On my first day of journalism school, I was told you needed three things to make it as a journalist: “A plausible manner, some ability to write and rat-like cunning.” A decade later I see where my tutor was coming from. Of course, the skill and practice of writing are important to an editorial career but being a success is as much about you as it is your skills.
To make it as a writer you need to have, at the very least, a way with words. But that’s not all. The key things that separate good writers from bad are:
- Excellent spelling, punctuation and grammar
- A creative approach to problem-solving
- A real genuine interest in people and their lives
- The ability to constantly juggle changing volumes of work and deadlines
- A great imagination
- An ambitious approach to getting on in life
- Great time management
- A good telephone manner and ability to persuade
It’s wonderful to be able to produce beautiful words but to become a writer you’ll need to put in some hard work, catch a few breaks, and focus on quality. (As Stephen King will tell you). There’s a lot of people looking for work – you’ll need to stand out. You’ll also need to be realistic about the demands of the job professional writers who dedicate more than 50% of their time to writing earn only around £11,000 a year. Just slightly more than one in ten earn their incomes solely from writing.
Types of writing jobs
It feels to me that there’s an inherent problem with writing a piece on “what do you need to become a writer” and it’s that writing comes in many forms, all with different skills. For example, you could work as a copywriter or local newspaper journalist – turning out thousands of words a week on diverse topics for quick turnover. Or you could be a features or technical information writer which requires huge amounts of extensive research and carefully phrased language and carefully-constructed products.
Some writers manage to straddle between more than one area but most people settle in one specialism or another (though this may change across their career.) Myself? I started out as a journalist, moved to being a press officer, then an editor, back to PR and eventually spent a wonderful couple of years writing words and bids for a healthcare charity.
What I really needed to make a success of any of these was an ability with people, and to present their stories in a clear and concise way.
As a rough overview, you could work as a:
- Journalist (either print or online)
- Copywriter (employed in a huge range of businesses to produce their written content)
- Editor (reviewing, improving and correcting other people’s written work)
- Technical writer (these folks work with engineering or other complex industries to create written materials on how their products work)
- Bid-writer (this is a role within charities or social enterprises which requires lots of research to write successful funding bids)
- Author (this is one of the most difficult areas to establish in but offers you the opportunity to explore getting your own work published)
How to get started
The first question that most people ask is whether you need a university degree to be a writer. Well, you’re in luck (unless you’ve already invested in completing one) – you don’t need a bachelor’s degree – or any specific qualifications in fact. That said, many of the skills I mentioned above are fostered by a university education so writers often do complete higher-level study. You don’t necessarily need to focus on traditional subjects like English or Journalism – the evolution of our media system means there’s a space for a plethora of voices in the writing world.
Using your current skills and experience
The increase in outlets – even just your own blog – allows wannabe writers the space to build their own platform. For example, if you already have qualifications in an interesting area then you can build on this to create a portfolio. That could be science writing for quarterly publications, health and beauty tips for your local newspaper or legal advice for community magazines. You are limited only by your imagination (and your ability to convince someone else to publish it/pay you for it.) Build your knowledge. Build the credibility of your voice.
Choosing professional training
If you want to follow the higher education route, then English or Creative Writing courses will stand you in good stead for a writing career. But choose carefully. A good creative writing course will explore what makes for good writing – not implying there are rules to follow, but instead introducing new ways of thinking about writing that help your words become strong and purposeful.
But creativity doesn’t exist in a void. If you want to add some context to your thinking then History or Arts may be useful in building your knowledge. Personally, I did a bachelor’s in politics and a masters degree in journalism, I found it really useful to build my knowledge and then learn to communicate it. You could also choose to complete the NTCJ for journalists or the CIPR for those working in marketing. Neither of these courses requires a degree.
Life as a writer
To make a success of writing as a career you have to be committed. It may mean working in low-level roles until you get a break (as Sarah Perry did). And most writers are self-employed so you’ll also need a head for numbers and organisation (take a look at suggested rates here). But when it’s good, it’s amazing. To have people pay you for a slice of your thoughts – made available to the world for their enjoyment – is a pleasure and privilege. Such a privilege that it doesn’t come easy. Work hard and work well. The world is your oyster.
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