Seven Tips: Build A Writing Career Without An English Degree

Learn to write without an English degreeWhen I first started writing professionally in 2005, I didn’t know how to handle the fact that I don’t have an English degree. I was on my way to getting one but I dropped out of college due to a domestic violence situation.

There are some gigs where the editor, client, or publisher refuses to budge and insists on those qualifications and there’s not much you can do in that situation. But this is a rare instance so don’t rule out opportunities that indicate a preference for applicants with a degree or superior qualification. So, how do you build a writing career without an English degree? Here’s what I do, and you can too!

  1. Study. You don’t have to go to college to study. Sure, you’re at somewhat of a disadvantage since you don’t have an English professor with a red pen but if you’re dedicated to improving your grammar and English skills, studying can make all the difference. (You might even find someone who is willing to mentor you and share their wisdom.)
  2. Make an excellent first impression. You have one chance to knock the socks off the person reading your e-mail. Make it count. Double-check your spelling, let it sit overnight and proofread it again before hitting send. Be creative, enthusiastic, and put a fresh spin on everything you write that only you can bring.
  3. Build a Web presence. This can make a difference, too. If a potential client or editor clicks a link to your website and/or blog and they find something well-written with a fresh voice, it can motivate them to give you an opportunity to prove yourself with them. Include contact details on your site such as your email address so prospective clients and publishers can reach you. You can use WordPress or Blogger for a free platform to begin with. You can also register a domain name for a great price. I’ve noticed a huge increase in responses and opportunities since I polished my online presence with my website:
  4. Be flexible. Learn to go with the flow. If you wanted to write a 2,000-word feature for the publication but the editor asks you to write a 200-word filler instead, just do it. You can’t always start out at the top. Most writers don’t. I’ve accepted that. And, I have found being flexible is something the people I work with love about me. They’ve said I’m creative, enthusiastic, and responsive to edits. And they know I can work with 200 words, 2,000 words, 20,000 words, or 200,000. I aim to please the person or company I’m writing for. It works for me. It will work for you, too.
  5. Follow-up. Not every writer does this and it’s crucial. Just because you didn’t receive a response doesn’t mean they didn’t like your work. In fact, they may have loved your work and had the best of intentions to get back to you. But life is busy and there are only so many hours in the day. They could have forgotten. It’s always worth it to follow-up. It can also let them know you’re serious about the opportunity.
  6. Sell Yourself. I know it’s hard (for some of us), but you really need to dig deep and find the courage to sell yourself. No, you might not have a big, fancy degree but nobody can be you. Make your writing services sound irresistible. The applicants with degrees might not have the personality and passion you have. A college degree can’t buy writing talent – or a personality. Remember the saying: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it?” Exactly!
  7. Market. Have you read that it’s not always the best writers who get the most work? That they are getting the work because they market themselves better than the more qualified – or talented – writer? I believe it’s true. Marketing myself used to be my weakest area, but I took the advice of seasoned writers and probloggers. I started marketing myself like crazy, telling everyone everywhere I go that I’m a freelance writer and blogger. I also hit the social media world by storm and have blazed a trail, showing friends and followers what my passions are and that I’m a real person. Marketing and networking is key and the secret is to: “Just be yourself!”

Some resources I have found useful:

It really helps to read. Envelop yourself with well-written books, blog posts, magazine articles. The more you read and the more you study and write, the better your work will be.

So, did I forget anything? Do you have an English degree? Do you think they are absolutely necessary for a writer to succeed? Do you have any resources to share that I left out? Have you tried to hide the fact that you don’t have a degree? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Photo Credit: Woodsy

40 thoughts on “Seven Tips: Build A Writing Career Without An English Degree

  1. While I agree with content of this post, how do you get a job that specifically requires a degree in English of Journalism?

    There are many jobs around that specifically require higher education. How does one obtain this degree when funds are limited?

  2. I also came up short a few classes in route to my English degree. Out of state tuition really killed my finances. But I took some time off, got a regular day job and moved to a different city. I did not want to be “that guy” that stopped going to school but still hung out.

    I went back to get my degree in English with a minor in Journalism as an evening adult student. It was tough but worth it. I can tell you that the internships were extremely and surprisingly interesting.

    It has been a few years and I have done a lot of contract work and also started my own website and online presence. I finally landed a full time writing and editing job which is very rare. Goodbye to the world of contract work–for now.

