Skip to content

Careers Centre

Writing

Sector Overview

This page has been written by Liz Batterham, the relevant Careers Adviser for this occupational area. To see how you can meet Liz, or any of our advisers, visit our website.

If you're an excellent communicator with a passion for literature or language, you may want to consider a career in writing. Writers work in a variety of fields, as novelists, poets and short fiction authors, but also as copywriters, screenwriters, translators, and editors. Some are ‘career' or 'staff' writers, working in permanent, full-time positions within the public relations sector, communications media, or as journalists. A career in writing can offer a flexible working life, opportunities for further education or travel, and the opportunity to earn an income and a professional reputation while also fulfilling a creative instinct. While all these positive outcomes of a career in writing are achievable, they are often difficult to come by, and any new or aspiring writer will need passion and persistence in order to succeed. Since success in a career as a writer is by no means certain, you will almost certainly need to pursue other sources of income until your writing career takes off. When doing this, consider what sort of profession will give you the time needed to work on your writing, what will provide you with the necessary skills or networks that can help you perfect your craft and market it upon completion, what will provide you with satisfaction and relate to your interests, skills and ambitions, and what will support your backup career plan.

Bear in mind that, to make writing your occupation, your ideas will need to appeal to an audience and sell well. This being said, being successful also demands resilience, positivity and confidence in your writing as those in creative sectors have to face the disparagement of some critics, publishers and employers.

You should also check out the following books in the Careers Centre:

The following Careers A-Z pages may also be applicable to you: Academia, Advertising, Film, Journalism, Libraries & Information Management, Marketing and Sales, Public Relations, Publishing, TV & Radio, Teaching.

 

Writing attributes/skills profile

 

Key attributes/skills needed for the role Where you could develop these skills or attributes
Excellent communication and interpersonal skills This is most likely to be developed and evidenced through your academic studies and work experience.
Analytical skills
Ability to work under pressure and to tight deadlines
Attention to detail in your work (eg seen in your showreel/portfolio/website)

CAPOD regularly runs courses covering these skills within its Professional Skills Curriculum.

Using the University’s subscription to the Microsoft IT Academy can help to develop your skills with programmes such as Excel

Taking on positions of responsibility in student-run societies  such as Inklight and Book Club or start a blog for your writing, sharing ideas and snippets to keep you practicing.

Submitting pieces for publication in magazines, journals, including student press. Submitting pieces of original writing for student theatre or film productions. Start literary/writing groups or journals.
Lots of initiative, drive and flexibility (sometimes low job security, but high autonomy)
Entrepreneurial skills to support self-employment, freelancing, casual and contract work
Negotiation and persuasive skills
Drive and enthusiasm for retailing
Well developed commercial awareness
Time management skills to pursue your creative output around other sources of income (this is known as a portfolio career)

Other key attributes/skills demanded for the role: do you possess them?

  • Confidence to pursue self-promotion, pro-actively telling people about what you do.
  • Building your reputation and legitimacy in order to convince a literary agent to consider your work is highly advised.
  • Many opportunities aren’t internships but competitions, events, awards and other ways to gather experience (e.g. the ‘creative briefs’ you might see on Hiive).

 

Nature of sector or roles

There are many ways to make writing your career. There is an increasing need for good business writers within corporations. These writers help develop a specific “voice” for a company. Many companies also need someone to refine their written materials, including their resource materials as well as emails, or anything else that could go out to a customer or potential client.

Creative writing can take many different forms as well. Although novels, poems, and plays might be the first things you think of, there are many different ways to make a living as a creative writer, such as in advertising, songwriting, even greeting card writing. Many writers have to start their careers doing all sorts of writing, or in a medium that’s not their ideal form of writing, before actually becoming established independently. Writers of fiction and non-fiction alike can supplement their income with freelance work or commissioned projects, writing press releases, advertising copy, exam materials, speeches, songs, poems, blogs and comedy sketches. Established writers may also find work doing freelance proof-reading, copy-editing, or ghost-writing.

Self-discipline is a fundamental skill necessary to become a successful writer. Not only is it required for motivation and to see a work through from creation to completion, it is also required as part of the marketing and publishing processes which continue long after the work itself is finished.

Here are some resources to learn about different ways of making writing your career:

Freelancing

Before acquiring a full time position, many writers have to start as freelancers. This can be such an appealing way of working to some that they never leave it. Freelancers contract with companies, organisations, and individuals for specific pieces of work or a series of assignments, and are paid on a piece rate. This gives a writer a lot of freedom to manage their own time, pick who they write for, and choose their own projects. You might have to start off writing pieces that are less than life-changing, but the more you build your reputation as a writer the better the opportunities that will come your way.

