Almost everybody seems to think that in order to write you need to have gone to college; that you need a degree in literature, journalism or English at least. It’s impressive really. The universities have gone to great lengths to make you think this is so and they’ve succeeded. They’ve convinced you, they’ve convinced most people, and most importantly, they’ve convinced businesses that this is true.
It is in the last regard where the biggest obstacle lies. If you want to become a writer through traditional channels, you’ve got to find a company, like a newspaper, a copywriting agency, or an online news company that will hire you. That can be very hard without a decent degree.
Fortunately, traditional channels don’t matter much anymore. There is a whole host of non-traditional paths for people to take that will lead them to very successful writing careers without ever needing the related degree or a necessity to pay off those massive loans that students rack up, simply is to establish yourself properly.
The skills you need
Of course, you’re not going to get anywhere if you can’t actually write, but what do you actually need to be able to do? Writing consists of a number of basic skills.
- Grammar, sentence structure, flow, and spelling. You need to know how to follow the rules of grammar, how to spell correctly and make your writing engaging. Yes, writers break almost all of these rules occasionally, but when they do they do so consciously, not because they have no idea what they’re doing. Editors can tell the difference.
- Research. Writing is rarely just putting words on a page. You need to be able to make certain that you’ve got the right ideas. And for that, you need to be able to research. This goes to such basics as knowing what keywords to type into Google, all the way to knowing how to read the occasional academic paper.
- Giving people what they want. If you can’t keep the interest of your audience, you can’t be a writer. It really is as simple as that. Readers don’t care if you have issues, lack of ideas or writer’s block you have to overcome. To be interesting you need to understand what motivates people and then have the creativity to make use of that.
The thing is, all these things can be learned. It’s just a matter of practicing. What I suggest you do is to never stop reading, writing and critically editing your own work and others. Of course, it will go a lot faster if you can work with feedback, so work on getting an editor or, barring that, an audience.
And the truth today is that an audience can actually be far easier to get than an editor (with that I don’t mean a big audience, I just mean any audience). And once you’ve got one, you can quite quickly see what they like and what they don’t. Just check out what they’re commenting on, what they’re liking and what they’re sharing. Then you can use that to inform your writing.
How to build an audience
The first step to building an audience is to work on personal branding. You don’t actually need to write all that well if you’ve got the right personality. There are plenty atrocious writers out there who still do very well for themselves because people like who they are (or who they pretend to be).
What you’ve got to do is find a direction and a tone that suits you and that people seem to like. Then just stick with it and try to master it. Of course, it helps if you have the right personality traits, or can pretend you do. The best thing to do is create a brand centered around optimistic qualities, as people want to read articles that they find awe-inspiring, enjoyable or that make them laugh (check the point 4 in the list though the whole article is interesting).
And when you’re hitting upon the right formula, don’t give up. It will be a hard slog. Nobody said writing would be easy. You’ve got to keep hammering away because an audience does not form overnight. You’ve got to build a web presence reader by reader, for even those people that got famous overnight oven worked for years before they got there.
That doesn’t mean you can’t tinker. That was the original reason I said you should build an audience. They will let you know when something you’re doing is working and when it isn’t. They, in other words, give you feedback, as well as being your social proof. Through them, you can figure out what interests, entertains and excites. After all, they’re not paying you, so you need to extract your fee in some other way. In this case, writing lessons.
The Freelance Career
Once you’ve got a following, even if it’s a few hundred people, you can try to convert that into freelance work. There are heaps of sites online now where you can start getting some experience. Check out UpWork and Freelancer. Go there and send links to some of your most popular posts to different clients even as you work on how to present yourself. Eventually, one will bite.
Now don’t assume that you’re going to be raking in the big bucks here. Especially initially, when you don’t have to back up your writing claims, you might have to accept some low-paying work. But at least you’re getting paid, so that’s an improvement. What’s more, now you’re starting to get ‘professional’ feedback.
There are two things to remember about the feedback:
1) If you get all defensive you’ll never learn anything. It’s important, instead, that you take the criticism in stride. Instead of trying to explain why you did something (and that instinct will be there) you simply accept what they’ve said.
2) Just because they’ve got criticism, doesn’t mean they’re right. Especially the people that pay less quite often don’t actually know what they’re talking about. They’re often just starting out themselves.
So how do you square that circle? How do you accept the criticism even when they often don’t know what they’re talking about? It’s actually quite straightforward: You look for repetition. If one person has a criticism you make a note of it. Only when different people say the same thing, however, do you really start looking into it.
And you’re on your way
That’s it, really. Once you’ve got a few jobs under your belt and a few clients who like to work with you, it really doesn’t matter that you don’t have a college degree. You’ll build up a reputation (something these sites track through software) and a portfolio. From there Bob’s your uncle. You’ll get more work, you can charge more per job and slowly but certainly you’ll be able to support yourself. “What do you mean support yourself?” Some of you may now be muttering.
What I mean is that if you start out writing doesn’t expect to be able to support yourself off the proceeds. It can take several years before you get that far. So if you’ve got another line of work, don’t give it up. That said, the advantages of writing well and engagingly are countless, as almost every career or job requires at least some wordsmithing. And, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, to get started you don’t need a college degree. So there’s that.