    Now that things are calmer, I have decided to go back to school and get a Masters degree in English with a Technical Writing/ Technical Communication concentration.

    Anything can be done without that piece of paper, but it sure does open a lot more doors if you have it.

  3. Hi, Robert!

    I appreciate your question!

    This post was simply me sharing my experiences of how I’ve been able to get writing gigs without an English degree. It is my understanding that the companies/individuals who specifically demand their writer(s) have an English degree, will only hire you if you do have that degree.

    I also have limited funds and am not in the position to further my education at this point. You could look in to grants, possibly.

    As for getting that job that requires a degree, I don’t really know. I would say that there are times when the company/individual MIGHT just love your writing and personality enough to take a chance on you (or me) even without a degree.

    I hope that helps?!

    Thanks so much for reading!!


    • Christine says:

      Dear Michele;
      I loved your post. I have wanted to write [publicly] for years, but I am terrified about rejection. I have even taken many classes toward a degree; yet, like you, there is always a gigantic wall that gets into my way. For the last few years I have been looking for any kind of posting that will “allow” me to go forward and write without that damn degree. And why not, in many ways a degree is just a piece of paper saying that you learned tons of stuff you never need and paid a lot of money for it to keep colleges afloat. It doesn’t mean you can write.
      I am starting to write again, and this time I promised myself to not delete it when finished, but to hold on to it. You never know; someday it might be just what someone is looking for.
      A mentor, that person that will read what you wrote and give feedback would however be awesome. Maybe someday I will come across it. A saying goes “When the pupil is ready the teacher will come”. We’ll see.
      Thank you for putting some positive vibes out there; the kind some of us are so desperately seeking and needing.

  4. I’ve often thought about returning to formal schooling in search of an degree. It’s harder than it should be and expensive. The fact that there are so many opportunities that don’t require a degree is what has kept me working instead of studying.

    Thankfully, the internet provides fantastic resources for learning and books, especially the ones you recommended, do the rest.

    I’ve wondered what I might be missing not having experienced formal tertiary education but you can’t obsess over it. So, I go on and write as my heart guides me and learn what I can while living.

    Great post, Michele, and I love your new bio!
    .-= Rebecca Laffar-Smith shares: Pep Talk No. 99 – Believe =-.

  5. Hi, Greg!

    Thanks so much for sharing your story, and for your input. I do agree with you that, yes, there are more opportunities with that English degree; however, when a person has the gift of words and writing is their passion, they can absolutely study and hone their craft and succeed in the freelance world. They may not get those jobs that require an English degree, but they can find quality writing gigs and be happy and fulfilled in what they’re doing.

    It’s fantabulous that you were able to get your English degree–and that awesome job. Congrats on that! :-)

    But this post was simply geared toward those, who like me, haven’t had the opportunity to get an English degree yet still have a burning desire to write and earn money with their words.

    Happy writing, Greg!


  6. Like you, Rebecca, I have considered going after my English degree. It would be awesome, but at this point in my life I just feel like there’s so many other things to do (as you personally know about me! LOL) and I’d rather focus on writing, networking, and just living. :-)

    And, you’re right that there is an abundance of paying opportunities we can take advantage of, that keep us busy and keep the $$$ coming so that we don’t have to continue our formal education–your talent and success is evidence of that!

    Yes, thank goodness for the internet: blogs, podcasts, downloads, and even resources like AP Stylebook online, can enhance our writing knowledge and help us reach our writing goals and dreams. And, of course, we can always pick each other’s brains! :-)

    Oh, and absolutely, we can’t obsess over something we may not have control over right now. Our time and financial resources are precious and (for most) limited. We can’t stress ourselves until it affects our health because we didn’t get that formal education!

    I’m honored that you enjoyed my contribution to WRA, Rebecca, and that you like my new bio!


  7. I have an English degree with a concentration in creative writing. No, I do not think this is necessary for a writer to succeed. In fact, most of my technical knowledge (grammar) is self-taught. College did open up my writing and the way I view writing, and it forced me to write daily (therefore improving my writing dramatically), but I can think of a lot that just wasn’t covered in my college courses – from grammar to reading many of the classics. And there was very little instruction on how to earn a living as a writer, despite the fact that there are (obviously) plenty of opportunities in the field.

    I would add that people who want a career in writing should worry more over the actual quality of their writing than whether they possess a degree. I get emails all the time from individuals looking for freelance work or trying to break into the market (asking for advice) and oddly, those emails are overrun with grammar mistakes. How can I take those people seriously?
    .-= Melissa Donovan shares: Poetry Terms: Assonance =-.

