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.

Do I Want to Be 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 country in 2012 were self-employed.

Those who choose to work in the media world 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, as they can be creatively rewarding. Those who adjust to new mediums in writing may have an advantage over the competition, according to the BLS.

Job Requirements

The educational requirements to become a writer vary greatly by employer and situation. To work as a journalist, aspiring writers often need a bachelor's degree. Other common degrees for aspiring writers include those in English, communications or creative writing. The following table includes important requirements for writers from the BLS:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree is preferred by many employers
Degree Field English, journalism, communications or another relevant field
Experience Little experience for entry-level positions; 1-5 years experience for technical writers
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication skills, persuasive skills, creativity
Computer Skills Blogging software, web update programming

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in English, journalism or communications can 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.

Any of these programs can teach students the fundamentals of the field. For example, a prospective journalist can take courses in ethics and investigation, while a fiction writer would study character development.

Success Tips:

  • Create a portfolio. Even entry-level writers will need to be able to show examples of the work that 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. Online publications are hiring writers while demand for print media is in decline, according to the BLS. Learning to produce for the web can make writers more marketable. In can be important to keep in mind that people don't just read on the web, but watch video as well.
  • Take business courses. In 2011, the BLS noted that 68% of writers and authors were self-employed. Writers could take business courses to help 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, and then focus on writing.

Success Tips

  • Build a following. Writers can advance by building a reputation, which can mean starting a blog to build experience writing and gaining a following. Screenwriters or playwrights may produce video for online users.
  • Learn to cope with rejection. Editors, producers, publishers, critics and an audience may critique a writer's work. Freelance writers regularly have story ideas rejected, so it is important to learn ways to deal with criticism.

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. Furthermore, a master's degree program often requires a thesis or project that can be used as a work sample.

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