So you want to be a writer. Awesome choice, if we do say so ourselves.
But now you might find yourself wondering how to be a writer. Is a writer simply somebody who writes, or is there more to it? How much writing do you need to do before you can officially call yourself a writer? Do you need to get paid for your work in order to earn that title? Does it need to be published somewhere?
The answer to all of the questions above is no. As long as you’re writing, you’re a writer. Even if it takes ten years to get your first book published, you’ve been a writer since you sketched out your very first book outline. And although writing a book is one way to become a professional writer, it’s hardly the only way. Read on to learn more about the different writing careers you can pursue and how to get started.
Determine the kind of writer you want to be
Writers fall into two very broad categories: writers who write simply for personal enjoyment and writers who write professionally. Many, perhaps even most, professional writers also write for fun and personal fulfillment—but not every writer who does it as a hobby also does it for a living.
If you’ve determined you want to become a professional writer, there are a lot of different career paths to choose from. Take a look at a few of the most common career paths for writers:
Copywriters write the taglines, product descriptions, ads, and other short, emotion-packed bits of writing (known in the biz as “copy”) that drive people to take specific actions. Within this field, there are lots of specializations, like direct response copywriting, email copywriting, SEO copywriting, marketing copywriting, and brand copywriting. While plenty of copywriters are employed full-time, plenty more work for themselves, taking clients on a freelance basis.
Beyond these specializations, copywriters typically focus on specific industries, like the medical industry, arts and entertainment, SAAS, pets, subscription services, and more—basically, any industry you can think of employs copywriters.
According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary for copywriters in the United States is $57,864.*
The blog post you’re reading right now was written by a content writer. In fact, all the content you’ve ever read on a website, like how-to guides, informational articles, and the text on infographics, was written by content writers. Even the ads you’ve watched on TV come from content writers—after all, somebody has to write the scripts.
Bloggers fall into the category of “content writer.” Just like copywriters, content writers typically specialize in one or a few specific industries. And just like copywriters, they can work in-house or freelance.
According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary for content writers in the United States is $47,233.
Technical writers create documentation that teaches people how to use applications and tech equipment. They do this by writing instruction manuals, how-to guides, articles, and product guides. They write similar kinds of material as content writers, but the difference is that while content writers generally aim to engage readers, often as part of broader marketing strategies, technical writers write to explain how a product or system works.
A technical writer’s work needs to be highly detailed and leave no room for misinterpretation or error. It’s fairly common, but not necessarily universal, for technical writers to have degrees or other formal training in STEM fields.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for technical writers was $74,650 per year in 2020.
A communications officer acts as the spokesperson for a brand or another organization, publishing content like press releases and responding to media inquiries. Communications officers are sometimes referred to as public relations specialists or communications specialists.
According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary for a communications officer is $57,896.
Journalists write timely news stories. A career in journalism requires more than writing skills; it requires strong research and interviewing skills, too. Journalists work in a variety of settings, from online outlets to radio and television to print publications.
According to Payscale, the average annual salary for journalists in the US is $41,624.
A grant writer—also known as a proposal writer—researches, writes, and submits grant requests on behalf of individuals and organizations seeking funding. Generally, this role involves finding specific grants and determining whether they’re appropriate for the organization seeking them. It can also involve acting as a liaison between the funding provider and recipient.
According to salary.com, the median salary for grant writers in the US is $72,645.
Columnists write and publish short essays from their personal points of view. Their publication platforms are known as “columns” and can be found in newspapers, magazines, and online. Often, a column covers news and evergreen topics within one specific area, like cryptocurrency or fashion design, and the columnist writing it has some sort of credential to write authoritatively on that subject—like a lengthy career as a crypto trader or an MFA in fashion design.
According to salary.com, the average annual salary for columnists in the US is $66,725.
When you say “I’m a writer,” most people’s minds automatically jump to authors, as in published book authors.
For authors, it’s close to impossible to list an accurate annual salary. For every mega-bestselling author who rakes in millions, there are thousands of other authors sporadically publishing in literary magazines for a few hundred dollars per story. Even authors who publish books regularly and semi-regularly have wildly varying incomes, with the average coming in at $51,103 per year according to Payscale. If you’re considering the author path, the reality is that you’ll most likely need to work a full-time job while writing and publishing on the side. This is true whether you plan on pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing, both of which have unique benefits and challenges for writers.
>>Read More: How to Write a Book
If your primary focus is poetry, you’d refer to yourself as a poet. Similar to authors, poets’ incomes vary widely and typically, writing poetry is more of a monetized hobby than a full-time job. That said, there are commercial opportunities for poets, like writing for greeting card companies, but these are often on a freelance basis.
Create realistic goals and expectations
The reality is this: You’re not likely to sit down and bang out a bestseller on the first try. Similarly, you’re not guaranteed to pitch a bunch of articles to websites and get them all accepted with no prior experience. Like every other pursuit, a writing career is something you cultivate and nurture over time.
