How to Become a Professional Writer: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a professional writer. Research the job duties and the education and training requirements and find out how to start a writing career.

Should I Become a Professional Writer?

Writers convey information to an audience through the written word. Types of writers include biographers, novelists, copywriters, screenwriters and journalists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the majority of writers working in the U.S. in 2012 were self-employed.

Those who choose to work in the media industry may need to live close to a metropolitan area, while those who choose to work in the film industry may need to live close to Los Angeles or New York. Other writers need only to have access to a computer. There is often strong competition for writing jobs, but those who can adapt to new mediums in writing may have an advantage over the competition, according to the BLS.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree is preferred by most employers
Degree Field English, journalism, communications or another relevant field
Experience Little experience for entry-level positions; 1-5 years of experience for technical writers
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication skills, persuasive skills, creativity, web programming and blogging software knowledge
Salary (2014) $67,870 per year (Mean annual wage for professional writers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in English, journalism or communications offer preparation for this career. Programs that focus on specific areas of writing, such as screenwriting or playwriting, are also available. Individuals with writing ability and an undergraduate degree in a specific field may consider technical writing training.

Success Tips:

  • Create a portfolio. Even entry-level writers will need to be able to show examples of the work they have done. This can include writing for an internship, local paper or play. School projects can also be used as work samples to build a portfolio.
  • Learn to write for electronic publications. According to the BLS, there is a higher demand for writers for online publications as print media is declining. Learning to produce online content can make writers more marketable.
  • Take business courses. Since most writers are typically self-employed, courses in business help writers understand how to manage a small business or sole proprietorship.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

Many writers start at smaller publications and work their way up to larger and more prestigious organizations as they gain experience. Journalists start at small newspapers and move to larger papers or magazines. Some newspaper and magazine writers move forward to write books. Copywriters start on local ads and move to national accounts with experience. Employers may prefer that technical writers gain experience in the technical field before entering into technical writing for that field.

Success Tips

  • Build a following. Writers can advance by building a reputation through such arenas as a blog or social media. Screenwriters or playwrights may produce video for online users.
  • Learn to cope with rejection. Editors, producers, publishers, critics and audiences often critique a writer's work. Freelance writers regularly have story ideas rejected and/or story ideas revised so constructively handling rejection and criticism is necessary for this career path.

Step 3: Pursue Graduate Studies

It is not required for professional writers to have a graduate degree. However, in some instances, a master's degree can improve a candidate's marketability. Technical writers with an undergraduate degree in computer science may find a graduate degree in journalism or communications helpful. An individual with an English degree may find a graduate degree in communications will give them a competitive edge as a copywriter. Additionally, a master's degree program often requires a thesis or project that can be used as a work sample.

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