College is an odd bird for writers. When I go back and read pieces I wrote in high school, I’m sometimes a bit embarrassed for myself. There’s a lot I had to learn about writing, even though I received a lot of praise from teachers at the time.

So college taught me those things, right?

Erm. Not exactly.

Ok, I had some awesome professors at college. They did teach me things about writing, but more about life in general. And what I learned about writing? Well, I’m pretty convinced that I could have learned 99% of it on my own over the course of 4 years, just through trial and error. That sure as hell would have been a lot less coin out of my pocket.

This isn’t the case for everyone. If you’re going into a mainstream, traditional media field, like newspaper reporting or magazine writing, I think that nearly any English professor in the country has at least one thing to teach you. But the fact of the matter is that most journalism professors suck when it comes to preparing you for the freelance writing world.

And here’s where you’ve ended up.

Here’s where most of us writers will end up if we truly want to uses our degrees to write. Traditional media is on its way out, people, as sad as that might be. But colleges aren’t keeping up. Few offer the option to concentrate in the field of web content writing (or digital writing or blogging or whatever you want to call it). Hell, few even offer a single course on the topic. Think about your college career. Did any of your classes spend any time at all talking about Internet marking, search engine optimization, web content writing, blogging, WordPress, or ebook writing? Even one class on any of these topics?

If one of your professors touched on the topic, even for just a single day during the course, consider yourself extremely lucky. I doubt that any of my professors even realize that blogging, for example, is a viable career, and they should be encouraging people to consider it. These are some of the smartest people I know, but they come from a world where a blog is still just a personal journal. They certainly don’t know how to make money from it. And web content writing? They might realize that it is a career option, but few professors will be able to explain to you how to go about landing gigs.

Furthermore, your journalism professors suck because they’re still very old school with the kind of writing style they teach you. Less, the inverted pyramid is still relevant. I use it every day when I writing for news outlets. But there’s more to writing web content than that. Professors should be teaching students how to use bullet points  and headings to make an article skimmable. They should be teaching students how to look at text and decide where to best place images. They should be teaching students how to use keywords without making an article sound unnatural.

And most of all, they should be teaching students to write conversationally. The absolutely #1 critique I have when I read a new freelancer’s work is that they sound too formal. Objective and formal is ok if you land a job working for an online news source, but the majority of your clients want you to engage readers. Even writing in the style of a traditional magazine feature piece is going to be too formal for many of your clients.

So here’s my plea to you: go out in the world and learn all you can about freelancing online, and how this is difference from anything you’ve been taught in college. Then, tell them. Contact your alma mater, the head of the writing/English department, etc. and tell them that they need to consider courses on web content writing, or, at the very least, they need to work it into the curriculum in courses they’re already teaching.

Because at the end of the day, this sentence - which is really a fragment - is putting food on my table, and the formal writing samples I prepared for my portfolio in college are collecting e-dust.

  1. Amelia on Friday 19, 2010

    I did a Creative Writing M.A and I feel exactly the same way! I didn’t learn anything more about writing & the only think the course really did was force me to produce a body of work which I’m grateful for, but due to the class sizes I didn’t even get enough critique from the teachers to be sure that I’d improved or not. THey did touch on blogging once or twice, suggesting that we use one as a way to keep a portfolio & connect with other writers, but there weren’t any classes particularly about blogging. Do you think that the nature of blogging is too organic & personal to be taught?

  2. Allison on Friday 19, 2010

    That’s a really good point, Amelia. Can someone be taught to blog? Actually, I think they can. In fact, I think most blogs fail because people think of them as personal journals instead of promotional tools or businesses. Certainly, you can have a blog just to write about your days, like a diary, but English majors should be taught how to blog professionally, using it to promote their services or make money through advertising.

  3. [...] teach you in college, because, frankly, it isn’t relevant for journalism. Yet another way your journalism professor sucks, [...]

  4. JackSpirko on Friday 19, 2010

    Brilliant piece Allison. I am not sure how I ended up following you on Twitter but this is a great article. I just happened to notice one of your tweets and clicked over to your site to have a gander, Quite impressive that you think this way, I think you are going to do friken awesome long term.

    I never went to college but did the corporate machine thing, playing ball with colleges that all had fancy degrees. Eventually I became a full time podcaster and blogger and this is what I should have done my entire life.

    I am happy that you have this figured out so early on! If I can ever offer you any advice just let me know. Wish I could get my son thinking more like you.