Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Freelance Writer Without a College Degree
Whether you've always been a good writer or are just looking for a way to make some extra cash, freelance writing is an attractive option. For many people, including myself, it is a career.
But do you need a college degree to be a freelance writer? The answer is a simple no.
Anyone can be a freelance writer if they have the skills and knowledge to create great content.
At the end of the day, the person hiring you doesn't care if your name is on a piece of fancy cardstock.
They care about getting results.
If your writing delivers those results, they don't need to know anything else.
The hard truth about freelancing is that no one really cares who you are. They only care about what you can do. Although that might sting for a second, it’s also a huge advantage.
For those without a college degree, writing professionally is an attainable goal.
In this article, I’m going to show you how.
We’ll look at what freelance writing clients actually care about, how much money you can make from freelance writing, and the pros and cons of having a degree.
I'll also share my tried and true 10-step approach to becoming a freelance writer without a degree.
Let’s dive in!
College Doesn’t Prepare You for Freelancing
Whether you major in writing, communications, or geology, college doesn’t prepare you for the real world.
You spend heaps of money and time and ultimately leave with a diploma and maybe an internship. That doesn’t make you a good writer.
So, you might be wondering, what does?
Time and practice are essential if you want to become a good freelance writer.
While you can learn the basics of writing in college, it won’t prepare you for the real world. Much of the writing you do in school is focused on long-form research papers and presentations.
Real-world clients want short, snappy prose that captures the reader’s attention.
You also won’t learn the ins and outs of freelancing while sitting in a classroom. Figuring out how to balance a roster of clients, hit deadlines, and write in a variety of different voices can only be done through practice.
Freelance Clients Don’t Care About Your Credentials
When you first meet with a prospective client, there is one thing they will always (yes, always) ask for. Can you guess it?
Clients want to know that you’ve got the writing chops to turn their ideas into valuable content that delivers results.
If you can turn in a portfolio of killer writing, they won’t think twice about hiring you. It's a bigger challenge than you'd imagine to find someone capable of putting their money where their mouth is.
If you’re ever curious about this, try posting a job on a freelance site like Upwork or Fiverr. You’ll get tons of applications. Most of them won’t have a writing sample attached. Most of the cover letters you read will be a jumbled mess or a copy/pasted paragraph that’s begging to retire.
When it comes to landing freelance clients, your knowledge and skills are all that matter.
In the 9-5 world, a college degree might be required for a job that doesn’t really need it.
In the freelance world, no one has time to waste on pointless restrictions. Clients just want the job to be done and done well. They’re ready to hire the first person who can solve their problems—degree or no degree.
In summary, freelance writing clients care about:
How well you write
Your professionalism (hitting deadlines, communication, conduct, etc.)
Driving results for their business
Their bottom line
Return on investment (ROI) on the content (growing traffic, building an audience, sales, etc.)
Pros and Cons of Having a Degree for Freelance Writers
You made it this far. You’ve got a goal of becoming a freelance writer and fulfilling those wild fantasies of working from home and turning words into income.
But you’re still worried about not having a degree.
I find that a simple pro and con list is always helpful. While you certainly don’t need a college degree to be a freelance writer, there are still some benefits. Of course, there are drawbacks too.
Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of having (or not having) a degree as a freelance writer.
Knowledge: As my grandpa always said, knowledge is something people can never take away from you. Studying for years to get a degree related to writing will leave you with knowledge that stays with you for a lifetime.
Networking: Hanging out with like-minded people for four years is a great way to network. Though you can certainly make connections outside of college, it is one of the best times for networking. You never know who might be sitting next to you.
Competitive Edge: Some clients have the old-fashioned mindset that a degree is essential. On occasion, having that line on your resume could win you a job over a similar candidate without a degree.
Seeing if You Like Writing: Many people with a love for writing quickly sour when it becomes their job. Going for a degree gives you a chance to test-run the professional writing life without committing. You can always pivot to a different major if it doesn’t work out.
Spending Money: A college degree is a huge financial investment. In a field like writing where you don’t really need it to be successful, this may not be the smartest choice. You could spend that money growing a blog or investing in resources for your own business.
Spending Time: Sitting in a classroom for four years takes precious time off your career. You could be using that time to build your audience, add to your portfolio, and start making money.
Not for Everyone: We all learn differently. Some people (and their writing styles) aren’t compatible with the college path. You might be forcing yourself to learn in a way that isn’t conducive to your needs.
