From the copywriter working on Madison Avenue in New York to the self-employed screenwriter trying to find a break in Hollywood, writing is an extensive and diverse professional field. Although it offers multiple ways to break into the industry, there are three consistent factors to achieving success: talent, training and experience. Learn more about what it takes to start a writing career, the type of training available, and the overall occupational outlook for writers today.
Using their command of the common language of their audience, writers conceptualize, research, write, and edit polished manuscripts, poems, articles, and other types of written content. In their role, they may work across genres, from nonfiction to poetry, fiction to satire. In a business environment, writers may work as copywriters, technical writers, blog and feature writers, and as editors.
There are numerous different types of writers, such as copywriters, journalists, novelists, web writers and editors. Writing professionals are broadly employed in different industries, ranging from academia to business, journalism to entertainment. It’s a unique occupation, as a majority of writers are self-employed (approximately two-thirds), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Along with superior writing skills, it often falls upon writers to do exhaustive research when writing, so they must have superior research skills as well. They may be called upon to parse data and find the story within that data and write about it, so they should be able to understand data and data sets.
Writing is a diverse field, with a broad assortment of well-paying career paths. The national median salary for writers and authors was slightly above $60,000 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of the top paying industries include science writing ($64,380), grant writing ($58,920), and arts & entertainment writing ($58,400). Explore the earning potential for writing careers in different locations using the map below.
The Internet, online publishing and social media have not only transformed publishing, but the entire communication industry as well. This disruption has led to the emergence of new writing careers, those with a greater emphasis on Web writing, editing, and media production. These changes have created a more competitive marketplace for talented writers with digital skills. Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 2 percent growth for writers between 2014 and 2014. Learn more about the occupational outlook in each state using the map below.
Not all writers work as or want to be novelists, poets or authors. Writing is an extremely diverse occupational field with multi-faceted career paths. There isn’t a single route to becoming a writer, which is one of the major benefits of the profession. Yet, two-thirds of writers are self-employed freelancers and the information below outlines example steps someone can take to become a writer.
A high school degree or equivalent is the minimum educational requirement to qualify for a majority of writing jobs. Coursework in English, reading and writing are important. Future writers can also write for their yearbook or school paper to develop skills.
Before embarking on an academic or career choice, prospective writers should decide on a specialty. Do they want to write fiction as an author? Are they poetically inclined and desire a career as poet? Do they want see their words make it to the big screen as a screenwriter? Are they interested in marketing and want to work as a web writer?
When getting started, think about the type of writing you want to do, more than the industry itself. That can help guide the decision about what type of education to pursue.
There are two types of writing training: formal and informal. Formal training includes completing a degree program at the undergraduate or graduate level. Some writers choose either an associate degree in English or a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis in writing or creative writing, while others may choose a journalism degree. Beyond attending a traditional degree program, writers need to write.
Prospective writers can develop a portfolio while they attend school. Submitting pitches to publications, and writing articles on “spec” (for free), and writing for the college newspaper are three great ways to gain experience and familiarity with the publishing industry.
Professional writers in fields such as business, marketing and healthcare can benefit from completing an internship. Internships provide students with experience, applying their classroom-based knowledge in real-world projects. Whether it is copywriting or journalism, future writers can hone their craft and develop new skills by completing an internship while in college.
After completing a degree program, writers can seek out full-time writing positions in their respective industries. For individuals who want to become authors, poets and screenwriters, the road is slightly more challenging. Typically, their path includes writing a novel, collection of poems or screenplays, attempting to secure an agent, and selling their work to a publishing firm. It can be a long road that takes dedication and persistence.
Armed with professional experience, writers may also want to pursue a graduate degree in writing – either a Master of Arts or Master of Fine Arts. These programs provide students with an advanced understanding of literary theory and writing techniques. They also serve as an opportunity for writers to further enhance their own writing abilities. The MA/MFA can be a jumping point to further graduate studies at the PhD level for individuals that want to work in academia or be a bridge to new professional avenues.
|Career Goals/Education Needs||Certificate||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s||PhD|
I know I want to be an author, but I also want to study literature and earn a degree that allows me to continue into an MFA program in the future.