When you’re first starting out, set realistic goals for yourself. Maybe you want to become a full-time blogger. Choose a platform, set up your blog, and start publishing posts, giving yourself a reasonable but consistent schedule like one or two posts per week. Or maybe you’ve decided you want to give copywriting a shot. Some realistic starting points for an aspiring copywriter include listening to podcasts like The Copywriter Club and Copy Chief Radio, researching different areas of specialization, and applying for entry-level copywriting jobs and internships. You could even reach out to an already established copywriter for an informational interview.
The more you write and try out different kinds of writing, the better you’ll get to know yourself as a writer. Maybe you’ll find that you’re at your best when you’re working under a tight deadline and you have to focus on nothing but the work in front of you. Or you might find that’s the complete opposite of your style and you need lots of time to be able to write at a comfortable pace. Maybe writing is the creative outlet you need after spending the day at a boring desk job—or your best ideas come to you in the middle of the night.
There are lots of different types of writers, and nobody fits neatly into one box or another. But taking the time to determine which type of writer you can primarily classify yourself as can help you identify your strengths and areas of opportunity. If you’re planning to pursue writing as a career, it can also help you determine which kind of writing career suits you best. A meticulous plotter, for example, can find a ton of success as a technical writer, but they might not have the spontaneity necessary to make it as a direct response copywriter. Similarly, an idea generator can be their blogging client’s best-kept secret, but they might not make a great grant writer.
Work with the tools writers use
There are a lot of apps and other tools available to help you organize your writing, take notes on the go, write faster, and make sure your work is free of mistakes (hint hint: there’s one that starts with a G and ends with “rammarly”).
Explore these tools and if you plan on going into a specific writing-focused career field, familiarize yourself with the tools writers in that industry use most frequently. A few of the most common tools professional and hobby writers use are:
- Google Docs
- Wordstream Free Keyword Tool
- FX Flesch-Kincaid Readability tool
- Citation Machine
There are more tools and resources available for you—a lot more. Many of them are specific to certain kinds of writing, like Yoast, which is a search engine optimization (SEO) plug-in.
Become a regular reader
You’ve probably been told that if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. And it’s true—just like listening to a variety of music is key to being a skilled musician, reading lots of different kinds of writing will help you become a stronger writer.
Don’t just read the kind of writing you want to do; read about writing. Here are a few great books for learning about different types of writing and the craft of writing:
- Breakthrough Copywriting by David Garfinkel
- Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
- Telling True Stories by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Other valuable resources for writers include blogs and social media groups about writing. Reading doesn’t have to be a formal, sit-down-and-don’t-get-up-until-you’ve-finished-the-chapter kind of thing; you can easily get some valuable reading in by scrolling the r/writing subreddit or another forum for writers while you’re standing in line at the store, sitting on the bus, or on your work breaks.
Common questions about becoming a writer
Do you need a degree to be a writer?
Not necessarily. But it can help, and if you’re looking for full-time writing jobs, a degree may be required.
Common degrees to pursue if you want to be a writer include English, journalism, and communications. It also isn’t uncommon for a professional writer to have a degree in another area and focus their career on writing in that niche. For example, you might have a degree in economics and decide you’d like to become a finance journalist.
Advanced degrees and beyond
Just like you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to become a writer, you don’t need an advanced degree—in most cases. As you search for writing jobs, you’ll likely come across listings for higher-level positions that do require advanced degrees. Usually, these listings are for candidates with highly specialized knowledge in one area, like a listing for a legal writer requiring that all applicants have a JD. But do you need an MFA in Creative Writing to publish your novel? Of course not!
Do I really need to write every day?
You’ve probably heard that if you want to be a professional writer, you need to write every day. What this advice really boils down to is practice makes perfect. You don’t necessarily have to write every single day, but carving out a block of time to focus on your writing regularly will help you become a stronger writer.
Where can I connect with other writers?
For a lot of writers, being part of a writing community is important. This is especially true if you go the freelance route—it’s always helpful to have peers you can bounce ideas off and ask for advice.
You can find lots of writing communities on social media as well as other places online. Some are free and open to everybody, while others are industry- and niche-specific and may require membership dues. You can also find in-person writing groups through platforms like meetup.com.
Become a better writer instantly
As Hemingway said, good writing is rewriting. But before you can rewrite your work, you need to know where you made mistakes and where you can make changes to make your writing stronger. Grammarly can help with that.
No matter what kind of writing you’re doing, Grammarly catches issues with punctuation, grammar and syntax mistakes, and tone inconsistencies. This way, your writing doesn’t just shine but also helps you reach your goals—whether that’s to teach your reader something, to convey important information, or to make them feel something deeply.
*All salaries cited in this article were the averages at the time of this article’s original publication unless noted otherwise.