3 Things Graduate School Taught Me About Freelance Writing

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Freelance writers can learn from grad schoolBy Jill C. Moffett

Before I became a freelance writer, I spent 6 years in graduate school.

I studied feminist theory, anthropology, public health and cultural theory. I got my PhD. But I decided not to pursue a career in academia.

Why? It may be tough to make it as a writer, but it is even tougher to make it as a professor. So I took the things I’d learned in school and applied them to freelance writing.

Here are the transferable skills I acquired:

1. Always cite your sources

If there’s one thing academics hate, it’s a cheater.

In fact, plagiarism by undergraduates is such a problem that many instructors run student assignments through plagiarism-detection software.

By the time students make it into grad school, they are steeped in the fear of being kicked out of school and professionally shamed. As a result, grad-school papers are replete with footnotes.

That doesn’t mean you should include footnotes in your next pitch to Parents magazine, but keeping track of sources is a crucial habit for all freelance writers.

2. Specialize, don’t generalize

For my grad-school research to be meaningful, it had to focus on the details. Dissertations look at the small picture, and all successful academics are specialists.

As a teaching assistant for large undergraduate classes, one of my main jobs (besides making sure they weren’t plagiarizing) was to help students narrow their ideas — to go deep instead of broad.

The same applies to freelance writing. You can market yourself as a health writer, but it’s even better if you are a women’s health writer who focuses on public health policy. The more specialized you get, the easier it will be to find markets who need your services — and to command the highest rates.

3. Don’t give up

Every graduate student knows that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation. The only way to get it done is to work at it every day with one goal in mind: finish it.

It wasn’t easy for me to stay on track. I knew most academic articles are published in journals that aren’t even available to the public.

Chances are, the only people who will ever read my dissertation are the five people who were on my committee. But if you want to get your PhD, you can’t let that stop you.

Things are not much different as a freelance writer. The editor I just pitched might not read my email. I might have to submit dozens of ideas before I get an assignment.

But I don’t let that bother me. I have to make money. For one thing, I have to save up to send my son to college.

What life or academic lessons have you applied to your writing? Tell us in the comments below.

Jill C. Moffett is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. She focuses on women’s health, education, and a variety of issues pertaining to gender, race,  class, and sexuality.

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