What is the work like?
Writers produce works of fiction and non-fiction. They may work on:
- short stories
- scripts for radio, TV, film or theatre
- non-fiction books
- newspaper and magazine articles, from news and features to opinion pieces and criticism website content
A writer may specialise in one field or work across several formats. Depending on the area in which they work, a writer's job may involve:
- developing subject ideas, drawing on personal interest and topical issues
- researching material by using the internet, personal interviews and other methods writing and rewriting material, often many times, to achieve the desired effects
- submitting commissioned material in the style required and to deadline
- receiving feedback and criticism, and revising work as a result
- researching the potential market for their writing, and pursuing publishing opportunities.
Writers spend much of their time working alone. They may need to seek an agent to promote and sell their work. Once their work is accepted for publication they may liaise with commissioning editors, script editors and publishers.
While they may use pen and paper for their initial drafts, writers are expected to submit finished work using a computer. Some use specialised software - for example, to set screenplays in the format required by TV producers.
Most published writers earn less than £5,000 a year from their writing.
Hours and environment
Most writers are self-employed and work from home. They are generally free to set their own writing hours, although they may need to fit this in around other part-time employment.
Writers who take on commissioned work may need to work long hours to complete pieces to deadline.
Salary and other benefits
These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.
Income depends on a writer's success in selling work. Those who have established a reputation and track record typically command higher fees. Prose fiction and non-fiction writers negotiate their own fees, often through an agent. The Writers' Guild of Great Britain negotiates standard rates that writers can expect from large media organisations, such as the BBC.
Most writers earn less than £5,000 a year from their writing.
After establishing a track record, a writer may earn between approximately £5,000 and £35,000 a year.
Annual earnings for top writers can rise to £120,000 or more.
Skills and personal qualities
A writer must have:
- creativity and an 'original voice'
- an excellent command of written English, and literary skills and devices
- motivation and self-discipline to work without supervision
- the ability to work to tight deadlines
- a knowledge of the literary marketplace, and of the audience they aim to reach
- IT and typing skills
- the ability to accept criticism and use it in a constructive way
- the financial skills to manage their affairs, if self-employed
- determination and perseverance.
It is important to be:
- passionate about writing and widely read
- interested in new and past work in their chosen field.
- Getting in
Writers work in all areas of the UK. While most publishers and producers are based in cities, particularly London, the role generally allows writers to work from home.
Most writers are motivated by the drive to write and the satisfaction they gain from engaging in a creative activity. To be commercially successful, they must combine this creativity with determination and an awareness of other written work in their chosen field.
For a few prominent writers the financial rewards can be great. However, few writers achieve mass-market publication. Of those who do, many need to support their writing through other work - either through a related job, such as advertising or teaching creative writing, or by taking an unrelated part-time job.
Work is seldom advertised. Most writers make speculative approaches, sending samples of their work to publishers. Book publishers, in particular, tend to accept submissions only via a literary agent, and even agents take on only a tiny proportion of the writers who approach them.
Competition is extremely fierce. As so much unsolicited work is submitted, it is vital to ensure that work is as professional as possible, and targeted carefully. Publications such as the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook list publishers, producers, agents and publications.
Some organisations and publications make periodic calls for submissions, and the BBC writersroom project encourages radio and TV scripts from new writers. Again, there is intense competition.
Increasingly, new writers are publishing sections of their own work on the internet. Work with commercial potential can sometimes be spotted by publishers in this way.
Entry for young people
There is no set entry route. While a high standard of English is essential, academic qualifications are generally less important than flair, originality and experience. To develop as a writer it is often considered necessary to read and write a great deal.
Many writers have a degree. This may be in a relevant subject, such as English literature, creative writing, journalism or performing arts, or in an unrelated topic.
Obtaining early experience can help develop skills. It may be possible to contribute to student newspapers or radio, or join a local writers' group or drama club. Online writers' communities also offer a chance to share work.
Entry for adults
Writing is often a second career. Many people take up the profession after working in areas such as journalism or teaching.
Writing courses are available to help aspiring writers to develop specific skills and get a more objective view of their own writing. These range from short, specialised training courses in fields such as screenwriting or children's fiction, to full-time degrees in creative writing, scriptwriting and journalism.
A growing number of universities and colleges also offer Masters degrees in creative writing. Some established authors have benefited from such courses. However, most creative writing graduates do not go on to become published writers.
Some short courses are residential. There are also distance-learning courses. It is important to find out as much as possible about the course content and the tutors' backgrounds, to ensure it will be relevant and valuable.
To progress, writers need to keep marketing themselves and promoting their work. Initial success in having work published or produced can be a stepping stone to getting further work commissioned.
Authors may apply for grants that allow them further time to write. Publishers may put authors forward for literary prizes, which can lead to a higher profile as well as financial rewards.
Published writers are often expected to promote their work by giving talks and media interviews, and appearing at literary festivals.
BBC writersroom, Grafton House, 379-381 Euston Road, London NW1 3AU.
National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), PO Box 1, Sheriff Hutton, York YO60 7YU. 01653 618429.
The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX. 020 7420 9880.
The Society of Authors, 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB. 020 7373 6642.
Writernet, Cabin V, Clarendon Buildings, 25 Horsell Road, London N5 1XL. 020 7609 7474.
Writers' Guild of Great Britain, 15 Britannia Street, London WC1X 9JN. 020 7833 0777.
Working in English - VT Lifeskills
Working in performing arts - VT Lifeskills
The Writer's Handbook - Macmillan
Writers' and Artists' Yearbook - A&C Black
The Author - The Society of Authors