Can I get a job as a writer without a degree?
December 7, 2006 12:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm 23 and working as a sales assistant/helpdesk support/office admin/web designer/receptionist in my hometown. How do I go about getting a paying job as a writer, without formal qualifications?

I've been working in this role for over 3 years and getting frustrated. My daily tasks are mundane and repetitive and, as our staff consists of five people (including my boss and myself), there's not a whole lot of room for growth. The low paying conditions of my town are terrible; a similar job in Melbourne (forty minutes by train) pays double my current salary. I’m planning on finding another position very soon, hopefully as a writer, or at least as something that will take me a step in the right direction to becoming one.

I have always planned to become a full-time writer. I worked hard to get excellent scores at high school (even taking on an extra subject) and got an awesome place at university in a professional writing course. Unfortunately due to financial difficulties I had to leave after first semester and have been in full-time employment ever since... As much as I'd love to, my partner and I have done our sums and there's no way finance-wise I can go back to university full or even part time.

Is there a way to get a position as a writer somewhere without a bachelor degree? Everywhere I look it says: 3 year bachelor degree essential. Could I apply for a position and hope my folio knocks a prospective employer off their feet and they don’t even notice/care I’m not “qualified”? Or will that just annoy them, and waste their time?

I've seen a lot of references to getting internships here on MF, but as far as I can tell, in Australia you have to be enrolled in some form of university course to be eligible. Cadetships at newspapers etc. are also aimed at school-leavers or graduates and have had their intake for next year anyway.

For those working as writers: What path did you take? Did you start in a company in a different position and work your way in? Or have you done the degree in order to secure a graduate position?

Any suggestions on how I may be able to get myself on the right track would be absolutely wonderful. Thanks in advance to all of you, MetaFilter is an amazing and supportive community.
posted by saileyn to Work & Money (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
First: Start writing. I can't emphasize enough the value of practicing the skill, along with the practical benefits of having a portfolio to show people once you start down the track.

Today, it's actually possible to start writing online (like on your own blog) and get some notice or even good feedback from an audience, especially if you pick a niche or a topic that you know well and stick to it. That kind of feedback is invaluable in helping you improve.

Second: Don't worry as much about the qualifications. Sure, they're important, and it may take more work to get the job you want if you don't have the specific credentials they're looking for. But if you're a good writer, can demonstrate the consistent ability to create compelling work, and already have an audience of your own, you'll be able to get around it.

Finally, the good news is other writers love to write, too. That means you can usually email the writers you admire and contact them about advice on how to get started, or to start introducing the work you're creating. Don't pester, don't intrude until you have something to offer them, but also don't be surprised at how willing other writers will be to help you. They know what it's like to have this dream, too.

So go start a blog, practice your chops in writing about a topic that will get some outside attention, and then start sending the link out to everyone whom you think can give you good feedback.
posted by anildash at 2:02 AM on December 7, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks Anil! I wholeheartedly agree with your first tip - the only way to be a true writer is to write. I already have two books and a screenplay under my belt (mind you they're my "practice ones" and are no-where near publishable quality) and make sure I write a few pages as often as I can.

I've dipped my toes in blogging but haven't taken the plunge because of lack of time juggling my fiction, work and other commitments, but it definitely might be something I should look into again.

Fiction will probably not ever be much of a viable day-job so I'd love to learn about what jobs other writers have that involve writing on a daily basis (journalism, web content writing, copywriting & no doubt other things I haven't thought of yet...) and if it'd be possible to get a similar position without any formal training.

I was at a fiction workshop earlier on in the year and everyone there I spoke to either had a background (and matching degrees) in either journalism, copywriting or teaching. They loved their jobs, and loved to write and all suggested I finish off my university degree to get that elusive writing-focused day-job. Hence why I thought I might post here and see if that is the case or if there are other pathways around...
posted by saileyn at 2:31 AM on December 7, 2006


What about distance education? I'm assuming you can't go to uni part-time because that would cut into work time, but what if you enrolled in a course with a university that deals with distance students eg Edith Cowan (WA), CQU & QUT (Qld)?

