There’s a very informative post up on Lisa Romeo‘s blog about freelance writing and the MFA. She interviewed a number of editors, agents, and writers on whether having an MFA might help (or hurt) your freelance career.
The answer seems to be (surprise?) that it makes very little difference. As a freelancer who holds an MFA, I’d have to agree.
I attribute any success I’ve had freelancing, both before and after doing an MFA, to the following:
•Previous work experience. Hands down, I learned a lot about writing for magazines and newspapers by …um, working for magazines and newspapers. I think working for a publication at any level is extremely helpful in developing a sense for what’s appropriate to pitch to a particular publication, learning what editors want and don’t want, and, I hate to say it, but learning from other freelancers’ mistakes, which, as an employee of a publication, you often get a chance to witness. (My MFA program had courses in magazine writing that covered pitching different publications, etc. but I know that’s an anomaly. Most MFAs do not cover that kind of practical information. Journalism programs, however, do.)
•Persistence. True for any writing endeavor, really. There’s a lot of competition out there, and editors are busy people. If one publication isn’t interested, you have to keep trying other possibilities.
•Contacts. It’s all about who you know, and not being shy about asking people you know whether they have opportunities for you. Yes, you may gain contacts through an MFA program, but it’s not something you can count on going in. I find working reporters, freelancers, and editors to be much more widely connected than my professors were, and much more helpful in terms of potential assignments that can help pay the bills. (On the other hand, MFA professors tend to have agents and editors, so … it depends what you are after.)
I would not say my MFA was good for my freelance career, other than the fact that I honed my writing skills in general. I don’t usually mention my MFA when dealing with more journalistic publications. Literary magazines, yes, sure, I mention it. A newspaper, no. I probably wouldn’t bring it up. What matters to editors is that you can write, that you turn in your copy in pristine condition and that you turn it in on time.
If my goal was to become a successful freelancer, I probably wouldn’t have attended my MFA program. I could argue that doing the MFA actually hurt my (freelance) career, because I took a two-year pause from working regularly. I try not to think about such things too much. In all honesty though, I chose to do an MFA because I wanted to spend the time working on my writing, and I wanted the experience of writing longer, not because I had a particular professional goal in mind. Journalism is often all about short and sweet, and I could never get beyond a certain page length in my own writing as a result. Writing something book-length in my MFA program was a great experience. And that was worth it to me, despite the costs.