I’m thinking about a career in writing, but don’t know where to get started. I would like to find a short-term program that introduces me to the foundations of writing, provide skill-based training, and be useful if I continue professionally.
I want to pursue a career as an online content writer, but do not have the time to commit to a four-year degree. I’d like a professionally oriented program that allows me to concentrate my studies in online media and marketing.
I’m a working media professional, but need to enhance my writing skills. I’d like a flexible program that has a curriculum in professional and business writing.
My goal is to be a writer and academic researcher. I’m interested in the technical aspects of writing and its theory and I’d like to find a program that allows me to work as a writer professionally and teach at a university or community college.
I’ve spent time as a writer in different positions, including a stint as a journalist, but I’m ready to start my own consulting firm and provide editing and copywriting services to clients.
Not every writer has a degree in English. However, an English degree is one great way to get started on a career in writing. Prospective writers can concentrate their studies at the undergraduate or graduate level in an area that aligns with their professional goals. Learn more about these degrees and academic specializations below.
Writing certificates are short-term instructional programs that teach students applied writing skills, knowledge about mechanics and style, and insight into how to write for different audiences. As professional development programs, certificates include curriculum in multiple niche areas. These areas range from fiction to feature film writing, television writing to grant writing. The length of certificate programs vary, but typically require five to eight classes to complete.
The associate degree is an industry-focused academic program. It provides students with practical knowledge they can use to transition into an entry-level career or continue into a four-year bachelor’s degree program. They typically require between 60 and 66 credit hours to complete, which usually requires at least two years of full-time study. The curriculum is designed to nurture student’s creativity while helping them build writing proficiencies they can use to become a professional writer or editor.
At this level, there are two types of emphases within the Associate of Arts in English: writing and creative writing. The creative writing major serves as an introduction to genre writing, nurtures student interest in creative writing, and uses workshops and classroom-based instruction to improve their writing. The writing emphases major covers both literature and writing. Students study the fundamentals of literary theory and take classes aimed at professional skill development in technical writing, business communication, advanced composition and editing, and news and informational writing.
Throughout the program, students craft a writing portfolio they can use as a building block to employment or future studies.
Bachelor’s degree programs generally require four-years of full-time study and expose students to general education coursework and classwork in their chosen writing specialty. At this level, the most common majors include English literature, creative writing and English with a writing emphasis (composition). These writing degrees offer students multiple academic pathways that can lead to either work as a writer or into further graduate studies. Below is an overview of the different writing majors at the bachelor’s level.
This major blends the study of writing and literature. Along with an introduction to different elements of writing (e.g. fiction, novel, expository writing), the curriculum also includes coursework in contemporary American and English literature. These programs teach students how to critically analyze written texts and use workshops to help students gain insight into how to improve their own writing.
This major exposes students to the fundamentals of professional writing, skills required across writing careers in nonprofit groups, government agencies, publications, entertainment, media and business. The curriculum provides an overview of composition, business writing, grammar and rhetoric, and language theory. Through this curriculum, students develop talents in critical writing, research and analysis.
Creative writing traditionally covers one of six genres: non-fiction, fiction, children’s literature, young adult literature, poetry, and scriptwriting. This major integrates literary theory and experiential practice in composition and revision. The goal of the major is to prepare students for professional opportunities as writers and, most importantly, to become published authors. Many creative writing programs also include hands-on internships that allow students to gain real-world experience.
The master’s in writing can take several forms, including a Master of Arts in rhetoric and composition, Master of Arts in literature with a writing emphasis, Master of Arts in creative writing, Master of Arts in professional writing, and a Master of Fine Arts. These programs require between one and two years of full-time study to complete and may require a thesis or final project to graduate.
Curriculum broadly covers academic and professional writing and research methodologies, helping students develop their skills in literacy studies, composition, and written communication. After graduation, students are positioned for careers as teachers, professional writers, and media specialists.
In these programs, students focus their studies in a single concentration: fiction, nonfiction, poetry or professional writing. In addition to classroom-based instruction in literary theory, students also participate in writing workshops in and outside of their genre to develop their writing skills. Graduates of these programs can move into an assortment of writing careers – everything from authors to journalists, bloggers to educators.
