Who knew there were so many career paths for a writer to take? Here are 37 ways professional writers earn their living, either as employees or as freelancers.
What image comes to mind when you hear the word “writer”?
Some people immediately think of a novelist, perhaps locked away in solitude working on their masterpiece, like Hemingway or like “Alex Rover” in Nim’s Island.
Some people think right away of bloggers coming up with some new angle in their chosen niche each day.
Others might picture an intrepid journalist, writing news or sports or entertainment stories for the masses.
Still others might picture a biographer, carefully researching and then revealing the shocking truths behind famous public figures.
The fact is that there is no such career as “writer”. There are dozens of professional writing careers, and so many opportunities for someone who loves to play with words and sculpt ideas.
Writers work in every field and in every language.
Writers work as freelancers and as employees.
There are writing careers for every personality and every interest.
Keep in mind that most writing careers can be played out as employees for large corporations, governments and other organizations. Or they can be taken on as freelancers from your home office in Tahiti, if you prefer. Most can be done under your own name or as a ghostwriter.
Here are just a few interesting careers for writers.
Let’s start with the most obvious and the most glamorous writing career. Novelists get the most fame and the most glory. Well, some do. Actually, very few do. There are your Hemingways and your Rowlings and your Tolkiens, of course.
As famous as some of these writers have become, they are the few who have risen to fame. Most novelists struggle in the shadows, writing their stories with the occasional fan (Hi Mom!). More often than not, they require a day job to keep the landlord from entering with a backhoe.
But many novelists who will never be “famous” still make money, many as extra income and some even make enough to turn it into a full time profession.
You don’t write novels for the money. You do it to appease the characters in your head, so they’ll stop banging on your skull demanding to be set free. You do it for your own sanity. If you make enough money to call it a career, that is just a bonus. If not, at least you save the cost of therapy.
Probably the second-best known writing career, at least for people reading this blog, is that of professional blogger. There are thousands of bloggers in the world, many of them making money. A few of them are also good marketers and have learned how to monetize their blogs; they actually make enough money to quit their day jobs. But most bloggers don’t earn enough to make a career out of blogging, so if you plan to be a blogger, you had better make it enjoyable. In fact, ghostwriting blogs for small and medium-sized companies might just be the most profitable way to blog for a living.
Journalism is a special skill, or set of skills. It involves research and writing, judgment and detachment. You are writing with a purpose and making sure to appear neutral (In theory, you should actually be neutral, unless you are writing an opinion piece, but in theory the moon is made of cheese, right?).
Journalists take themselves very seriously, and you will not be allowed to free the characters in your head. So best budget for therapy.
A columnist is not quite the same as a journalist. Typically a columnist has a field of expertise and offers a viewpoint.
Like a journalist, a columnist has to do solid research and write based on facts.
Unlike a journalist, a columnist is not expected to be balanced and neutral in her reporting. She is supposed to be opinionated to some degree, and is permitted to occasionally stick out her tongue. Just keep in mind that it is still professional writing
A speechwriter has to be able to pick up on the speaker’s voice and style, and at the same time visualize the audience and their reactions. He has to understand cadence and how the words roll off the tongue. A speechwriter is almost always a ghostwriter, otherwise he would be called a “speaker”.
Most politicians, diplomats and business leaders have dedicated specialists on their team to write their speeches. Oftentimes people receiving awards or presenting awards hire a freelance speechwriter.
Wedding speeches are sometimes written by professionals. I have written best man speeches, father of the bride speeches, father of the groom speeches and maid of honor speeches.
It very much helps if you have been a speaker yourself. I spent several years in Toastmasters learning all about what goes into delivering the speech, and that makes me much better a speechwriter, as a result.
Also known as a screenplay writer, you get to write scripts for movies, cartoons and TV shows. Like a speechwriter, you need to be keenly aware of how the words will sound when spoken. Tougher still than a speechwriter, you have to be able to write in the narration, the action and the sound effects. Like a novelist, you need to know how to spin a story. This is a pretty tough set of skills to learn, and it certainly helps if you’ve had prior experience working on movie sets.
Not many plays are written these days, so there are not many careers available in this field. However, it easier than being a scriptwriter, as there is much less of the action and the sound effects to script. Plays depend more heavily on dialogue. This is definitely a freelance career, but don’t quit your day job.
Video Game Writer
Did you notice that there are portions of some video games that include narration or dialogue? Well, they don’t just write themselves. This is another form of script writing that might interest you.
