For a successful career as a writer you will need to be creative, organised and disciplined and possess excellent research skills along with a passion for the written word
As a writer, you will be involved in the creation and development of works of fiction and non-fiction.
This covers various forms of writing including:
- life writing;
- magazine and newspaper articles;
- screen and radio;
- scripts for theatre;
- short stories;
- web content.
New media is also opening doors for writers in areas such as mobile phone content and computer game scripts.
Most writers work freelance and are self-employed. As income from writing may be low and erratic, most writers supplement their income with other related activities such as author visits, workshops, events and readings.
Some writers may find avenues to diversify their writing and write in different forms, such as published novelists also writing reviews and literary criticism.
In addition many writers manage their writing work alongside full or part-time jobs, which may be related to their writing (such as lecturing on creative writing courses) or entirely unrelated.
Your typical work activities are likely to include some or all of the following:
- researching the market including reading relevant publications or blogs, and staying up to date with writing that is being produced in your chosen field;
- selecting subject matter based on personal or public interest, or commissioned by a publisher or agent;
- undertaking background research including desk-based research and conducting site visits or interviews;
- writing individual pieces, including using the technical skills of writing and being able to structure and plan individual projects;
- editing, revising and reviewing work especially in response to feedback;
- working to tight deadlines, especially for theatre, screen and radio;
- submitting material for publication in the required and expected format;
- networking with other writers, as well as others involved in the industry such as publishers, booksellers and organisers of literary events;
- liaising with publishers, agents, script editors, producers and directors;
- finding, pursuing and maintaining knowledge of publication opportunities;
- marketing, including maintaining an online presence through a website, blog or social media presence;
- talking about your work at events and conducting readings or book signings;
- teaching writing in further or higher education settings or running workshops privately;
- critiquing the work of other writers including sometimes providing mentoring or coaching services;
- managing the business side of writing including maintaining financial records, checking contracts and submitting invoices and tax returns.
- Starting salaries for writers are generally low. The median earnings for professional writers (those who dedicate more than 50% of their time to writing) is only £11,000, and only 11.5% of professional writers earn their incomes solely from writing. However, there may be exceptions to this rule, and there are well publicised cases of writers gaining significant advances (into six figures) for first novels.
As the publishing industry changes, so authors earnings are also changing. Between 2000 and 2013 there was a 28% drop in the average earnings of writers in real terms. At the same time, self-publishing and digital publishing have become increasingly important sources of income.
Pay varies according to the medium a writer works in, with average salaries of professional writers highest for those writing television scripts and the lowest for those writing non-fiction.
Check the Society of Authors - Rates and Guidelines for writers and the NUJ Freelance Fees Guide, which sets out indications of average rates for different kinds of freelance writing. The BBC offers standard rates, which are available on The Writers' Guild - Rates and Agreements.
Having a good agent, business manager and/or accountant is essential for most high-earning writers.
Income data from the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). Figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours typically include regular unsocial hours. Writers often use weekends and evenings to work, fitting their responsibilities around other employment commitments. However, some writers may adopt a disciplined approach, keeping strict office hours and working away from home to avoid distractions.
What to expect
- While the majority of writers are self-employed freelancers, they may be taken on for short-term contracts in television, radio, screen or theatre. There are also some opportunities to be employed as writers in residence in particular communities or organisations.
- Successful writers may be male or female, and of any age. However, research shows that male writers typically earn more than their female counterparts.
- Writers live and work throughout the UK, but the highest concentration of writers is in London and the South of England.
- The work may often be solitary, it can be very stressful and there is little job security. However, there are the benefits of being able to work in your own time and to combine work with family life.
- Most writers are home-based, however there may be some travel required for attendance at conferences, author events and literary festivals.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates, the following subjects may increase your chances:
- communication and media studies;
- creative writing;
- English and literature studies;
- performing arts.
Entry without a degree, foundation degree or HND is common.
Most academic qualifications will help you to develop strong writing skills, and provide a good grounding in grammar and the structure of language.
Literature, media, journalism and performing arts may help to give you knowledge of different styles and genres of writing.
Courses with a practical element, such as many creative writing courses may also give you relevant practical experience. However, creative talent, drive and determination are equally, if not more, important to work as a writer.
A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not essential, but if you decide to do some postgraduate study, there are a number of Masters courses available. These courses typically combine academic study with practical experience and mentoring. Search for postgraduate courses in creative writing.
It is worth noting that many postgraduate degree courses aimed at potential writers require only portfolio entry and the subject of your first degree may be irrelevant. Many courses have a very specific focus, e.g. novel writing or writing for performance.
To succeed as a writer, you will need:
- literary skills;
- a clear, entertaining style;
- the ability to work to tight deadlines, while also maintaining attention to detail;
- excellent research skills, both literary and business-related;
- self-discipline and time management skills;
- the ability to work alone for long periods of time;
- networking skills and the ability to develop media contacts;
- marketing skills and an understanding of new media as a tool for self-promotion;
- IT, web, typing and editing skills;
- the necessary financial skills to manage yourself in the employment market;
- the ability to understand and accept criticism;
- determination, resilience and enthusiasm.
Pre-entry experience in related industries such as bookselling, publishing, film or television may be helpful but is not necessary. It is, however, important that writers build up a portfolio of work (published or unpublished) in order to have material to showcase to potential publishers or contacts.
Securing a publishing contract can be challenging with significant levels of competition.
Students can improve their chances of entering this line of work by getting relevant experience while at university, including writing for student newspapers or magazines, or taking part in student radio or a drama club.