Experience: You’ll get some great experience in school. But none of it is as good as real-world writing experience with clients. No, editors don’t care about the 12-page research paper you wrote. They want to see the blog post that drives SEO traffic from the first page of Google.
10 Steps to Becoming a Freelance Writer Without a Degree
Although you don’t need a degree to be a freelance writer, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to prepare.
Fortunately, with the right time and practice, you’ll be well on your way.
I’ve been writing professionally for more than half a decade. When I first started, these are the techniques I used to get my feet under me.
By copying these steps, you can prepare yourself for your own career in freelance writing. Or, you know, the coolest little side hustle next to your 9-5.
Step 1: Learn How to Write
This one should probably go without saying. Yet, it’s also the most important step on this entire list.
Not everyone is born with the skills of a great writer. In fact, no one is.
Great writers are the result of hard work, lots of practice, and, yes, probably a little too much coffee.
If you want to turn writing into a professional pursuit, first ensure that you’re good at it. There are countless people out there hoping to make a quick buck by writing content.
But there’s a big difference between someone who thinks they can write for money and someone who actually can. The latter have strong language skills, know their way around the intricacies of grammar, and understand how to make their content flow.
If your writing skills aren’t polished yet, that’s okay. There is an endless wealth of resources to be found online.
Whether you want to pay for a writing course, read free content online, or join a support group and learn with a community of like-minded people, your options are open.
Step 2: Learn How to Edit Yourself
A quote from author C.J. Cherryh has stuck with me in my writing career. It goes, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
For freelance writers, this is extremely important.
In fact, editing skills are what separate an average freelancer from a great freelancer.
When you turn work in to a client, it should be ready for them to hit the “Publish” button. If it isn’t, you haven’t done your job.
Learning to edit your own work is a long, painful process. Like writing, it takes practice and repetition to get good at.
Eventually, you’ll learn to spot patterns of mistakes in your writing. The more you edit these out, the less often you’ll write them in the first place. Ultimately, this makes you a better writer.
In the meantime, it makes your work look like it was written by that future version of yourself whose prose rings like a golden harp.
This guide from The New York Times is a great place to start when learning to edit your own work.
Step 3: Learn to Pitch
When you’re first starting out, clients won’t be rushing to hire you. Partly because they don’t know you exist.
Until you make a name for yourself in the industry, you’ll need to find clients and pitch them.
What exactly this looks like is different for every freelance writer. Some people prefer reaching out to editors with a pitch for a story. Others cold call marketing managers.
Personally, I’m a big fan of email. Crafting a stellar pitch email shows potential clients that you know what you’re doing without them even asking for a sample.
Regardless, you’ll need to learn how to pitch yourself and your services if you want to find success as a new freelance writer.
This guide by Ann Friedman is a great place to start learning how to pitch yourself as a freelance writer.
Step 4: Build Your Portfolio
So, what exactly are you pitching? While the ultimate goal is getting someone to pay you for your writing, no one is going to do that without seeing your skills in action.
This means you need to build a portfolio of writing samples that you can show off when pitching prospective clients.
Your writing portfolio should include the work you are most proud of. It should showcase every aspect of your freelancing skills.
When starting out, you might not have a list of articles to include. That’s okay.
You can always get creative with the samples in your portfolio while starting out. One idea is to write fake pieces that follow the same formatting and rules as a real piece would.
For instance, create a press release for a tech startup promoting the all-new AI Face Scanner 4000. Make it exciting. Persuasive. Tell people why they should care until this fake product is ready to sell itself.
Clients don’t care that your article is written about a fake product as long as it’s written well and showcases your skills.
As you add more work to your portfolio, be sure to include samples of different types of writing. A few must-haves for versatile freelance writers include:
Social media content
Colleen Welsch has an extremely helpful guide that teaches you how to build your freelance writing portfolio from scratch.
Step 5: Learn How to Take Feedback
We all love to hear nice things about our work. As a freelance writer, your clients will certainly have praise for the content you create.
However, great writers know there is always room for improvement.
Learning from the feedback of others is one of the best ways to grow as a writer.
In the freelance world, you’ll need to develop a thick skin for criticism. Whenever you receive negative feedback, take a breath, but don’t take it personally. Instead, try to learn something from the feedback and use it to improve your writing in the future.
Importantly, this doesn’t excuse rude clients from trashing your work.
In most cases, client feedback isn’t inherently negative or positive, though. They may ask for revisions or offer suggestions to try and improve a piece. Take that as an opportunity to get better while making your client happy in the process.