Comic Book Writer
Comic books and graphic novels combine visuals with text in much the same way that films and stage plays do. In this case, you need to be able to coordinate with an illustrator and synchronize your work so that sparse images and sparse words combine to deliver the story. This really is an art form, and not as easy as it looks. While it can be done remotely, being able to work together in the same room can be an advantage.
Oops, how did that one get there? That’s not really a career.
Songs, songs and more songs. Everybody is singing these days, so there is actually a demand for poets, after all. A lyricist is a poet who writes for the melodies of popular songs. It sure helps if you can also write the music, but many songs are co-written between a lyricist and a composer. This is typically a freelance career. I love writing lyrics, because the characters in my head are usually singing rather than screaming. Yes, that calls for a special type of therapy.
Greeting Card Writer
This might seem like the easiest field for a new writer to break into, and perhaps it is. But after getting your third rejection letter, you will realize that it has to be taken seriously. There is a lot of competition for the hearts of consumers in this field, and just because you write something you think is clever doesn’t mean a greeting card company will buy it.
There is a huge demand for technical writers who can explain complex directions and explanations for users, in words that users can actually understand. Consider that every computer, every gadget, every measuring device, every software program or application, every industrial machine and every appliance needs a manual.
If you have ever tried assembling something as simple as furniture or a child’s toy and realized how confusing the instructions are, that’s a clear indication of how desperately the world needs more and better technical writers. This can be done as an employee or as a freelancer.
A copywriter is someone who writes sales material such as advertising, direct marketing letters and emails, pamphlets, packaging (yes, all those words on cereal boxes and dog food bags are written by somebody), newsletters, catalogue descriptions and website copy. It’s not glamorous, but if you do it well, it sure pays the bills. It helps to learn about a few niches, so that you can write with authority on those topics. There are copywriting jobs, and this can also be done freelance.
Speaking of not glamorous, the proofreader works deep in the shadows, although he plays a very important role. As long as there is writing, there is a need for proofreading. If you have a strong attention to detail (otherwise you’ll just be a “poofreader”), this can be a steady paying job, freelance or as an employee.
When you read The Readers Digest, where do the articles come from? From freelance article writers, for the most part. The same is true for most magazines. They might have some staff writers, but they get a much better variety of articles and can better control the flow of work and personnel by relying on freelancers. There is a huge market for article writers who can write creatively and informatively, at the same time thinking in terms of target audience.
You might think this is just a fancy name for “secretary”, but an executive assistant is often called upon to draft letters and proofread them, as well. A particularly skilled executive assistant might even be asked to help with writing articles and speeches for an executive. This is very much a jack-of-all-trades position, and if you have attention to detail, can keep organized and don’t mind being at someone else’s service, it could be the career for you.
A virtual assistant is typically a remote freelancer who helps small companies and consultants with some of the more routine tasks. There is no job description for this position, so if you can write well, you might find yourself writing letters, copy, blog posts, press releases or even proofreading and editing material. There is a lot of offshore competition that drives the pay for this career down. English language skills are critical for anyone who wants their virtual assistant to help with writing or proofreading, so if you have those skills, you can command a decent fee.
If you have any innovative career experiences,
I invite you to share them in the comments below.
Social Media Manager
In this role, you will be writing for social media, including responding on the fly to social media interactions, as well as scheduling social media broadcasts. You will also be focused on building an audience, so what you write is critical not just for engagement with readers, but also for attracting new readers.
If you are really fluent in two or more languages, you can make really good money doing translation. Typically, you would translate from your second or third language to your native tongue. If you were raised bilingually, you might be able to translate in both directions. Many translation jobs require official training, testing and a certificate. There are also many freelance opportunities that do not require any such certification.
Media Relations Specialist
This position combines three key functions. One is strategic, developing strategies to get more or better media coverage. The second is preparing materials for the media, such as press releases with backgrounders and op-ed articles. The third is acting as a spokesperson for the company. Many careers in this field do not require the spokesperson role, but all require a heavy writing role, often with a lot of research involved. Large organizations typically have their own employees to do this; smaller companies usually rely on freelancers.
If you are desperate for work, you could always help someone cheat themselves out of an education. There is a thriving market for essay writers from students who don’t want to or are not capable enough to write their own essays. Just remember when the doctor removes your heart by accident instead of your liver that you helped him “earn” his degree. This is the perfect career for anyone whose head is teaming with evil characters demanding their freedom and threatening to set off TNT in your brain.
