What degree do you need to become a writer?

by Francesca Ross

What do Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Charles Dickens all have in common? They may all be some of your best-loved writers but not one of them completed a college degree.

Writing is an art and skill that can be self-taught. This means the easy answer to this question is you can have any degree and become a writer – or, if you like, none at all. The core requirement is an excellent grasp of the English language. The rest is much more fluid.

What degree do you need to become a writer?

Writers work at many different levels in the publishing industry from authors to journalists, bloggers to technical experts. Many of these peaks can be reached through a combination of curiosity and on-the-job-training – no degree required. Experience can also be gained from working, internships or running your own blog.

However, many writers do have a formal educational background, or qualifications, in creative writing, journalism, history or linguistics. Other common routes in are from communications, or English Language or Literature studies. Formal writing training programs are at either graduate or undergraduate level and usually have an emphasis in writing or creative writing.

The reason for these courses is that many people are drawn to writing so a degree offers some competitive advantage. This is particularly relevant when writing jobs are hotly contested. In fact, these types of roles are so competitive in the USA that employment of writers and authors is projected to grow by just 2% from 2014 to 2024. That’s slower than most other occupations and due to fewer jobs with more people looking to fill them.

English degrees give an advantage, but not a requirement

There are broadly two types of writers. Those that create fiction or non-fiction narratives for performance or publication, like novelists, screenwriters and reporters. The second kind are technical writers that communicate the use and scope of technical products, such as software or engineering tools. Their job is turning complicated information into something easily readable.

English or creative writing degrees are useful for aspiring writers in all areas as you will gain experience of constructing a story, seeing how tales are told, and have academic support to hone your writing abilities. This could also be achieved through on-the-job training with more experienced writers and lots of people take this second, often-longer, path.

What’s generally more important than a degree when building a writing career is that the person involved has the qualities of a serious writer.

These are:

  • Adaptability: In a changing industry, writing professionals need to be able to work out new systems and technology quickly.
  • Creativity: This is an absolute core skill. Writers and authors need to develop interesting storylines that people will want to follow. That’s the same whether you’re a journalist, a blogger or an author.
  • Critical-thinking skills: To be able to explain concepts to others, you need to be able to understand them yourselves. Great writers think critically and research the answer to their mind’s questions on their topics of interest.
  • Determination: Deadlines are tough. Workloads can be tougher, or sometimes non-existent. A successful writer is so determined that they work their way through it all.
  • Social awareness: Writing well is to reflect the world around you. You need to understand emotions and ideas in order to become a popular writer. That’s a natural insight for some but others need to work harder on it.
  • Persuasion: Aspiring writers may need to work hard to get their first break, and advertising copywriters battle to create persuasive messages on a daily basis.

When it comes to salaries, recent data collected from industry professionals suggested it was experience, rather than education, that shaped their employability and income. Writers in their late career enjoyed salaries 37% higher than average, experienced professionals were over by 22% and those in the middle of their career enjoyed just a 7% premium for their work.

The way writers work is changing, and fast

In general, the delights of the digital age have meant the way writers work has changed. Some are based in an office, others work from home, others lounge on a beach or by the side of a pool. In 2014, nearly two-thirds were self-employed and worked part-time or to flexible schedules.

Things have changed. Online platforms let freelancers easily seek out new work, employers can now recruit directly from the jumble of internet voices and skills in social media communication, and copywriting and blogging are becoming increasingly relevant.

However, there are still other, less obvious, ways that people find themselves making a living from the writing world. And other degree topics that are relevant to making that jump.

For example, companies and outlets increasingly want people that are tech-savvy and can produce attractive and engaging webpages or visual stories to illustrate their story-telling. This means having skills in media, the arts or computing could also be a viable route into writing and publishing.

Specialisms can develop from earlier study

It’s also worth remembering that there are large numbers of specialist routes that writers can take if they have an interest in a particular field. This is why someone with a degree in biology can make a name for themselves as a health correspondent, or a history graduate can become an accomplished author – the path to a writing career has many access roads.

Persons that are looking to enter the industry with a directly relevant degree will still need to acquire relevant experience such as internships and pro bono work. Persons without a degree may struggle a little more to get these initial opportunities. Both of these groups can benefit from taking on writing for smaller businesses, local newspapers, advertising agencies, and non-profit organizations.

So, what degree do you need to become a writer? Thanks to the rise of the gig economy and online communications you don’t need a college degree at all, but you absolutely do need a good internet connection.

An English, journalism or communications degree is useful in the search for a writing role but skills and experience are equally important. A degree does not guarantee a job, and landing a writing job is not guaranteed to require a degree.

Main image credit: Esther Tuttle

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Francesca Ross

Francesca joined Copify in 2016 and is a professional journalist turned creative copywriter. With a bachelor’s degree in politics from Plymouth University and a masters in journalism from University College Falmouth, she loves writing and learning about travel, politics, technology and healthcare.