You’d be surprised how many times I’ve had a repeat client tell me that my willingness to work with them on revisions is what brought them back for more.
Haley Grant wrote a great piece on learning to use feedback to grow your freelance writing career. You can find it here.
Step 6: Be a Great Researcher
Those who have been freelancing for a while can attest that you’ll wind up writing about things you’d never even heard of before signing on to do a project.
I come from a health, science, and tech background. Yet, I’ve written articles on how to install toilets, how to style your dog’s hair, and how to cook a delicious meal for two.
Being a freelance writer means you need to be an expert in everything. Or at least write like it. Fortunately, you don’t actually need to know everything ahead of time.
All you need are some great research skills.
There are endless resources out there covering every niche you can imagine. If your client wants an article on a certain topic, there are probably at least 100 other articles covering the same thing.
Before writing a single word, take some time to research your topic. Doing so helps you write in an authoritative voice, develop better content than your client’s competitors, and provide more value to the reader.
Plus, you’ll find yourself learning lots of new things along the way.
Dan Marticio’s guide to research as a freelance writer is an excellent place to start building your skills.
Step 7: Build Your Confidence
If I told you that someone would pay you upwards of $100 an hour to write them an article, would you feel like you deserve it?
Chances are, you’d be feeling some imposter syndrome.
Questions like “Am I good enough to deserve this rate?” and “Am I qualified to be writing this content?” are all too common for new freelancers to ask themselves.
That’s even more true when they don’t have a degree attesting to their skills.
While the imposter syndrome doesn’t ever go away fully, building your confidence is a key component of being a professional writer.
If a client didn’t think your rate was worth it, they wouldn’t have hired you. If you weren’t qualified to write an article, they would have gone elsewhere.
At the end of the day, if you’re turning out high-quality work and making money doing it, then you’re a freelance writer.
Let that fact boost your confidence until you’re a seasoned industry vet.
Well-known writer Elna Cain has a great article on dealing with imposter syndrome as a freelancer that has helped me get over it in my freelance journey.
Step 8: Grow Your Network
The freelance life can get lonely. Building a network around yourself is key to staying sane while working on a laptop with a Word document as your only friend.
This is especially true if you plan on being a freelance writer full-time.
Of course, networking isn’t just for social purposes. It also leads to more clients and decreases the amount of pitching you need to do in the long run.
As you work with more clients and meet people (probably online), rumors of your skills will grow. Rather than pitching clients, they’ll start pitching you.
Trust me, the first time a client comes to you asking for writing, it will be a highlight of your freelance career.
Building a functional network takes time, though.
You might not experience the fruits of your labor for months or even years.
As such, it’s important to start early. If you start developing your network on day one, it will be exponentially more powerful as time passes.
This is a great article from Kelly Tabbutt with five effective strategies to start building a network as a freelance writer.
Step 9: Never Stop Learning
Remember the first few steps? Learn how to write. Learn how to edit. Learn how to pitch.
News flash: the learning should never stop.
As a freelance writer, the industries you’ll be writing for are always changing. Likewise, trends in technology, SEO, and web content best practices are constantly evolving.
To be the best writer, it’s important to stay current with these things.
Though you may spend most of your time writing, be sure to take a break and learn along the way.
Step 10: Know Your Worth
I’ve spent most of this article telling you why anyone can be a freelance writer without a college degree. But the truth is, not everyone is cut out for this job.
Being a freelance writer takes skill, perseverance, and tremendous drive. No one is standing around waiting to help you succeed. You have to go out and make it happen.
That said, if you’re one of the people who’s determined enough to make a successful career (or side-hustle) out of freelance writing, kudos to you.
Don’t forget that this makes you valuable.
As a writer, your words can inspire, sell, and build loyalty among customers. A good writer is a tremendous asset to companies of all shapes and sizes.
When you get into the nitty-gritty, always remember your worth.
That means not taking low-paying jobs with bad clients out of desperation. It means not letting clients disrespect or take advantage of you. Most importantly, it means telling yourself that you are a professional with something valuable to offer.
Know it on the inside. See the results on the outside.
Kristen Pizzo has a great article on this topic, which I suggest you check out.
Freelance writing has become a go-to side-hustle and career for millions of people around the world. Most of them don’t have a formal education in the field.
If you’ve ever considered becoming a freelance writer, know that a degree simply isn’t necessary. Parts of having one are nice. But it definitely isn’t essential.
Finding success as a freelance writer is more about your willingness to learn, adapt, and seek opportunities than a fancy piece of paper with your name on it.
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