There is a thriving market for people to write grant proposals. Non-profits, charities and NGOs often seek grants from government and from foundations. Grant proposal writing is a specialized niche. You get to know what the people who review the proposals are looking for so as to maximize the client’s chance of scoring with one single reader (it might be several people reviewing it, but it is one agency that will decide if that proposal fails or succeeds). For that reason it is a hard field to break into, but it is a field you can enter remotely as a freelancer.
As with grant writing, resume writing is a very specialized field, for a similar reason. After a while, you get to see what works in a resume and what doesn’t, what works in a cover letter and what doesn’t. As with grant writing, the whole goal is to maximize the client’s chance of scoring with a single reader. With people changing jobs more than twice a decade, there are plenty of resumes and cover letters to be written. There are both freelance opportunities and employment opportunities in this field.
Business Plan Writer
Business plan writing is in some ways similar to resume writing and grant writing. You are writing with a very small audience in mind, hoping to score an investment with a single reader. It might be presented several times, but a lot of work goes into writing the plan, which will never go to a mass audience. This is typically a freelance career.
This is a nice little set of niches for a few people who are very passionate about the topics. Restaurant and food reviews, art exhibit reviews, entertainment reviews (theatre, concert, etc.) can be well-paying and a lot of fun, and there are newspapers and magazines that pay well for these. Breaking into this field is not easy. It can often be done freelance, but some publications have dedicated employees writing reviews.
Similar to a reviewer, a travel writer writes about places she has been and what one could expect to encounter there. Typically, the two skills a travel writer needs are the ability to fill readers with a sense of wonder and not getting sick on airplanes. Oh, and it helps to have really good photography skills.
There are plenty of careers teaching English, journalism, communications and creative writing. Don’t overlook these opportunities if you have the type of personality that works for teaching.
Everybody has a book inside them, but some people need help bringing it out. They turn to writing coaches, especially if they are serious about becoming a professional writer. If you want to teach, but prefer freelance and one-on-one, this is a great alternative to a professor position at a college or university.
Not every writer writes for a living. Professors and writing coaches are not the only ways to put your writing expertise to use in a non-writing capacity. Literary agents evaluate manuscripts and then represent the authors in pitching them to publishers. This career is one part making tough choices about which manuscripts to accept and which to reject, and one part pitching those they choose to represent. Typically, literary agents are freelancers and have some experience with publishing.
While the literary agent represents the author, the acquisitions editor works for the publisher. Her job is to find the ideal manuscript. In other words, her job is about making even tougher choices than the literary agent has to make.
The editor of a publication runs the publication. Her biggest job is to supervise the writers and graphic artists, make choices about the content and layout and often to manage the business end, as well. Magazines and newspapers have editors, and so do many book publishers. There might be several editors with various functions, such as a managing editor who manages a large editorial staff and an assignment editor who determines which reporters will cover which stories each day.
The copy editor’s job is to review manuscripts and articles, edit them for grammar and appropriateness, make sure they fit a publication’s style, sometimes check facts and do whatever else is needed to make an article publication-ready. In some anthology books, the editor is also responsible for supervising the various writers and providing context for the various entries.
How-to Book Writer
We started this off with novelists, but fiction is only half the world of books. There is a huge demand for how-to and self-help topics, and some people who lack the story structuring skills to write fiction find these sorts of books and eBooks to be just as fulfilling (and often more profitable) to write.
There are professional writers who specialize just in writing biographies. A few of them get very rich, writing biographies of famous people, and even richer ghostwriting autobiographies of famous people. This is not an entry level position. On the other hand, some people specialize in writing heritage books, family biographies that are never meant for mass distribution. Those usually are entry positions, but it’s still professional writing.
This is a deceptive career title, since a ghostwriter is somebody who writes the words for another person’s credit. If you write fiction for an author or for a publisher as a ghostwriter, you are at the same time a novelist – an anonymous novelist. If you write speeches for politicians or businessmen, or for best men and fathers of the bride, you are an anonymous speechwriter.
What is the most important characteristic of a good ghostwriter? Discretion is important. But there is one even more important characteristic you need to be a ghostwriter.
If you love to write, writers’ work isn’t even work at all. Your career options are almost boundless. There are just so many ways to go, and Your only limit is your imagination. And for a writer, that’s not much of a limit!
If you have innovative writing career experiences of your own, I invite you to share them in the comments below.