Do you want to become a professional writer?
Perhaps you love the idea of writing full-time. Or maybe you want to become a freelance writer and set your own hours so you can work around family life or caring responsibilities.
Becoming a professional writer can be hugely rewarding.
However, you need to know some important truths about what to do and what to expect on your journey.
Here are seven things to keep in mind, whether you’re just thinking about professional writing or you’ve already landed some freelance writing jobs.
1. You’re In Control of Your Success
This is a hard truth to acknowledge.
You might feel that being a successful writer is mostly about luck. You may think that your writing career is in the hands of gatekeepers like publishers, agents, and editors.
But, as a professional writer, you’re in control.
For instance, if you want more work, you don’t need to sit back and just hope it somehow comes to you. You can send great pitches to editors, you can do more networking with prospects and fellow writers, and you can apply for more writing gigs.
If you want to make more money, you’re not dependent on your boss giving you a raise or promotion. You can raise your rates or seek out better-paying clients.
As a new writer, you get to figure out what success looks like for you.
Perhaps “success” means a six-figure income (and that’s perfectly achievable). Or maybe it means making a great hourly income so you can work 4 – 5 hours per day and still have plenty of time to spend with your kids.
It can feel a bit scary to have that much control. What if, despite all your efforts, your business fails?
The great thing about being a professional writer is that you’re unlikely to have invested lots of money in your business. At most, you might have bought a laptop and a bit of office equipment.
If things don’t work out, you won’t be bankrupt.
Plus, it’s unlikely that you’ll fail. You’re a good writer and you’re proactive about learning how to succeed (you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t).
Sure, you might make some mistakes along the way — every aspiring writer does — but you’ll have plenty of wins too!
2. You Don’t Have to Write Books
What does a professional writer do?
You might be picturing someone with a whole shelf of bestsellers that they’ve written. Or maybe you’re imagining writing novels, short stories, or nonfiction books that rank high on Amazon or appear in the New York Times bestseller list.
But plenty of professional writers don’t write books. They write website copy, technical manuals, how-to articles, news reports, press releases, podcast scripts … all sorts of things that aren’t books at all.
So what is a professional writer called?
Not necessarily an “author” or a “novelist.”
You could work alone as a freelancer if you want full control, or you could work for a company as a full-time employed writer if you prefer the security of a steady salary.
Of course, you can write books if you’d like to. But keep in mind that many book authors don’t actually make a living from their work. Even quite well-known authors often have another job on the side, like teaching creative writing.
So if you can’t imagine writing 50,000 words or more on one project, that’s fine.
You don’t have to.
Most professional writers work on much shorter pieces.
3. You Don’t Need a Degree
How do you become a professional writer?
Some people (and even some careers advisors) might tell you that the first step is to take a relevant degree — like journalism, communication studies, or even creative writing.
But, the truth is…
You don’t need a degree to land most writing jobs. It might give you an edge in certain circumstances — particularly if you don’t yet have years of experience or proven writing skills to draw on. But it’s definitely not a necessity.
Don’t spend years and thousands of dollars earning a writing-related degree unless you actually want to. Instead, develop your skillset and apply for writing jobs.
I studied English Literature as an undergraduate then took a Master’s degree in Creative Writing.
I rarely even mention these when applying for writing gigs. All my clients care about is how well I can write.
Instead of getting a brand new degree, focus on creating great samples for your writing portfolio that will impress your potential clients. Putting these together will be much quicker, much cheaper, and far more effective.
4. You Can’t Be Precious About Your Writing
I’ll be honest here. I had to get over myself a bit when I took my first steps toward becoming a professional writer.
In my early 20s, like many aspiring writers, I thought “good writing” was the domain of literary novels. I daydreamed about champagne, book launches, and glowing reviews in literary magazines.
I don’t think I’d even heard of business writing or content writing.
All of that went out the window when I actually started making money writing.
As a professional writer, you can’t be snobby. You learn that “good writing” is all about the context.
A great piece of technical writing isn’t going to be full of flowery metaphors. It’s going to be clear and precise. A great piece of ghostwriting isn’t going to develop your unique writing voice. It’s going to sound exactly like your client’s voice.