These programs serve as an introduction to the study of writing and literature. Typically serving as a bridge to a PhD program, literacy studies is a flexible course of study for students seeking careers in publishing, professional writing or editing.
This program is geared toward students interested in careers in editing and writing in government, business or industry positions. Curriculum covers skill-based writing in policy development, grant writing, white papers, and other forms of workplace writing.
The Master of Fine Arts in writing allows writers to singularly focus on developing their creative writing skills. Curriculum includes an emphasis (e.g. fiction, poetry, nonfiction) with coursework that teaches students about the theories of that emphasis, along with practical, real-world skill development.
Doctoral programs in writing are for students who want to work in academia as scholars and educators at the university level. The most advanced studies of writing, PhD programs can require between four and six years to complete. Like undergraduate degrees, students select from a specialization in English. Example specializations include rhetoric and composition, creative writing and literature. PhD programs are competitive as they offer students the opportunity to conduct original scholarship and position themselves for tenure-track positions at the university level after graduation.
There are two main types of master’s degrees in writing: the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Fine Arts (MFA). The MA has an academic focus on literature, but does offer concentrations in writing, including creative writing and is a stepping stone to a PhD. The MFA is considered a terminal, or professional degree, that is dedicated to teaching students about writing and honing their craft. Both have similar admission requirements. However, the requirements do vary school to school. Below is a list of sample admission requirements for an MFA program.
A bachelor’s degree in English, journalism or related field from an accredited college or university. Student must also meet minimum GPA requirements – usually a 3.0 out of a 4.0 scale.
Students must supply between two and three letters of recommendation that speak to the candidate’s experience and writing aptitude.
Unofficial transcripts must be submitted. Official transcripts are usually required upon acceptance to the program.
Most MFA programs do not require students to take the GRE for admission to an MFA program.
Prior to starting their graduate courses, MFA applicants should be familiar with their writing specialty, e.g. fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. This includes taking undergraduate prerequisite courses in writing and literature.
Students must write and submit a two- to three-page statement of purpose that describes their experience, education and why they want to earn an MFA in writing.
The writing sample demonstrates the student’s skills in their chosen writing field. It may be between 30 and 50 pages in length (up to 10,000 words in length). It may include multiple pieces of writing, each of which must have been written in the past five years. Examples include short stories or a part of a novel for fiction writers, biography or personal essays for nonfiction writers, or a selection of poems for poetry students.
Writing degrees span a variety of concentrations, including professional writing, business writing, technical writing, creative writing and science writing. By specializing in these fields during their degree programs, students can develop marketable skills and pursue numerous career paths after graduation. Below is an overview of five example occupational career roles for writers, with 2015 median salaries reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Technical writers work in a variety of fields, such as engineering and manufacturing, and translate complex information about products and systems into instruction manuals, technical documentation, how-to guides and other materials. Collaborating with product designers, project managers, and other staff, technical writers organize content plans for specific audiences (e.g. internal staff, consumers), select appropriate channels for messaging (e.g. videos, memos), and generate easy-to-understand copy.
Grant writers work with nonprofit and public organizations to research and write proposals to receive funding from government agencies, charities, and private foundations. Like a matchmaker, grant writers have to locate funding opportunities that align with the mission, activities and goals of the group they are trying to fund. It’s a role that requires understanding of the funding process and a keen organizational eye as grant applications can be complicated, requiring cover letters, project descriptions, narratives, supporting documentation, and financial records.
Science writers cover the field of science, writing about advancements and discoveries in areas such as astrophysics, biotechnology, climate change, and genetics. They turn the esoteric into something any reader can understand, making science accessible for all readers. Writing for websites, magazines, and other publications, science writers often position this news into a larger historical context. This larger context allows the general public to be informed about the latest developments in science.
Screenwriters are typically self-employed freelancers that develop and write screenplays for television shows and films. These pieces can be entirely original or based on existing content, such as a novel, short story, comic book or another film. Screenwriters have unique understanding of how to construct a narrative and connect it to a larger plot and story. In turn, screenplays become the master plan for a producer, director, and actors to follow when shooting a film.
