So, you want to be a writer. Welcome! You've come to the right place.
Writing is a fun, dynamic career, and it can be a lucrative field. But writing isn't a get-rich-quick scheme, no matter what personal-finance and side-hustle blogs will tell you. It's hard work, but the freedom and creativity make it worth it.
If you're passionate about the written word, you want to leave a legacy through writing, and you're looking for a career that's always needed and always changing, then a writing career is perfect for you.
Today, we'll take a look at the different types of professional writing. Whether you want to be a top-earning freelance writer or the next bestselling author, this guide will explain exactly how you can break into the writing community.
How to Become a Successful Writer (or Author)
Anyone who writes is a writer. I stand by this. If you're writing fan fiction or poems no one will ever see, you're a writer.
A professional writer is someone who earns money from their writing.
Professional writers make writing a career, but that doesn't mean you need to quit your job and become a full-time fiction writer! You can be a professional writer alongside whatever else you do.
Professional writers who become successful and earn a full-time income dedicate time and energy to building their career. They understand the importance of quality writing, and they know their worth. Most importantly, successful writers write. They write consistently and always seek to improve.
The first step in learning how to become a writer is to know what type of writer you want to be. You don't have to pick just one niche! Let's start by understanding the difference between a writer and an author.
What's the Difference Between a Writer and an Author?
All authors are writers, but not all writers are authors. This sounds like the start of a logic problem! The definitions of author and writer vary from source to source.
An author is someone whose work has been published. While some sources say that this includes anyone who has published an article, most people assign the title of "author" to someone who has published a short story or book. Nonfiction authors who publish books are still authors!
Most professional writers who do not write books or publish any fiction do not use the title of author. For the intent of this guide, we'll use author to mean one who publishes fiction writing or nonfiction books.
Brush up on Your Writing Skills
A professional writer understands the importance of high-quality writing, and they will use any tool at their disposal to improve their writing skills.
Brush up on the mechanics of grammar and style. Books like Dreyer's English and The Elements of Style are a great starting place. There are also great blogs and online courses to help improve your skills.
You can also use an editing tool. Even the best writers need to run their work through an editing program to catch typos, strange wording, and obscure grammar mistakes.
ProWritingAid is more than just a grammar and spell checker and will offer style feedback through our twenty reports.
For these eight popular reports, and many others, sign up for ProWritingAid.
Types of Professional Writer Careers
There are many types of professional writing paths you can take. We're going to cover some of them here.
You might find that you want to write in more than one niche. That's okay! Keep in mind that it's easier to build a successful career the more specialized you become, but there's no rule that says you can't write grants and short stories.
We're not covering journalism or news writing and reporting in this guide because that field has its own requirements and code of ethics.
The writing careers in this guide are open to anyone and many don't require experience or a specific degree to break into.
Technical writing is a great niche for people who have backgrounds in specialized fields. A technical writer conveys complex information in a specialized industry. This might include writing guides or support documents or even journals.
Within technical writing, there are countless subfields. If you have an interest in healthcare, you can become a medical writer. If you're passionate about the law, you might consider a career as a legal writer.
Technical writing jobs can also include the tech and software fields, engineering, and more. A bachelor's degree in English or work experience in a related field is helpful but not required.
Business writing is another broad niche, and it is often the most lucrative writing career. We can break this niche into a couple of broad categories.
First, there is business-to-business writing, or B2B. This type of writing focuses on the interactions between businesses. Then there's B2C, or business-to-consumer, writing.
Under both the B2B and B2C umbrellas, there are two other broad categories: copywriting and content writing.
Copywriting focuses on sales and conversions. This includes website copy, ad copy, email marketing, and more. Copywriting is persuasive and encourages the reader to take some sort of action.
Content writers focus on information and education. This might include a business's blog, product guides, social media, ebooks, or other informative content. Content writing helps build a brand and develop relationships with the target audience.
Quality grant writers are always in high demand for businesses and nonprofit organizations. Grant writing is a specialized style of writing with the goal of obtaining competitive funding for an organization.
It's harder to become a grant writer than other types of writer because the stakes are high and the writing style is so specific. If you're interested in becoming a grant writer, find a grant writing course or certification program.
It might be harder to break into grant writing, but it's a stable career path. Plus, you can really make a difference by helping amazing nonprofit organizations get much-needed funding.
Creative Writing and Fiction Writing
It's possible to build a successful writing career with creative writing, but it's much harder because you won't be hired by companies with a writing budget.
