I’ve been a professional writer for eight years, and while I didn’t write a bestseller during that time, I now make a solid income as a writer. The journey was difficult to navigate, so I decided to circle back and help other fledgling writers.
One positive outcome of learning the hard way is recycling that knowledge to help others learn the easy way.
When I first thought about freelance writing, I had a million questions and very few resources to answer them. Friends tried to connect me with other writers, most of whom were not helpful. One woman actually told me to “google freelance writing.” She lived ten minutes from me and went to my church, but didn’t have time for coffee. I found most professional writers guarded and almost secretive, as if there were only a few writing gigs to go around.
One writer caught my eye on social media because she was a Harvard graduate and had a snazzy website. Her posts were well-written but funny and authentic. I messaged her with low expectations, “Would you be willing to give me some tips on writing as a career?”
I almost had a heart attack when she answered. “Let’s jump on a call.” (Gulp)
Ann is a writing coach but didn’t try to sell me anything during the 45 minutes she spent with me. I took pages of notes while she answered all my questions and gave me lots of advice. One of the most helpful things she said was:
Put in a fencepost. Don’t dillydally around. Figure out where you fit as a writer and stay there for a while.
She was realistic and direct, but encouraging. Nine years later, I still read my notes from that call. I’m not giving out Ann’s number, but I did create a “how to” series for aspiring writers.
Disclaimer: I’ve written some children’s fiction pieces, but overall—I’m a nonfiction writer. Fiction writers likely possess many of the qualifications needed to write nonfiction, but I want to be clear that my experience is almost all in the nonfiction realm.
In Part 1, I’ll cover the basic qualifications you need to make a living as a freelance writer. Hopefully, this will help you make some decisions about whether you want to pursue writing as a career.
What qualifications do I need to make money as a writer?
I majored in English but spent the bulk of my career as a corporate leader. How does it impact a writing resume when you’re the proud owner of an English degree but lack formal experience? Is a resume even important when you’re trying to land writing jobs? How important is a degree in writing? How much experience do you need? All valid questions.
The Top 6 Qualifications You need to Earn Money as a Writer
- Writing ability: Even if writing hasn’t been your full-time job, maybe you’re like I was—the resident scribe at work. Do other employees ask you to review important emails or documents? Do friends ask you to edit their resumes? Does the grammar check function in Word come up empty when you run it? If you’ve had articles published in trade or literary magazines or if you’ve won writing contests, these accomplishments speak to your writing abilities. You might be a member of a writing group, where you consistently receive feedback that your writing is exceptional. Grammarly and other apps or programs can’t replace the foundational skill you’ll need to generate income as a writer. I list this qualification first because it’s the most important.
- Writing experience: Do any of these statements describe you? It may not be a formal position, but you love writing so much that you write or edit any chance you get, even though it’s not in your job description. Or you write as a hobby or calling. You publish a blog and people often compliment it. If writing hasn’t been a regular part of your life until now, you’ll need to take a year to build up your experience.
- A related degree: Few of the professional writers I know have degrees in writing or journalism, but almost all have a related degree such as marketing, English, communications, education, liberal arts, or advertising. In general, the less your writing experience, the more important the degree becomes.
- Initiative: Unlike most work environments where you’re an employee, you won’t work as part of a team as a writer. You also won’t experience regular check-ins or receive consistent feedback. You’ll receive an assignment, and the project manager will expect you to figure it out. A few questions are OK, but if you need help at every step, you probably won’t be invited back for new projects. Don’t think that being tentative or wanting consistent clarification are “bad” traits. These traits aren’t bad, but having them will make it difficult for you to succeed as a freelance writer.
- Research skills: Some of my first writing jobs involved writing copy for manufacturing companies and fly-fishing magazines. Though I have experience in both, I still spent a lot of time researching technical information. I spend most of my time today writing textbooks, which, of course, requires extensive research. The bottom line is that writing professionally will require you to write inside industries and spaces that may be unfamiliar. You’ll need to understand what sources are acceptable and how to find them. BIG PLUS: research or fact-checking experience
- System aptitude: Being a writer will expose you to a variety of software tools. Sometimes you’ll write and edit manuscripts in word, but many times you’ll be working in the client’s system. It’s unnecessary to have experience with each specific system, but you need the ability to figure it out and use it with minimal training and supervision. Some common applications and systems: Adobe Acrobat DC, Adobe InDesign, XML, JIRA, and Alfresco. BIG PLUS: technical writing skills
Do I need all six qualifications to become a paid freelance writer?
If we were having coffee and you were to ask me that question, I’d say you absolutely need the first two qualifications and probably the third. It also helps to understand that freelance writing requires self-motivation, discipline, and consistency.
Getting paid for doing what you love is rewarding. You’ll control how much work you take on, and you’ll enjoy a flexible schedule. If you have the qualifications, along with passion and drive, you can absolutely make a steady income as a freelance writer.
Post any questions in the comments or send me a message in the contact form. I’d love to help. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share all my tips on how to get started.