Secondly (sorry about this) what about developing your skills writing for women's mags? You could start with the letters sections (iirc, WW pays $50 a letter), and work up to articles. Also, try writer's groups, poetry competitions/clubs, articles for local newspaper. There are HEAPS of books in public libraries about how to a. write b. get work as a freelancer.

Thirdly, while you might be able to eventually somewhere/somewhen get a job doing what you want/love, my experience is you won't be paid what you're worth until you have a qualification. So make it a priority, if you can.

Oh and consider looking for work at the university you'd apply to. Administration pays quite well (in comparison to the private sector, I was on $40K when I quit in July) and they often support study plans by giving you study leave, unpaid time off, that sort of thing.

Good luck, and seriously, try to rethink how you might make it possible now, rather than later. I put it off and am tackling a degree in my dream field at 39 - it never leaves you, the desire. You just have to decide how you're going to make it happen.
posted by b33j at 3:03 AM on December 7, 2006

"Writer" is not a job, in and of itself.

What kind of writing job are you looking for? Journalism? Fiction? Technical writing? Copy writing for ads? In-house writing for a corporation? How much is creative freedom important to you, and how much will you just be happy to take home a paycheck in exchange for being allowed to write?

You need to figure out where you're trying to go before you can map the route.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:38 AM on December 7, 2006

This is how I did it:

1) Write daily
2) Get some confidence (maybe a blog?)
3) Find some freebie online magazines/zines to write for
4) Do that for a bit; maybe gain some status on the zine and start writing a column?
5) Citing all this experience, try to score some freelance work (you might need to send stuff in on spec, but if you're dedicated this shouldn't be hard)
6) Do some freelance work for a bit
7) Citing all the above, apply for any and all writer positions. Write for Trailer Weekly. Write for pregnancy magazines. Write for a republican paper! Anything, just have a writing job for a while - maybe a year
8) Continue doing online writing, but maybe specialise in what you're interested in
9) Citing all the above, apply for a job as a writer in the field that you're interested in.
posted by unmusic at 9:11 AM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I make my living writing. My only internship was with on the publishing end of things and actually had very little to do with what I ended up doing (other than helping me understand all the good reasons why I didn't want to work in publishing--low pay, high attrition rate, stepmother complex, all that). I do have a degree in Literature, but again, that hasn't really played into getting the kinds of jobs I've gotten over time.

I took a job with a small advertising agency, while still at a university, doing basic admin work (answering phones, filing, not unlike what you describe). At the time the creative department was over-worked and short staffed. This was the late 90's. The shop itself was ill-prepared for the amount of web-based work they suddenly found themselves having to do, and our clients (at the time fairly heavily geared to medical, non-profit, and travel) were a pretty content-heavy bunch. The Creative Director was the only full-time copywriter on staff. I started off just editing overflow, and ended up writing a fair amount of it (one might make the argument that this had as much to do with cutting costs--it's cheaper to keep someone on at an admin salary than to pay a more experience copywriter). After about six months of this, I was given a raise, promoted into a full-time copywriting position, and replaced at the admin desk. I stayed there for about three years. For the past four years I've been, more or less, a full-time freelancer. I make decent, if not always regular, money. I was able to maintain a relationship with the agency where I worked and through them I've gotten a fair amount of contract work and contacts. I do mostly advertising (web, print, television, etc), annual reports and case statements, some public relations. I started ghostwriting a couple years ago, though a contact made while still at the agency, and that's been both surreal and reasonably lucrative. On the side, I also occasionally write magazine stories, reviews, etc, but it probably won't surprise you to know that, in my experience, your standard 750 word feature story with a byline pays out considerably less than your average 100 word print ad. At this point, I've done pretty much every kind of writing for money (including some technical and few grants) except for porn. And you never know.