There are many different types of creative writing. Personal essays fit well on many blogs and websites, and they can pay very well. But the work is less consistent and requires lots of pitching. We'll talk more about pitching later.
Fiction writing includes short stories, novellas, and novels. Independent publishing has opened many doors for fiction writers to have lucrative careers and reach a wide audience.
Traditional publishing is a slower process, but some people still build solid careers on this path.
Narrative nonfiction writers can author long-form essays and books as well. Even poets can find success in the creative writing field.
Other Types of Writing Careers
There are plenty of other fields you can enter as a writer. There's entertainment writing, video script writing, blogging, and e-course development. You can get hired as a ghostwriter to write books for other people.
It might not be your own writing, but it's a viable career option. Resume writing is another great option.
Online writing has opened the doors to infinite opportunities for budding writers.
How to Get Into Freelance Writing
There are several steps you can take to become a writer. The order of these steps isn't important.
Some people will tell you to choose a niche first. Others will tell you to take unpaid jobs to build your portfolio. You can make the steps to become a writer work for you.
A freelance writer is someone who is not an employee of a company. They might take long-term contracts with a company, but freelance writers are self-employed. Be mindful of tax laws, healthcare benefits, and how to read a contract before pursuing freelance writing.
Take a Writing Course
A good writer in any field is dedicated to becoming a better writer. An online writing course is a great way to learn how to become a writer, learn a new skill, or get a certification.
Many online writing courses created by successful freelance writers outline step-by-step how to become a writer. Every freelance writer has their own personal recipe for success.
You can take a writing course to improve specific aspects of your writing, such as grammar, copywriting skills, or pitching.
There are also courses and certification programs for more specialized writing niches. There are certifications for medical writing, grant writing, resume writing, and more.
Build Your Portfolio
To become a writer, you must have writing samples. This gets easier as your career progresses, but there are ways to build your portfolio when you're just getting started.
Here are some things you can include in your beginner portfolio:
- Personal blog posts
- Editorials for college newspapers
- Academic writing samples
- Fake samples of your niche
- Free samples for a friend or family member
Early on, you want to prove that you can write. You might pull from a neglected blog or a paper you had published in an academic journal.
You can also create fake samples within your chosen niche. Did you write a practice grant in a certification course? Could you craft some fictitious ad copy?
There's a great debate about the merits of taking unpaid writing gigs for exposure. They can be beneficial for building a portfolio, but time is money.
As a freelance writer, I am generally opposed to unpaid writing gigs. The unpaid "exposure" jobs I, and many of my colleagues, took early on did little to actually help us get good writing gigs.
If you are willing, however, offer to spruce up website copy or take on an email newsletter for someone you know and trust.
Don't overextend yourself and only write for someone who won't take advantage of you. You can't make money or find well-paying writing jobs if you're spending all your time on unpaid labor.
There are many articles on how to become a writer that make it sound easy to find writing jobs. They downplay the time it takes to find open positions and pitch for them. However, pitching is a numbers game, and a good pitch can open doors for long-term writing positions.
Anyone who has ever been unemployed knows that job hunting can be a full-time job. Freelance writing requires a large amount of time spent pitching or applying for writing positions, in addition to actual paid writing positions.
Search job boards for freelance writing positions. Update your LinkedIn profile and make connections. Watch for calls for pitches from your favorite websites and blogs.
You can also cold-pitch companies and blogs you want to write for. The worst they can say is no.
A good pitch is friendly and gets straight to the point. Don't aim for too-formal language like a cover letter. You need to show off your voice in your pitches. They're hiring your writing skills, after all!
Include a link to your portfolio or a relevant sample. Run your pitch through an online editor and proofread it several times. It doesn't look good for a hopeful writer to make writing mistakes in a pitch.
Also, carefully read pitching guidelines for the position. Editors get dozens of pitches a day. Some will have you include a specific phrase to weed out the less serious candidates. There might be a specific format for the subject line or other guidelines on pitch ideas, format, or samples.
Choosing a Niche
There's a well-known phrase in the freelance writing world: "the riches are in the niches." In other words, the more specific your niche, the more money you can make. This is a catch-22 for a new writer.
You aren't a specialist in your niche yet, so being too narrow can severely limit your jobs. However, being too broad could lead to low-paying and unsatisfying writing gigs.
Budding writers also may not know what they want to niche down in. You might think you're interested in grant writing and, a few months down the road, decide you hate it after significant investment.
