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5 Proven Tips for Freelancing at School

By Shannon Reed January 6th, 2016

In April, I graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. Just a month later, The New Yorker published one of my humor pieces. How did I manage such a fast jump from graduating to publishing in what many consider the pinnacle creative writing destination? Luck, of course, played a part—but I also hacked my degree.

Here’s something many budding writers don’t realize: Just because you’re in school, whether undergraduate or graduate, doesn’t mean you have to wait to publish and make connections. In fact, there may not be a better time to begin.

Annie Zaleski kicked off a thriving freelance career while getting her undergraduate degree in English at Harvard, and now writes for publications such as The Village Voice and The A.V. ClubAja Frost, who’s finishing up a B.A. in English at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, writes for outlets like this one in her downtime, as well as Fast Company, The Billfold, and The Muse.

Starting your freelance career in school has plenty of benefits—license to experiment, a jump start on your career, and most of all, money—but you have to do it right. To help, here are five tips to keep in mind if you want to launch a freelance career while you’re still in class.

1. Take everything you write seriously

Whether I was writing a page a day for a fiction workshop or a paper on medieval nuns for a literature course, I always treated my work as something that would be published. A lot of people fall into the trap of treating writing like homework, only doing enough to scrape by. But if you want to be a professional writer, this isn’t homework—this is your career.

I wrote plenty of pieces that weren’t worth keeping, but the high standards I set eventually paid off. One of those prompts became my first published short story, and the nun research turned into a longform essay Vela published last year.

College requires research papers and essay galore; imagine how much material you’ll have if you consider every scrap of writing you do for class as a potential story.

2. Keep track of all your ideas

Academic institutions are probably the most intellectually fertile places you’ll ever be in for an extended period of time, so don’t let them go to waste.

I downloaded an app for my smart phone so I could leave myself a voice memo whenever I thought of a potential topic. In my notes, I star any writing ideas that come to me in class to easily find them later. Ideas are everywhere—the trick is to pin them down before they vanish. And once you get out into the real world, you’ll likely have much less intellectual stimulation than before.

3. Use the resources at your school, and network constantly

At Harvard, Zaleski said, she was not alone in writing as much as possible. “A certain subset of Harvard students pursued journalism, either via the student newspaper, The Crimson, or with internships at magazines,” she said. “So in that sense, it wasn’t completely strange for me to begin amassing journalism clips.” Leveraging a school paper or an internship for clips is an excellent way to build your portfolio while learning the tricks of the trade.

Like Zaleski, Frost pursued an internship during college, taking an educational leave of absence to work as a communications intern at Ericsson in Silicon Valley.

Whether you’re at an MFA program (surrounded by other writers) or in undergrad (surrounded by people your age) the time is now to network. And if anyone offers you the chance to write anything, take it—you’ll never have more of an opportunity to fail and learn from it.

4. Don’t let class overwhelm your freelance career, or vice versa

It’s important to take your freelancing career seriously, even if it’s only a couple of gigs a semester. But at the same time, it shouldn’t overwhelm the prohibitively expensive degree you’re paying for.

Frost started small—and under pressure. “After my freshman year of college, my parents told me they weren’t going to be able to contribute as much to my education as we’d planned—so I looked around for some paid writing gigs,” she explained. “I thought I’d make an extra thousand or so per year.”

Soon, however, she had more work than she could handle and now considers freelancing a full-time job on top of her schooling.

Even modest freelance schedules demand more effort and forethought than you might think. Clients won’t be any more forgiving with deadlines than professors, so it’s critical to set boundaries and plan ahead.

As Frost said, “As soon as I know about mid-terms, finals, and big papers, I schedule them in my calendar so that I don’t take on any time-consuming projects during that week. I never want to have to choose between working on a freelance job or doing stuff for school—school is my priority.”

5. Understand that freelancing in school can be lonely

Even though many students work part-time jobs to make ends meet, that doesn’t mean sacrificing social time to jump start a career is easy.

“I definitely wasn’t being judged by my peers, but I felt out of step with them since I wasn’t interested in graduate school (or law/medical/business school),” Zaleski explained. “Music journalism made me incredibly happy, so I wasn’t too bothered, but I definitely felt like I had different professional experiences from a much earlier age than many people I knew. And I spent a lot of free time working, especially the older I got and the more freelance writing I started to do.”

I felt the same way at times. Most of my MFA classmates were much younger than me and didn’t have the same concerns (e.g, debt, a mortgage) as I did, so I occasionally felt a little left out as I hurried home to write more after class while everyone else headed to the bar.

But I knew that attending grad school on a full ride for three years was my one big chance, and I was determined not to waste it. So I worked and wrote and loved almost every minute of it. Three years later, I have 30 bylines to my name. And now I’m continuing my career instead of starting it.

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