I do pretty well. I'm not rich (not even close), but I can work from home, live at a level I'm comfortable with (it helps too that my geography keeps my cost of living down), and have plenty of time to work on creative projects. Writing for a living is not necessarily easy. I write pretty much all day, every day, whether I'm writing for money or for myself. It requires a lot of focus-shifting and can get somewhat lonely. Over the years, I've taken occasionally part-time jobs (currently I work about ten hours a week at a mom and pop record store) to get me away from my computer and out into the wider world. Also, it's nice to have the extra cash when you're waiting for a client to send you a check.

I'm aware that my experience had something to do with being in the right place at the right time, but almost more importantly, I've found that if you can do one job for one client, then that usually leads to more work--through referrals, through conversation, through reputation. It helps, too, if you're not too picky about the project, at least at the outset. Of course, I've been fortunate to work with clients about whom I've had few ethical reservations so . . .

Don't know if this helps, but there you go.
posted by thivaia at 9:17 AM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

1. sell something.
2. repeat.

really. write an article where your interests and your abilities and the market demand intersect.
I lived in a country's capitol when there was a coup. I saw every thing. The US Embassy told all US citizens to leave. I stayed. I asked an online journal if they'd like an article about what it's like to be the last (almost) American left. They said they'd look at it on spec. I wrote a piece that night and sent it in. They bought it the next day and ended up buying two more. I think I could have branched-off to other publications, if I had wanted.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 10:09 AM on December 7, 2006

I don't know your market, but in mine, an undergraduate degree is pretty much required for staff writing jobs. (I live in Portland OR, and my background is in software technical writing and agency copywriting and strategy writing.) There are exceptions (for example, I'd look for writing opportunities with your current employer), but for most staff jobs an undergrad degree is table stakes.

So if you want a job-job, you need to strategize ways to get your degree: scholarships, grants, loans, distance learning, night schools, etc. There are educational opportunities available to returning students that you can do while working, and that give you academic credit for your work and life experience.

As a freelancer, on the other hand, it's all about your portfolio. If you have excellent, relevant samples and especially if you come recommended by someone they know, I doubt most freelance clients even look at your academic background.

Which brings us back to croutonsupafreak's point: what kind of writing do you want to do? What do you want to write about; who do you want to write for; and in what context do you want to write?

The fact that you talk about "getting a paying job as a writer" without distinguishing what kind suggests that a good first step is learning about different kinds of writing jobs. See previous AskMe posts; I know this question has been discussed before.

Good luck!
posted by ottereroticist at 11:35 AM on December 7, 2006

Visit and subscribe to the writers forums. There are a group of very helpful people there. The site is hosted on Web Crossing, which is dire, and there is a monthly charge, but the site members are exceptionally helpful.

There is an explosion in writing opportunity right now. There are special-interest blogs that do pretty well; I just heard a story about a guy who has made some money writing reviews on Amazon; people write sections of the Wikipedia. Dooce is a high-profile blog about life at home with a child. Obsess less and write more. Write about anything and everything that interests you.
posted by theora55 at 3:29 PM on December 8, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your advice, I'm sorry for the delay in posting - my PC got fried in a surge but I'm all fixed now with a shiny new UPS.

Based my research and what you've all mentioned above, I really think freelancing is the way to go. I mainly write fiction and short stories but could tap out an article or two. A new local paper has also just started up in my town, so I've contacted them to see if they'll accept freelance submissions.

I would love to have a degree, so that I can gain more knowledge and writing experience (and maybe get a staff writer job one day), so I'm going to take a look at distance education and the universities b33j has suggested.

As I'm also in the market for a new job in general, I've applied for a few editorial assistant/admin jobs at publishing houses. If all goes well, any editing skills I pick up will help me edit my own writing and I'll gain a little more insight into the publishing world itself.

Again thanks so much for sharing your experiences and your words of wisdom!
posted by saileyn at 11:26 PM on December 17, 2006

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