  8. *nods in agreement with Melissa*

    I’ve found that most language usage and grammar are learned by reading, writing, and looking up the answer to any questions you might have. There are many adults who achieved English Degrees that never pursue a career in writing. The skills you learn are not inclusive with all you need to know to be successful. A willingness to learn doesn’t require formal structure if you have the tools to teach yourself.

    Then, of course, you have to USE what you learn. If you want to be a writer, the first step is the learn the craft. While you’re learning, you’re not submitting to markets, you’re writing for free. Keep a blog, write for article directories if you’d like, and focus on writing as a hobby that you spend time on every day. It is important to love writing or you won’t give it the time needed to learn to write well. Then it is important to write well before you can expect to make money doing it.
    .-= Rebecca Laffar-Smith shares: Why do you visit Writer’s Round-About? =-.

  9. Thanks for the input, Melissa! I love that you, a person with an English degree, would tell us we don’t need it to succeed! I know that’ll encourage a LOT of aspiring writers who happen upon this post and read these comments.

    I’ve always admired your writing wisdom, so it’s a blessing to have you stop by and share this with us. :-)

    Thanks so much!

    .-= Michele shares: The Bolder Mat Company Yoga Mat + Stacy McCarthy’s Yoga DVD CONTEST!! =-.

  10. Hi Michele!

    I am so glad I came across this. I used to be a great student despite all that I’d been through in my senior year of high school (family died and had to live with people who were emotionally abusive) and then at the beginning of my junior year in college, Hurricane Katrina came and things haven’t been the same since.

    I’ve had to keep taking time off to try to fix the house and work full-time to make money to fix the house and I feel like I’ll never graduate. This year could’ve been my last year, but I got really sick and am not going to be able to catch up.

    I am so sick of taking out loans and foolishness for no apparent reason, but I was afraid society would shun me for not having a degree.

    Thanks for giving me hope! :o).

    -Megan Anne
    .-= Megan Anne shares: Doctor Doctor! Gimme the News! My Trip to the Neurologist =-.

  11. Hi, Megan.

    Wow, I’m so glad you came across this, too! It’s such an honor to be a source of inspiration and hope for you. Woo hoo!

    And I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through – gosh, and you’ve been through a LOT!!

    I visited your blog and tried to leave a comment about your doctor visit/issues but there was a problem with the comment system and it wouldn’t let me leave a comment.

    Anyway, I’ve been through a lot of health issues as well. My 20s were the worst: I barely escaped domestic violence with my life, had to wear Depends (no bladder control and surgery didn’t work) and my life was a mess. I, like you, felt overwhelmed and hopeless.

    What changed? I did. I changed my eating habits, turned to alternative medicine, and poured my heart out on paper. Things began falling into place and now I’m’ where I am today. I’ve come a long way, lost over 100 pounds, experienced complete healing of my bladder (no more Depends!), and am now realizing more and more of my life-long dreams.

    Nope, I don’t have a degree. And boy am I EVER glad my story has helped you.

    Keep dreaming, girl! Keep trying. Never give up, beauty lies just ahead!!!

    Big hugs,
    .-= Michele | aka Raw Juice Girl shares: Emotional Eating, Food Labels, and Judgments – Oh, My! =-.

  12. You’re an inspiration to us too, Megan!

    Honestly, you don’t need a degree but you’re a truly remarkable woman to push through all you’ve been through to get one. You’re stronger for it. You might not “need” it to create a career but the gumption, devotion, and sheer will you exhibit in your journey to attaining one is remarkable. These things carry over into every area of your life. You really can accomplish anything you set your heart and mind to if you work hard. You’re proving that, each and ever day!

    Michele, it’s so amazing to know how far you’ve come and to see you continuing to blossom. :-)

    WTG ladies!

  13. Crystal Gillis says:

    I was searching for this specific topic to find out if it was feasible to pursue a career in writing without a degree. People who want to get a degree but are unable to because of life circumstance shouldn’t be shut out of a career if they can prove their knowledge or talent! Eventually, I believe, the doors will be completely shut, but I wanted to thank you for letting us know we may be able to squeak through that last crack. Will our children be useless in the worlds eyes if we choose not to go into college debt until the day we die? The projected necessity of a college degree will only drive up the business’ cost. Yes, business. College’s and University’s main interests are business and politics first, education second. Once we pay off our own college debt (if we are so lucky to do so), we then take on our children’s college debt and they start theirs, and so on.

