The short answer is “no.”
A friend asked me yesterday whether he should go to journalism school in order to start his writing career. Personally, I never went to grad school—I couldn’t afford it—but have been lucky enough to carve out a nice writing career without a master’s degree. Yay!
So below is my response, adapted from my side of this Gchat conversation with my friend.
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- Don’t think that a master’s in journalism or an MFA will jump-start your writing career. If you want to write, you can start writing now and submit it for publication. A degree is just a degree. It won’t necessarily up your chances for success. At. All. (See #14 in this list)
- Don’t risk your finances. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I have no financial safety net from my family. So instead of going to grad school, I got my start by doing internships and assistant jobs for years. True, I was paid poorly, but at least I was earning money for my labor rather than paying tens of thousands of dollars to an institution. On-the-job work is much more valuable than what you would learn in school, like the theory of why writing or researching should be this way or that. Instead, you can work for a media company and learn what editors are looking for, how to pitch, how to fact-check, and basically how to make your editor’s life easier.
- If you’re not absolutely sure you want to write, then try a few different paths. There were times when I thought, “Do I want to be an editor? Or a marketer?” Maybe, because MONEY. So I dabbled in those things. And my failure at them affirmed my initial thought that I’d rather write than go into the more businessy side of things.
- Build your skills by starting small. I think it’s possible to get writing experience through (sometimes) unpaid contributor gigs for an online mag or through volunteering for a media company. Working for low pay or for free is still cheaper than j-school.
- Don’t move to New York. If you want to pursue writing, Oakland or Detroit or the rural heartland might be a great place to be, because you can be a correspondent rather than one of a billion writers covering, like, Brooklyn.
- Keep your day job. And if your writing gets to the point where you’re getting enough work to quit your full-time job, then quit. That’s what I did.
- Read a lot. Write a lot. And read well-written things: The New York Times rather than endless unedited blogs. I’m going to suggest some obvious publications: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, maybe Wired and The Nation. And subscribe to them; don’t read them online. See the magazine the way the editor wants you to see it—not the way the public “upvotes” it or whatever.