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How Many Years of College to Become a Writer?

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When you think about an author such as Ernest Hemingway, sitting at his desk with a tumbler of whiskey with his six-toed cats winding around his ankles, the writing life can seem to have a low barrier for entry. However, the reality for salaried writers is often a 9-to-5 job writing nonfiction material for companies that require a degree. The 70 percent of writers who work on a freelance basis also must meet the qualifications their clients require.

Writer, General

If you plan to become employed by a company as a writer, you will usually need a bachelor’s degree in English or a related field as a minimum requirement. Even if the job does not specifically require a degree, you’ll need one in order to be competitive in the field. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.

Publishing companies who hire writers to write textbooks or other specialized material may require that your degree be in the field about which you are writing. If you write a nonfiction book under your own name, having an advanced degree, such as a Ph.D., can help you to establish expert status. Publishing companies often require such degrees as they help with marketing efforts. A Ph.D. usually requires four to seven additional years of study after the bachelor’s degree.

Novelist

You don’t have to go to college at all in order to write fictional works such as novels. S.E. Hinton wrote the classic book “The Outsiders” when she was only 19. Christopher Paolini’s best-selling young adult novel “Eragon” was published when he was only 15. Novels arise from the author’s imagination and personal experience. While college can help you to learn writing skills that will make writing a novel easier, it is not a necessity. Note that novelists are not generally employees but independent contractors. As such, they are free from many educational requirements.

Journalist

Journalists cover current stories, and in many cases, engage in investigative reporting. Journalists are expected to write using a specific style and must abide by the ethical guidelines of their profession. Their work must be factually correct and very precise, even when written on a tight deadline. Generally, magazines and newspapers will not hire journalists who do not have an educational background in journalism or a related field. Count on going to school for four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, which is typically the minimum necessary to land a job at a magazine or news organization.

Technical Writer

Technical writers compose manuals, operating instructions and other documents that convey information of a technical nature. Many companies look for a degree in journalism, English or communications, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experience or education in the field about which you’ll be writing is also desirable. For example, individuals who write operating instructions for computer software will benefit from a background in computers, while someone who writes a manual instructing medical personnel how to operate a piece of medical equipment may be better able to do the job if she has some experience in the medical field.

To break into technical writing, you’ll need to go to college for four years to earn your bachelor’s degree. People who hold advanced degrees in engineering, computer science and other technical fields are likely to find the most lucrative work. To get a master’s degree, you’ll need to attend school two to three additional years after you obtain your bachelor’s degree.