  14. Joshua says:

    A degree certainly is not integral to write well. However, to write well it is necessary to have a vivid imagination and to represent it on paper. That is what makes a great writer, not simply possessing a piece of paper that claims that you are. That said, obtaining a degree is a valuable asset.

  15. Siya says:

    Initially, something like this will feel like pushing up against a solid brick wall. I should know; I’m trying to launch a career as a freelance writer. I don’t have a degree in English either.

    I am discovering that this takes more commitment, more drive, more guts, more truth than I’ve ever had to give to anything.

    Nevertheless, I have also decided that anything is possible. Guys and girls out there, we have something to say that the world needs to hear. So let’s write!

  16. Celia Kitson says:

    Hi – I would like to say thank you for an interesting post about a subject I have had an interest in for a long time now. I have been lurking and reading the comments avidly so just wanted to express my thanks for providing me with some very good reading material. I look forward to more, and taking a more active part in the discussions here, whilst learning too!!

  17. Russell says:

    I have an English degree and a masters in education, and they have opened doors for me as a teacher. But, even though I’ve taught writing and literature for the last ten years, I haven’t continued with my own writing.

    Lately, I’ve been inspired to start writing again by people like Michele and Rebecca, who have a passion for language and don’t let any situation stop them from doing what they love.

    I don’t think a degree matters when it comes to writing. A great many of the authors and poets I studied in college had no degree, many of them didn’t even finish high school.

    That being said, if you want a degree, don’t let your situation stop you from that goal either. I worked and took out loans to get through college, and I have a friend with three kids and a full time job who is working toward a degree. If it’s something you want, find a way. But, it’s not a prerequisite for being a writer. The only requirement for being a writer is writing.

    • I agree, Russell. We shouldn’t let anything stop us from our dreams. That said, at this point, pursuing a college degree just isn’t something I have time for – or desire to achieve. I know a lot of people overcome odds that appear impossible and get their degree. But my life is super stressful right now and I just don’t personally choose to take on anything extra (I remember college work loads). :-)

      Thanks for the encouragement, though, and for sharing your story. Keep writing!
      .-= Michele | aka Raw Juice Girl shares: Organic (Companion) Gardening, Sunny Days, Flowers, Fresh Air!!!! =-.

    • I agree Russell, and getting an English Degree is something I would love to do at some point but having made a priority in my life yet. Not having a degree doesn’t stop us following a writer’s path of our own making but a passion for language makes the higher levels of study in that area intriguing.

      As with all things, it’s about taking the little steps to climb the greater mountains. That mountain is one I’ll face when I’ve grown weary of my current climbs. :-)

  18. Well… 2¢ from somebody that doesn’t have a degree and that is not even a native English speaker who spent a decade in printed media…

    Choose your niche and gigs. Some places won’t even think of getting you in if you’re without that piece of paper. But there are others that will prefer you having a personality, style, original angle and something interesting to say. Those are usually smaller media, with more relaxed layouts and designs.

    Flexibility is a must. No editor in the world will want to complicate her life with a writer that complains about editing and doesn’t do the exact word count. You can be a genius with perfect language skills and highly interesting writing, but writing for media is a team work where all the writing has to come up as a whole. And nobody has extra time and nerves to deal with rigid people that think that their every word is sacred.

    Also, if you are pitching for a gig, you need web presence. Degrees and diplomas are great, but show us what you write. Beside that, people with built web presence and social networks are more valuable as it’s expected that they will share a bit of it to promoting themselves and the new employer there as well.
    .-= dandellion shares: Lost Was About Traveling, Not About Destination =-.

  19. You don’t need an English degree. You need a bold voice that clearly puts your experience out there.. authentically.. and I like the passion and personality bit. A little suffering and ecstasy too will help. Your tips are really good. I just work by creating blogs and web sites. WordPress is the best and easiest tool for content management in my opinion. Thanks for what you do. GD, Australia
    Geoffrey Dodd shares: Psychology and Sociology

  20. Boca Raton says:

    My relative loves to read ancient poems and literary works about life in general. She in point of fact convinced me one time to attend a poetry reading assembly and it was a wonderful event for me because the fictional works we read were a good read.

  21. Your style is so unique in comparison to other people I’ve read
    stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you have
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