Another unavoidable reality of being a professional writer is that your work will be edited and modified by other people.
You may be asked to make revisions too: it’s hard to nail exactly what a client wants, especially when working with them for the first time. The first draft you turn in might be drastically altered by the time it’s published.
You might not fully agree with the edits, but you need to be able to detach from your work.
Sure, you can speak up if you feel a change really doesn’t work… but if you kick up a fuss about every edit, you’ll quickly lose a client.
With some types of writing, like copywriting and ghostwriting, your name won’t be on the finished piece. You may well not even be able to tell anyone that you wrote it.
Your reward is the money — not the glory.
5. You Can Earn Seriously Good Money
How much does a professional writer make?
You might worry that even a successful writer has to work long hours for little pay, especially if you’ve spent time looking at writing jobs that pay an abysmal $0.02 or $0.03 per word. But there are plenty of six-figure writers out there.
When I started freelancing, well over a decade ago, I was happy making $25/hour – and I spent a lot of unpaid time trying to find clients.
These days, I aim for $80 – $100/hour – and I rarely have to seek out new gigs.
I have a bunch of fantastic clients who want repeat work, week in, week out.
Professional writer jobs pay good money.
It can take time to find the best writing jobs (and some types of writing pay much better than others) — but there are lots of opportunities if you’re persistent.
If you’ve been writing professionally for a while, make sure you’re continuing to raise your rates.
You’re becoming more skilled and more experienced all the time: that should be reflected in your professional writer salary.
Don’t be put off writing for a living because you think it’ll be long hours for little pay.
Be deliberate and proactive about seeking out well-paid gigs and you can reach your financial goals.
6. You Need Solid Time Management and Organization Skills
This is another tough truth that some would-be writers struggle with.
Whether you’re working alone as a solo freelancer or as part of a writing team, you need to be able to manage your time well.
If you’re someone who procrastinates for hours before finally writing a few sentences, you need to develop better habits before you can succeed in professional writing.
Freelancers need to manage things like:
- Juggling multiple different clients and writing jobs — often with different deadlines and requirements.
- Sitting down to write even on days when you don’t feel inspired or motivated.
- Finishing your first draft in good time so that you can meet deadlines even if something unexpected crops up.
- Setting family and friends’ expectations so that you can have focused working time during the day.
- Keeping your website and/or social media accounts up to date, so that new clients can easily find your services.
- Setting boundaries around your work time, so that you have enough downtime to refresh and recharge.
Depending on the type of writing work you do, you may also need to develop skills like SEO (search engine optimization) or the ability to format posts in WordPress.
7. You Can Still Fit In Your Own Writing
What if you want to make money freelancing but still want to do your own writing?
Perhaps you’re blogging for a hobby, working on a collection of short stories, or taking a creative writing class.
Or you could be writing something that won’t ever make money, like a fanfiction story or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for a small group of friends.
If you’re freelancing all day, you might be worried about having enough energy left over to work on your personal projects.
I’ll be honest here: this can be a challenge.
It’s especially tough if you’re caring for young children (or elderly relatives), if you have a chronic illness, or if you’re going through a particularly busy season of life.
But it is possible to fit your own writing around your professional writing career.
The vast majority of professional writers have some flexibility about their hours — they don’t need to be at a desk from 9 – 5. You might choose to work on your novel from 8am – 10am while you’re at your freshest, then turn to your freelancing from 10am onwards. Or you might fit your freelance work into 4 days so you can spend Fridays on more creative projects.
It won’t necessarily be easy, and you’ll likely have days when your paying work needs to take priority. But many professional writers have writing projects on the side, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.
Becoming a Professional Writer: Your First Steps
Could professional writing be for you?
Give it a try!
You don’t need to quit your job and go all-in from day one.
Instead, you could set up a simple website or social media page, tell friends and family that you’re open to freelance work, and work on landing your first clients.
You might find it’s a great way to start a side hustle doing something you love. You could use it as a way to bring in money while starting a separate online business.
Or you may decide to develop it into a whole professional writing career.
Regardless of which path you ultimately choose, now is the time to take that first step.