Fiction

Writing a novel may be your dream, but getting one published can be much more daunting. Most publishers only work with authors who have an agent, so the first step is to search out an agent and to persuade one to represent you. Some major commercial publishers, such as category romance, prefer that the writer liaise directly with them, so you’ll need to do some research. New writers of fiction often face challenges finding publishers for their work, but an awareness of current market trends and sheer persistence can help them find literary agents and publishers for novels, poetry, short and flash fiction, graphic novels, children’s books, pieces of literary translation, comedy, fictionalised memoir or life-writing, and drama. With the rise of online books, you should also consider self-publishing your work. With self-publishing you’ll keep a larger proportion from any sales, but you also won’t have the advertising and editing expertise of a publishing house. Besides being represented by a literary agent and self-publishing online, another publishing route is through direct contact with commissioning editors. However, as you begin looking for publishing, bear in mind that very few publishers accept unsolicited scripts.

Non-Fiction

Writers of non-fiction may find publishers for academic, biographical, educational or instructional, historical, technical, or medical/scientific writing who will access a market for their journal chapters, pamphlets, or books. There are a lot of different mediums for non-fiction writing. It’s a good idea to get involved first at the university level.

The payment and royalties a writer can expect from a publisher depends upon the contract negotiated by the writer and/or their agent, but here is some information on rates that writers can expect from The Writers’ Union.

Udemy Blog: ‘Writing Careers That You Have Probably Never Even Thought Of’ - to find out more about the individual jobs listed here use Prospects.

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can really help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for an organisation you are applying to you will have extra information to back up your case for why they should employ you.

Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to keep up-to-date with employers and the sector.

St Andrews alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. They might also be able to give you advice on how to market yourself and your work, and how to succeed as a freelancer. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

Have a look at the Network with Alumni section of our website for more advice and information.

How to gain experience/internships

The best way to gain experience working as a writer is simply to write. Reading widely and in a variety of genres with an eye for composition, and writing in a variety of styles and for varying purposes and audiences is a great way to build up your portfolio and practice your craft. Because securing a job in writing is often as much to do with how well you market yourself as a professional as it is with how well you write, it’s a good idea to present yourself as a professional writer as early as possible and to think about ways to add to your CV and find an audience for your work. Established writers will typically keep regularly updated and well-maintained websites with samples of their work, their contact information, and a calendar of their speaking engagements. If you're thinking of going freelance, speak to a working freelance writer about where they advertise, how they source new clients, how they invoice, and what they charge.


It is a good idea to start building a portfolio of demonstrable work and creativity whilst at university. This is important because publishers and organisations looking for an employee to write for them will ask for samples of your work to gauge your competence and experience. You can do this by getting involved in groups and societies and by writing advertisements, leaflets, newsletters, scripts or helping at events and showcases. You could also join/contribute to The Stand (the University’s online newspaper) or The Saint (the University’s weekly printed paper). Another option is to get involved with events outside the university, even if only in a voluntary capacity. Indeed, working voluntarily for an arts project can show your commitment to and passion for the craft. You might want to consider helping with shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, for instance. It can often be a good idea to secure press coverage of your events or to record them, and to create an online presence for your work. You can also build your profile by writing a blog, by submitting pieces for publication in magazines and journals, or theatre or film productions (student or otherwise), and by starting a new university magazine/journal or writing group.

It might be worth your time to join a local writers’ group for support, feedback and advice on your work and ‘making it’ as a writer. A way to raise your profile as a writer is to enter (and hopefully win!) writing competitions. Organisations like the Writers’ and Artists’ website and the Poetry Society run writing and poetry competitions, but they are by no means the only organisations to do so. You might be able to enquire at local bookshops about different events and competitions that you can exploit to raise your profile in the industry.

Another method by which you can gain experience and get your work into the public domain is to begin a blog. Blogging is becoming more popular amongst publishers and authors, so check out their websites for inspiration and for an example of what you might do. Blogging is also a brilliant modern way to market yourself and to make people aware of both your talents and your products. You can link to your blog from your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles.

A number of websites give helpful advice on how to make money from your blogs and are well worth checking out if you are considering creating and maintaining one of your own (this can be a time-consuming activity if you update regularly). A couple of these websites can be found below:

How to get a (graduate) job

Finding work as a writer is often achieved by proving a track record of success and building a portfolio of good quality work. Writers of fiction will often start by sending pieces to magazines and journals, adding to the list of places their work has been published and prizes it’s been listed for. Residencies, grants, awards, and other successful applications for funding will further strengthen your reputation as a writer, securing you teaching jobs, further funding, and publishing opportunities.