Copywriting is a broad employment field and copywriters are employed in nearly every industry, from healthcare to advertising. As versatile writers, copywriters create content that has an agenda, such as advertising and public relations material. They create copy for specific audiences in numerous formats, including white papers, social media posts, emails, blog posts, and fliers. They are content marketers with a keen understanding of how language can be used to convince readers, sell products, and tell a story.
Although some writers are born great, most require experience, education and training to become proficient at their craft. Learn more about some of the qualities writers should possess, the tools they use in their daily work, and credentials they can earn to develop new skills and advance in their careers.
Writing skill alone is not enough to make it as a professional writer. Writers need to have a well-rounded skillset to be successful. Explore the skills required in today’s writing careers below.
Writers must have solid language skills, including grammar, spelling, word usage, and diction. They should have the ability to communicate clearly and concisely with the written word.
Writers start with a blank page, filling it with their imagination. They should be creative thinkers, able to generate raw material—whether for a poem, screenplay, grant application or article.
Because many writers are freelancers or self-employed, they must be self-motivated and determined, taking a strategic approach to landing new clients and producing strong materials.
Writers need to be able to research and write about any topic, even those that are unfamiliar. Research skills are a core component of the professional writer’s toolbox.
Writing is an iterative process that may take numerous drafts to complete. Beyond spelling and grammar, writers know how to check their work for accuracy, errors, correctness, and overall quality.
In today’s marketing landscape, writers should know the basics of HTML, CSS, and search engine optimization. This skill set allows them to create in-depth content focused on web publication and performs well for an online audience.
Writers should have good communication skills, able to work with clients, sources, editors, and readers. People skills is a must.
Writers rely on traditional (pen and paper) and new technology (dictation and publishing software) to conduct research and produce written material. Below is a sample list of some of the tools and technology writers may use in their day-to-day work.
Evernote; Microsoft OneNote; Google Keep
Dragon; Express Scribe Pro; Nuance OmniPage
Notebooks; Pens; Pencils; Paper
Microsoft Office; Pages; Open Office
Elements of Style; AP Stylebook; Chicago Manual of Style
Google Drive; Box; Dropbox
Kindle; iPad; Desktop Computers; Laptop Computers
Professional development and continuing education are two important components of career advancement and skill building for writers. Certification programs are one way for writers to specialize in their careers, gain experience and qualify for new opportunities.
Communications and media are varied industries with numerous occupational pathways for individuals who may be interested in writing, but not necessarily writing careers. Examples range from public relations to entertainment. Learn more about some of the potential employment options to consider in the table below.
Graduates of writing programs also pursue careers in editing, public relations, print journalism and broadcast journalism. Data about writing-related occupations is below.
Salaries for authors and writers vary depending on where writers live. Use the salary comparison tool below to explore salaries of writers in your state compared to other cities.
Whether a seasoned professional or a beginning writer, there are always new ways to improve your writing skills, develop more effective habits, connect with other writers, and find employment opportunities. Professional associations are a great resource for these activities and below is a list of organizations that support writers.
The American Society of Journalists and Authors is a national organization for independent nonfiction writers and has more than 1,100 members who work as freelancers.
The Authors Guild is a professional organization for writers and literary agents that provides legal assistance, legislative advocacy, and assistance with contracts.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs is an organization that supports over 500 college creative writing programs, approximately 50,000 writers, and 150 writing centers and conferences.
The National Writers Association is a membership-based organization that supports writers across the country and offers networking and workshopping opportunities through local chapters.
The Women’s Fiction Association is a volunteer organization that helps women writers through mentoring programs, newsletters, expert workshops, and conferences.
Although some writers are born with natural talent, most need formal training. Whether the goal is to become a published author or copywriter, finding the right school and program of study is important. Use the search tool below to explore different universities and writing degrees.
Enrolling in a writing program while managing a busy schedule can be a challenge. Fortunately there are distance learning programs in writing that offer flexible scheduling. Some of the best online writing programs are listed below.