I believe in finding a happy medium at the beginning of your career, then letting your niche find you. If pitching is a numbers game, start by casting a wide net. Apply for positions that sound interesting and may be something you want to niche down in.
For example, I started with a broad niche of blogging and B2C content writing. Eventually, I found gigs that turned into consistent jobs with niches in entertainment and the writing field.
Perhaps you have a biology background and want to get into medical writing? You can start by looking for technical writing positions, healthcare blogs, or web copy for healthcare providers. Who knows which of those you'll love best?
How to Become an Author
You might think that the first step in how to become an author is to write a book. Surprise! While you should be writing, there's another step that is important to do concurrently.
Build an Audience
You can't sell books if no one knows about your books. Whether you choose an indie publishing or traditional publishing route, you must build your audience first. It's much harder to build your audience after you've published because you sound sales-y. They don't know you, so why would they read your book?
Traditional publishers look for writers who have a social media following. It doesn't have to be a huge following, but they do want to see an active social media presence. Even a couple thousand followers with regular engagement is enough.
You don't have to be on every social media site to build your audience either. Decide who your ideal reader (that's author-speak for "target audience") is and research which social media platforms that group spends their time on.
You also want to curate a newsletter mailing list. Those are the people who are a step away from buying your book.
What do you talk about if you haven't written a book yet? Here are some ideas for content to build an audience before you publish:
- Books you love
- Your writing process
- Writing struggles
- Writing memes and book memes
- Themes you discuss in your books
- About the author facts
- Quotes from your work-in-progress
Follow other new authors and see what they posted before they published for more ideas. Interact with your followers and your ideal readers. Remember, building an audience is about building a connection, not sales.
Write a Book
You can't be an author if you don't write. Whether you're writing short stories, novellas, novels, or nonfiction books, you have to get those words on the page.
Writing can be a lonely field. Find a writing community to commiserate with. Critique groups, book coaches, and accountability partners can be crucial to your success as an aspiring author.
If you've never written a book, it takes time to find your process. You might be more of a "pantser" or discovery writer who flies by the seat of your pants. These writers sit down in front of a blank page with an idea and just write.
Plotters spend time developing characters and plot lines before they ever write a line of the story. Most people fall somewhere in between.
I always recommend writing challenges like National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo) or Alan Watt's 90 Day Novel to new writers who are intimidated by a blank page, but not everyone likes these time-bound approaches.
Read books about how to write a novel, like our Novel Writing Training Plan or Ready, Set, Novel by Chris Baty, Lindsey Grant, and Tavia Stewart-Streit.
Then sit down and write that story!
Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing
Traditional publishing involves pitching to a literary agent who will then sell your book to a publishing house. This is generally done after you have a completed manuscript.
Literary agents have specific submission guidelines, so read them carefully!
Some want only a certain word count of the beginning of your novel, while others want the whole manuscript.
Some agents prefer to read a synopsis and will ask for your manuscript if they are interested.
Self publishing is a larger investment. An indie author is responsible for hiring their own editors, sensitivity readers, cover artists, and more. It's a lot of work but that doesn't mean a book isn't good.
There are great books and terrible books in both strands of publishing. What are some of the reasons an author will choose one path or the other?
Traditional publishing comes with clout. It's easier to get into libraries and bookstores. It's possible to get a significant monetary advance when a publisher picks up your book.
Some of your marketing will be done for you by the publisher. If you perform well, you can get multi-book deals.
However, traditional publishing requires you to give up some creative control. The publisher looks for trends that they think will sell. You might be forced to change something significant in your novel, and you don't usually get much say on cover design.
You're still required to do most of your own marketing and promotion unless you hit the bestseller list.
Self publishing allows you to retain complete creative control, but that requires more work. There's a stigma that self-published books aren't as good, even though that's not true. It's faster than pitching, but it's also a larger up-front investment.
What about earnings? Traditional publishing might help you sell more books, but the royalties on each sale are significantly lower than self publishing. You can make more per book going the indie route, but it can be harder to sell enough copies.
Choosing your publishing route is a cost-benefit analysis. Decide what is most important to you.
How to Get into Writing: Conclusions
Becoming a writer isn't necessarily easy, but there are infinite career paths you can take within the field. For people who are passionate about writing and using their words to impact people, it's a fun career that is rarely dull.
Know your worth, but don't expect to get rich quick. Learn what you can to be a better writer. And keep your passion for writing alive no matter what — it will shine through everything you write.