Did you know you can easily earn $50,000 per year without a degree?
According to Indeed, that’s the average annual income of freelance writers in the U.S.
Average – not the high end.
And you read that right – even without a degree.
A question new students ask me is whether they need a degree to be a freelance writer.
There are a lot of successful writers out there who don’t have a degree in anything, let alone one in English, communications, journalism, or any other “education requirement” you’ll find listed on Google.
I don’t have a degree (actually I’m a college dropout) and I made it work.
You can, too.
So, if writing is your passion and dream job but you’re feeling down at the degree requirements that get bandied around, chin up!
Here’s a bit of good news:
Freelance Writing Is a Results-Driven Career That Emphasizes Skills
There’s a myth out there that you need some fancy writing degree to make a living writing.
It’s not true.
The neat thing about freelancing is that it really is a meritocracy. Anyone can get started, and anyone can learn the skills.
Your clients are going to look at your past performance first, and your demonstrated skillset next. When it comes to a writer, they want to see that:
- Your writing rocks. They’re paying you for flawless grammar, smooth sentences, and punchy headlines that stop scrollers in their tracks. You prove this every time you type – from client communications to the final invoice.
- You’ve got your content types down. Writing marketing emails requires different skills than writing web copy or white papers. You prove this with your portfolio.
- You can convert customers and boost brands. 90 percent of the time, your job is to grow a brand’s reach, authority, and fan base using only words. You prove this using metrics.
Sure, some people have a talent for writing. That doesn’t mean they’ll be a great freelance writer.
To succeed in this gig, you need a whole assortment of skills. Those, my friend, you can learn. 📚✏️
Except in Very Specific Cases, You Don’t Need a Degree to Be a Freelance Writer
When you’re searching for freelance writing jobs, you might come across job postings where a degree is required. In my experience, those fall into two categories:
- They’re exploitative, clueless, or the post was machine-generated. Are they asking for the moon on a stick, desiring only the brightest and the best? The pay and position better reflect it – if it doesn’t, it’s a red flag. Move on to another one that does.
- It’s a regulated industry and they need someone who really knows what they’re talking about. You’ll typically encounter these jobs in the business, finance, medicine, legal and scientific industries. In these cases, there’s specific knowledge and expertise you must have that you can’t self-teach. You need a degree to qualify for writing on this topic.
When It’s Not Necessary, But Helpful to Have a Degree
One other instance exists when it’s helpful to possess a degree in the topic on which you’re writing.
Can you guess? (I talk about it a lot).
It’s when you’re writing a piece of content that would fall under Your Money or Your Life (YMYL).
YMYL is a special quality category in the Google evaluator guidelines for any content that may potentially impact a person’s health, wealth, safety, or future happiness. In these cases, Google looks extra carefully at both the quality of the content, and the quality of the content creator. A degree can help when:
- You’ll have a byline or an author bio where it can be mentioned to help build authority
- You spot a YMYL content project and have additional qualifications to include when bidding or making a proposal
- You’re trying to establish yourself in a niche as an authority writer
4 Things You DO Need to Be a Freelance Writer
You don’t need a degree to be a freelance writer. You also don’t need to:
- Be super talented and perfect
- Have an office
- Buy a fancy laptop and writing software
That’s not to say you don’t need anything at all. It’s simple to get into freelance writing, but you do need a few things.
If you’re just getting started as a freelance writer and want to succeed ASAP, I recommend these four things:
1. (The Right) Technical Skills
There’s a lot more that goes into making a living writing, especially making a living writing online. You need to know:
- The right type of writing. News flash: you aren’t writing essays anymore, so make sure your writing skills are up to date. You’re writing engaging, edifying pieces that grow brands and audiences.
- Content strategy and marketing. Knowing how to write is great but you must also know what to write. And what should you write to become a growth-focused content creator? Pieces that meet the specific goal of aligning your clients’ business strategy with their content.
- SEO. You should have a working knowledge of search engine optimization since it affects the way you create content.
- Storytelling. Want to connect with readers? Find the story and tell it. Good writers (and good marketers) know how to spin a tale that keeps an audience fascinated.
- Content types. You’ll need to master a variety of content types as they’ve each got their own nuances.
2. Soft Skills for Freelancing
Freelancing is hard. From day one, you’re responsible for everything on both the business and employee sides. The buck stops with you – and the hammer falls on you if you screw up.
Curious self-starters with a passion for learning do well as freelancers. That’s because you’ll find yourself learning things like:
- Active listening
- Conflict resolution
- Project management
Some freelancers manage to go at it solo. Others will transition into a content writing business. Any way you go, get ready to wear many hats with (seeming) ease. You’ll need to develop a whole array of skills you never even knew existed.
3. A Solid Work Ethic
If you take nothing else from all of this, take this: if you’re known for having a rock-solid work ethic, you’ll always have work.
You’d be surprised at the number of freelancers (writers or otherwise) who don’t have a great work ethic. I’ve met more than a few in my day.
Treat your freelancing like a job because it is one. And freelancing isn’t a job where you can drop the ball and a coworker will pick up the slack. If you don’t consistently follow through, present your best work, and always take it seriously, you’ll start having trouble finding work before long.
4. A Portfolio
Last but not least, you need a portfolio … even if you’re just starting out.
Think of your portfolio like your resume. It demonstrates to future clients that you know what you’re doing and shows them what sort of value they’ll get out of hiring you.
I cover how to build a portfolio website in detail, but here are a few pointers. Your portfolio should:
- Include your best work. Use paid and non-paid pieces. Spec ads or copy are also perfectly acceptable when you’re just starting out, but you should label it clearly.
- Check with clients before posting. Get clearance from your clients first, especially if you’re writing sensitive things like whitepapers.
- Never disclose the authorship of ghostwritten material. This includes everything from web articles to books. It’s bad form. Don’t do it.
- Stay fresh and updated. Since SEO and content best practices change over time, review your portfolio so that it reflects current practices.
Remember: portfolios are about demonstrated expertise, not experience. Once you’ve got the hard skills down, you’ve got the expertise to show no matter how early you are in this game!
(If you take The Content Strategy & Marketing Course, I include a bonus lesson on how to build a portfolio even when you’re just starting out. It’s worth it!)
Be More Than a Freelance Writer: Be a Content Hacker
You don’t need a degree to be a freelance writer – I’m living proof and so are many of my students. However, you DO need a few specific hard and soft skills to succeed both as a freelancer and as a writer online. I’ve covered those skills and given you a bunch of actionable tips on getting started as a freelance writer.
But you don’t have to settle for being yet another freelance writer on the internet in the 2020s. Set yourself up for lasting success by learning the skills you need to become a growth-focused content creator … a content hacker.