While many publishers are reluctant to take a chance producing and marketing the debut novel of a relatively unknown writer, experience of publishing and proven sales figures may help convince them. Literary agents are also more likely to represent a writer whose work has been published because it’s a confirmation of quality and an indication that the author is a professional, with an understanding of how the industry operates and an awareness of what it takes to get published. The time between sending your work to agents and publishers and seeing it in print is often considerable: it may take weeks or even months to get a reply and for most writers it involves overcoming a period of initial rejection. A well-written query letter, a polished sample of work, and, if you’re freelance, a couple of strong references are the best way to move your work off the slush pile or secure yourself steady employment.

Once you have the necessary track record, one job should lead on from the next, if you’re freelance; a permanent salaried job will take longer to find. Resources such as Guardian Jobs, the Bookseller, Poets & Writers, and the National Association of Writers in Education are all good sources for jobs. Sending out your CV speculatively to employers of all sorts may lead to freelance opportunities, which may, in turn, lead to a more permanent position. For example, doing some brand language consulting for a company during a re-brand or at the start of a new marketing and advertising campaign may lead to more work with them or other companies in similar positions. If you are a writer of non-fiction, there are websites and job finding resources for your specific area: medical writer, fashion writer, journalist, etc.

Related Careers

Some writers choose to work full-time as proof-readers, editors, literary agents, journalists, or consultants. Others may supplement their writing income with teaching and lecturing, giving workshops and short courses, or jobs in publishing, arts management and administration, radio/TV/film production, the performing arts or other related fields.

Increasingly, writers are needed for work within companies as ‘brand language consultants’, ensuring that there is consistency and a uniformity of style across advertising campaigns and public-facing media. There is also greater integration now between writing and technology, the sciences and the arts. Programmes such as New York University's ITP programme in the Tisch School of the Arts is an excellent example of postgraduate study combining the creative arts and new communications technologies.

Applications, interviews and assessment centres

Most organisations will ask for a portfolio or sample of your work when you apply for a writing position. Try to make sure that the work you provide is relevant to the job you're applying to. It can also be a good idea to avoid submitting work that is too long.

Relevant postgraduate study

The increasing popularity of postgraduate creative writing programmes demonstrates the importance of proving to the people you hope will publish you that you’re a committed and serious professional, willing to work hard at learning your craft and improving your writing. Writers often have an academic background in English literature, Media/Communications, or another arts or humanities subject. Some go on to postgraduate study in Creative Writing (Fiction, Poetry, Children's Writing), English Literature, Journalism, Publishing, Public Relations, Translation, Marketing, Advertising, or Web Writing. Creative Writing programmes can sometimes offer teaching experience and are useful in creating opportunities for networking and getting feedback on your work.

A recent trend has seen more and more MA Creative Writing Courses established in different institutions. Many writers have found their first success as a direct result of taking their postgraduate courses, often as a result of their talent being noticed by the publishing industry in their end of year showcase (this can be anything from a printed document, event, or website). Though taking a postgraduate course is not fundamental to starting a successful career in writing, many of those who have studied such a degree claim that they learned many essential skills as part of the showcase and through continuous peer review processes as part of their course. However, courses vary by theme and by institution, so be sure to thoroughly research any degree you consider applying to in order to ascertain whether it is the ‘right’ one for you.

Many universities now offer postgraduate programmes in Creative Writing, some of the most popular in the UK can be found at the University of East Anglia, Oxford, St Andrews, Goldsmiths, and Bath. The Top 50 MFA programmes in the US, as ranked by Poets & Writers (2011) can be found here: MFA.

Another option instead of a full-time degree is to take a short course. The Arvon Foundation is one of many organisations that offers such courses and also has many grants and funding opportunities listed on their website.

Key UK links and resources

Careers Centre resources

Online

Use CareerConnect, your central careers hub, to:

GoinGlobal

 

General careers in writing information/jobs

Arts Councils and Professional Bodies

Short Courses and Postgraduate Study

 

USA resources

The USA job market and recruitment timetables, for both internships and graduate jobs, for sectors of employment often differ from the UK.

The Careers Centre subscribes to the reputable independent USA careers information and vacancy provider Vault. The link below will take you directly to Vault subscription resources which cover this sector. You may find further useful and relevant resources linked from there as well.