A lot of aspiring health writers ask me if they need formal writing qualifications – a university writing or journalism degree, in other words – in order to become a successful writer.
“I already have health qualifications … do I need a journalism degree as well?”
“Do I need a communications degree?”
“Do I need a Masters?”
“Do I need a diploma?”
I’m talking about people who might already have one degree in the life sciences and are thinking about a career change, not students fresh out of high school.
And, to these people, I say … I can’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, but I can tell you how having a writing degree has worked out for me.
I have a Bachelor of Arts (Enriched Major in Media & Communications) from the University of Melbourne.
I guess it’s not technically a writing degree, but it did enable me to take a handful of writing-related subjects.
And, I also took quite a few irrelevant subjects, like Classical Mythology, Introduction to Film Theory and Art/Pornography/Blasphemy/Propaganda.
I took fun, eye-opening subjects – but they weren’t all that applicable when I entered ‘the real world’.
I also took subjects that are now completely outdated, like Cyber Communications and Multimedia Authoring.
There were no subjects about feature writing, copywriting, or blogging.
In fact, a lot of the writing styles I now specialise in didn’t even exist back then.
So, looking back, what did my degree give me?
My degree helped me win a student election and become one of four co-editors of my university student paper, Farrago (fun fact: my first piece of health journalism was a terribly-written exploration of the origin of AIDS).
My degree helped me secure an internship at Rolling Stone magazine. My degree gave me the opportunity to volunteer at my local radio station, 3RRR in Melbourne.
Evidently, name-dropping my degree allowed me to get real-world experience.
But what transferable skills did my degree give me?
Truthfully, I’m not sure.
As an aspiring writer, the one thing I wanted most was feedback on my writing to help me improve.
Back at university, I was lucky to get a few sentences of constructive criticism on my writing tasks.
And, for every writing subject I took, I was only able to submit one or two assessed writing tasks.
Mostly, I submitted essays – and while essays were a good way to demonstrate my understanding of theory, they didn’t help me to learn how to write the type of work I need to produce as a professional writer.
This ongoing lack of feedback and practical help made me realise something: if I wanted to be a professional, successful writer, I needed to:
- write more often to improve my skills, and
- find ways to get more useful feedback.
Without useful feedback on my writing, how could I ever improve?
I also knew that, in order to become a professional writer, I needed published writing experience and a portfolio of samples.
I needed real, high-quality articles to show prospective employers and editors.
During and after university, I spent a lot of time writing for local papers so I could get my name in print.
(Yes, I wrote for free – but I was happy to, in order to get the experience.)
And, I would ask my editors what they did and didn’t like about my work.
My editors didn’t always have time to give me feedback, so I’d look at my original version and compare that with the published version – and I was able to improve my skills by studying what had been edited.
Doing this was invaluable.
It also gave me a standard to aspire to.
I learned a long time ago to develop a thick skin and view feedback as a positive, not something to shy away from or take personally.
Because, when you’re a freelance health writer, your livelihood depends on what people think of your writing.
Your job is to meet the requirements of a specific, unique brief, make your clients happy, and give them what they want.
Each individual job requires a different approach – there is no universal way when it comes to freelance writing projects.
The best way to learn is to do.
Do things and learn from any mistakes.
And it’s this doing that has taught me more about writing and running a business than my 3-year university degree has.
Don’t get me wrong – I value the learning opportunities my degree gave me, I had fun doing it, and having it probably helped me get my very first job interviews out of college.
But do I still refer to what I studied?
Today, I’m fortunate to be working as a professional writer and writing coach.
And, now that I hire freelance health writers myself, I can honestly say I don’t know or care which degrees they have.
Of course, degrees are an indication of their overall strengths and knowledge base – but what I really want to see is evidence of their writing skills in practice.
I care if writers can actually do the job I’m hiring them to do.
I want to look at their ability to interpret a brief, their etiquette, how we’ll get along with each other, their flexibility, what work they’ve done in the past, how well they can write accurately about health and medicine, and any examples of relevant writing they can show me.
I don’t care about the odd typo – most people who know me know I make enough of those myself!
I don’t want to hire people with five degrees and impeccable grammar if they can’t read a brief, work with me effectively, or get on with a job.
Some of the best, most successful writers I know don’t have college-level writing qualifications.
I’m fortunate to have a crew of brilliant writers who work with me on projects, and they don’t have writing degrees.
Do my clients love their work? Yes.
Do those same clients return for more? Yes.
So, if you don’t commit to a writing degree, how can you develop your writing skills?
Ask for feedback.
It really is as straightforward as that.
If you feel like you need practical help and feedback, or a push to get going, there are plenty of short, niche, inexpensive courses about all forms of writing – and you can check out my range of online health writing courses here (all of which include oodles of feedback and coaching, because, as you’ve probably gathered, I believe writing feedback is extremely important for aspiring writers).
Of course, this post is nothing more than my personal story.
It’s the story I tell when people come to me looking for help on the topic.
I can’t be the person to tell you that you do or don’t need a writing degree – that’s a decision you need to make for yourself.
A decision that depends on your other degrees, age, financial status, career ambitions and current abilities.
But, I will say this: there are no ‘rules’ or set pathways. And, that’s the brilliant part about becoming a writer.
You’re free to write your own story.