In addition the BBC Work Experience scheme offers writers' opportunities to do unpaid work placements.
You can break into the profession by winning local or national writing competitions. These include fiction, poetry, screen and playwriting and usually can be found by a simple web search of 'creative writing competitions,' or 'screen writing competitions.'
Some publishers run competitions to find new talent, and the prize can include publication. For example, the children's fiction publishers Chicken House, in conjunction with The Times, run an annual children's fiction competition.
Because writing is largely a freelance occupation, very few vacancies are advertised and most opportunities are found by making speculative approaches or by answering calls for submissions.
It is very important that you make speculative approaches in the style that is appropriate to the opening.
Writers of fiction and non-fiction who want to be traditionally published will need to seek an agent before seeking a publisher as most publishers will not look at uncommissioned work unless it comes via an agent.
Approaching a literary agent usually involves submitting the first three chapters of a novel with a synopsis and a cover letter (for fiction). It is important that you do your research when you are looking for an agent. This involves looking closely at the agent and their list. Do they represent the genre of fiction that you write in? If not, submission could be pointless.
Check out the other writers on their list. Do you think you could fit in there somewhere? If not, it may be best to keep on looking. The writer/agent relationship is an important one. It's worth taking the time to find one that is right for you.
Another possibility is to self-publish or produce an e-book. These methods are increasing in popularity as e-books become more popular and technological developments are making it easier to publish work yourself.
Self-publishing can be an effective way of showcasing ability and achieving independent sales through local book shops or by using online retailers. However, taking on the role of both writer and publisher can be demanding and require you to understand issues such as permissions and rights.
The Society of Authors produce a Quick Guide to Self-Publishing and Print-on-Demand, which is a useful reference point.
Short-story writers may find their style of writing is suited to, and regularly accepted by, certain magazines or websites. Short story competitions may provide additional income and can help showcase your work.
There are several outlets for the publication or broadcast of poetry, although they are unstructured. Examples are specialist poetry magazines and occasional radio programmes. Generally speaking, little or no pay is involved.
A list of poetry magazines is published on The Poetry Library and a visit to investigate back copies is recommended. Poetry readings and festivals can provide a forum for publicising work and competitions can be lucrative and lead to opportunities for publication.
As a script writer, you may have temporary contracts with:
- the BBC;
- commercial and independent television and radio companies;
- facilities houses;
- large advertising companies;
- film and video production companies.
Writers for theatre often work on attachment to a particular theatre or company, or may even form their own theatre company.
For submission guidelines for many agents, publishers and magazines, see the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.
Many writers supplement their income with writing-related employment and there are teaching opportunities in:
- community and adult learning centres;
- therapeutic centres;
- training courses;
- universities and schools.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Arts Council England
- Arts Council of Northern Ireland
- Arts Council of Wales
- British Council - Arts Group
- Creative Scotland
- National Association of Writers in Education
- Screen Daily Jobs
- The Stage
- The Writers' Guild of Great Britain
A basic web search will also uncover a plethora of forums and other sites aimed at, or run by, writers where opportunities are are listed and advice, support and critical feedback are available.
There is little in the way of formal training for writers. However, most writers stress the importance of staying in contact with peers for feedback as well as support, which can also be found through:
- critical appraisal services;
- writers' circles;
- writers' courses and workshops.
Because of the solitary nature of the work, membership of organisations can be useful for peer review and maintaining contact with the literary world, see:
- Society of Authors;
- The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.
However, organisations such as the Society of Authors only accept members who have been published or offered a contract.
It is also extremely important to keep abreast of what is happening in the sector you want to contribute to. For example, if you want to write for radio, it is useful to listen to radio programmes to get a feel for what is successful, and to sign up for the BBC writersroom newsletter.
If you want to write poetry, it will help if you are a keen reader of poetry and subscribe to poetry magazines.
Attending conventions and conferences such as the Winchester Writers' Festival or Crimefest, the international crime writers' convention in Bristol, can help you develop your knowledge of the industry, as well as providing a good opportunity to meet people and develop your networks.
For more specific training, you could consider the following:
- Organisations such as the Arvon Foundation and Ty Newydd provide regular courses where practising and published writers run workshops.
- Look out for courses in creative writing or novel writing at your local adult education centre.
- Some towns and cities have a resident writer who runs courses and gives advice, ask at your local library for details.
- There are many literary consultancy agencies such as Cornerstones and the Hilary Johnson Authors' Advisory Service which, for a fee, offer detailed feedback and advice to writers seeking publication.
According to the ALCS the first ten years of an author's life are the hardest, with low levels of income and a lot of hard work. However, after the first ten years, average incomes steadily rise.
As you gain a back-catalogue of publications income from new work, often in the form of advances, may be complemented by income from previous work, in the form of royalties on published works, public lending rights payments, payments for anthologising work etc.
As your profile increases there may also be more potential for earning income from teaching, lecturing and appearances at events.
In addition some organisations offer salaried posts for writers in residence, and these are often restricted to published writers with a strong track record.
The career of a writer can be unpredictable, and you must be resilient, producing a steady output of work. It is also important that you keep a close eye on the market, staying up to date with what kind of writing is selling and considering how to meet market demand.
Alongside producing work, it is critical that you also work on marketing yourself and your work. If you have an agent or a publisher they are likely to help with publicity, but it is important that you also look for opportunities for publicity yourself, including:
- beginning a blog;
- creating a presence via social media
- setting up your own website;
- workshops and signings.
Discipline and determination to succeed are prerequisites for career development, but all writers stress that the rewards of seeing their work in print or production make it all worthwhile.