pitching with confidence and landing even more gigs.

I now write for a variety of websites on a regular basis.

Here is why you don't need a journalism degree to be a freelance writer and work from homeThe Benefits of College

I can’t say that going to college didn’t have its benefits.

It certainly did.

It forced me to write every day. I met a lot of really cool people, learned new skills, and started networking as a writer.

And it was through one of my professors that I landed my second freelance gig, a gig I wouldn’t be able to do without my news writing skills.

But the truth is that you don’t need a post-secondary education to be a freelance writer. You just have to be good at writing, a skill that you can learn all on your own and mostly through daily practice.

(Gina: Having decent writing chops is definitely part of it. I would argue that consistently pitching for work and putting yourself out there is even more important, however.)

Consider Why You Want to Go to School

For a lot of jobs and careers you do need a degree, or at least a diploma.

For example, if you want to write for a newspaper you’ll have to know the laws and ethics around journalism, the style guide for where you live (for me it’s the Canadian Press Style Guide) and how to research and interview – all things you learn at j-school.

But if you just want to write – fiction or non-fiction – you don’t need a formal education or journalism degree.

You Don’t Need an Education to Get Paid to Write

If you want to be a freelance writer and write for blogs or even magazines, you don’t need an education.

My education may have an influence on whether I’m hired or not, but I doubt it carries a ton of weight. It’s through my blog and the clips I send in that show what I’m capable of – my skills and my experience.

In fact, every single freelance job posting I’ve read has never stated you need a post-secondary education.

Don’t Let Not Having a Degree Hold You Back

If you want to go to school, then of course go for it. But don’t let the lack of a journalism degree be the thing that holds you back from getting started as a freelance writer.

In hindsight, I sometimes wish I had studied something else – perhaps art history or business – something that would have helped me select a writing niche to work in. Usually, I write about my own experiences though, and you don’t really need to go to school to do that! 😉

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Do you have a post-secondary education? How does it benefit your freelance writing career?

ColeNemeth_Freelance WriterCole Nemeth is a freelance writer who enjoys drawing silly portraits and making zines. She lives in Canada with her husband and daughter and their two pets. You can read more about her on her website, Peace and Chaos, where she writes about self-improvement, creativity and entrepreneurship. You can also follow Cole on Twitter.

Don't saddle yourself with debt. You can become a writer even if you're not a journalism major. Here's Cole's advice.

20 thoughts on “You Don’t Need a Journalism Degree to Be a Successful Freelance Writer”

  1. When I was in high school, back in the early 2000’s, there was no question that I would go to college. I went, got a BFA in creative writing, and then…started working in jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with my degree. College really isn’t necessary for a lot of great jobs out there. Yes, it helped me meet some amazing people, but most of what I’ve learned about the business side of writing, I’ve had to learn for myself, which is a little frustrating with thousands of dollars in student loans hovering above my head. I’m really thankful I found your course, because that gave me more information on the business of writing in 32 lessons than I learned in four years of college. Hopefully with this new found knowledge, I can start paying off those high bills. 😉

  2. Great post! I did go to J-school. I’m proud of my journalism degree but I was a good writer even before that. I think most people can write or they can’t. You can learn how to tell a story and have good flow even from high school English classes. I still use outlines and all that good stuff. 🙂 I worked for the university paper and that taught me a ton. When I was in school social media and a lot of new media wasn’t around. I’d hope it’s different in journalism school now.

    • Thank you! I totally agree that people can write or they can’t. In my j-school program we learned a little bit about blogging, Linked-In and creating an online portfolio, but I feel like a lot was left out. I had already been using social media and blogging way before entering school and it blew my mind how many of my classmates had no idea how to even tweet. I hope my program teaches more on social media in the future.

  3. I’m almost done with my bachelor’s in communications, and I have to agree with this article. I have done well as a freelance writer without having my degree, and I feel I’ve learned a lot more about freelancing simply by reading blogs online and taking freelance-specific courses. I’m getting my degree for me; it’s a dream I didn’t want to give up on. I have learned plenty from it, and I will always cherish my formal education, but I don’t think it’s necessary for freelance writing success.

    • I’m actually going back to school to upgrade to a degree, and it will also be more for me than my career. I’m happy to hear that you are following through with your dream of graduating, on top of freelance writing on the side and teaching yourself online.

  4. Wow!!! I loved how you were just so honest and upfront and said “no you don’t need a degree to write”. Even with good writing chops, you can still very much doubt your ability, even when everyone around you tells you how great you write!! And even more of what touched home for me Cole is that you said you mostly write from your own experiences. A person that knows “a little about a lot”. I feel like that too!!! I was even writing to Gina recently about not feeling like I would have many writing options and even saying so she was able to tell me one I had indirectly stated. Thank you Cole!!

    • Thank you! I’m so happy to hear my article hit home for you! My favourite articles are ones that are written from my own experiences, they are a lot more fun to write. I’m also a person who knows a little about a lot, but that’s okay, too, because there are so many great resources online to research topics you don’t know much about. Best of luck on your freelance journey!

  5. Totally agree. I have a master’s degree in journalism. Sure, it scored me some full-time jobs as a newspaper reporter and editor. But does the pay match up with the hours required? Hardly.

    As a freelancer, you have a lot more control over your income, based on your efforts, than working for someone else. And in most cases, you don’t need a degree at all to land well-paying gigs. Most magazines, websites, businesses, etc. that work with writers want to know you’ve got writing chops in the form of clips, samples, etc. and really don’t care if you have a writing degree.

  6. I definitely agree that you don’t need a journalism degree to become a successful freelance writer. I do believe, however, that having some type of degree does help you when it comes to selecting a niche market for your writing. Having a specialist degree will arm you with lots of valuable information within a certain field and that information can be put to good use as a freelance writer. And the truth is, that having a degree will make your profile more attractive to some clients and that means more opportunities. Nevertheless, you don’t NEED any type of degree to become a successful freelance writer but it can help.

  7. A lot of people hurry to school to get a degree with the hope that they will find a great job with a huge salary.

    But that’s hardly true these days as we can learn a lot online in the comfort of our homes.

    Thanks a lot Cole for this timely piece. It’s like an answer or a confirmation to a question I’ve been finding answer to.

  8. Thanks Cole! I found this article very reassuring for myself since I don’t have a journalism degree and wonder sometimes if my writing will be good enough to make any money from.

  9. Great post, Cole! I agree that college isn’t necessary to build a successful writing career. I LOVED my time in college, but to be honest I learned just as much, if not more, when I was working at my local newspaper part-time while I was in school. It was the hands-on experience at the paper that taught me how to conduct an interview and write on deadline; two skills I still use today.

  10. Hello! Thank you for sharing. I’m working towards my BA in creative writing and English. Although stressful I am learning a lot. I would love to freelance as well.

  11. Even with my degree I could not get a job. My generation, the Millennials, were told by everybody to go to College and look where that landed us. I am hearing that the upcoming Generation Z is rethinking going to college. Gina’s course, I believe, will be a new wave of business that will give other people an alternative to spending thousands of dollars on college. I think you get more real world experience by sending out queries and actually doing the work than sitting in a lecture all day.

    • Aaron I totally agree with you – I’m curious to see what happens to our kiddos (currently 4 & 5). $100k (in today’s $’s) seems crazy with no guarantee of a job…

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