A Degree to Write?

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College is just starting up for the year which reminds me of a question I’m asked all the time: do I have a degree in creative writing and/or do writers in general need such a degree. The answer to the first is easy: No, I don’t. I have a BFA in studio art. The second is a little trickier. I’m inclined to say ‘no’ but, of course, everyone is different. I can tell you this, the list of people who have never, ever asked if I have a creative writing degree includes my editors and my agent. Why? Probably because the major listed on your diploma doesn’t matter for genre fiction–everything comes down to whether or not you can write a good story.

Now, I admit I did take one creative writing class in college. Just One. My school offered more, but one was enough. Why? Well, there is a bad habit in college creative writing programs to discourage genre fiction (though I’ve heard that in some places this trend is changing, thankfully.)  Fantasy, in particular, tends to be scorned. Considering that I write fantasy, this was a major issue for me. Writing is a task that requires a lot of self motivation, which can turn scarce when the person assigning your grades thinks you’re writing garbage based not on the merits of your prose or story but on your choice of genre. Very discouraging.

And my experience isn’t all that unusual: not too long ago I attended a panel featuring a handful of best selling authors. These were some of the biggest names currently releasing books, and more than one  was told they were not welcome in a creative writing program when they were in school.

While creative writing degrees aren’t terribly common amongst genre writers, there are a large number of English degrees represented in the group. This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Writers love to read so studying literature is quite logical. The grammar and rhetoric side of the degree can also be a huge asset.  That said, English degrees also aren’t necessary to be a successful writer (though knowing the proper way to form and punctuate a sentence is mandatory).

In my opinion, there’s no wrong degree for a college bound writer to choose. In fact, I would encourage you to take classes in as many subjects as interest you. Psychology teaches you about the way a person ticks while Sociology teach you how groups of people  interact–both good for character building. History teaches what has come before which can be useful for building logical cause and effect backstory for the world you create. The sciences teach you about the way the world works which can give your own world building a starting point (after all, it is easier to maintain believability in a story if there is some basis in reality, even for the most alien world. This comes down to you having to know the rules before you can break them.) Art can teach you to really look things, which is useful for descriptions when writing. And the list goes on and on.

Writing, at least fiction writing, isn’t a job you need a list of specialized degrees for. Everything you learn and everything you do in your life helps prepare you. That doesn’t mean that most of us can just decide we want to write a book, sit down, and the first thing we commit to paper will be gold. Far from it. Writing is definitely something we have to study and work at–just not necessarily in school.

So if you are starting school this week and wondering if you chose the right major, if you’re fretting about a major you’ll pick in future years, or even if you are looking back wondering if you took the right major to help your writing career: Don’t worry. When it comes to writing, life is your teacher. Read a lot, write regularly, and hone your craft. You will be published one day, and whatever degree you receive will helped you along the way–even if on the surface, it has nothing to do with writing.

Have a great Saturday!

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17 comments to A Degree to Write?

  • Razziecat

    I wonder what would happen if a couple of those very successful genre authors were to contact their alma mater and offer to teach a short course in creative writing. Just speculating here, they may not have the time or the desire to do this, but I can’t help wondering if they would still be disrespected for their choice of genre.

    I also have to note that there are now college courses that teach the works of JRR Tolkien. Wonder what those disdainful creative writing teachers think of that!

  • K — If I might suggest, every prospective writer should have a basic anatomy course. So many errors could be avoided if writers had the faintest understanding of how humans are are put together. I try to not let it get to me, but when someone says in a book that a vein was cut and blood pumped out, I am drawn out of the story, and I imagine that evey person who has taken even a highschool course in anatomy feels the same.

    I echo your thoughts about taking every course a student can in as many areas of study as possible. Everything we learn is fodder for creativity. Nice post. I wonder how many of our readers are heading off to college.

  • I majored in Modern Languages and minored in Philosophy, so I can read Baudelaire’s poetry aloud to you and argue about Plato’s Cave all day long. If you really want me to. Honestly, though, my favorite class was Shakespeare, because my study group lived on the same hall so we gathered together, split up the parts and read the plays out loud. Best studying sessions I ever had!

    Kalayna said Well, there is a bad habit in college creative writing programs to discourage genre fiction…Fantasy, in particular, tends to be scorned.

    I wanted to take a creative writing class, but the award-winning poet who taught it told everyone that genre fiction was dead and anyone who came into his class writing nonsense like fantasy or SF should expect to fail on the basis of that alone. I still wonder what ever happened to Professor Award Winner…

    Faith said …every prospective writer should have a basic anatomy course.

    Luckily I can call you with all my gory questions. *laughs*

  • Great post! I could add to the people who have had bad genre expeience in creative writing classes. I will say, one reason why a degree in English (or at least taking some English classes) is a good thing is the reading that happens. The “great authors” are great for a reason, or were popular, and sometimes a turn of phrase in an author can inspire other stuff. (And yeah, I’m an English prof, so I’m both biased and in search of majors.)

  • I took a Creative Writing course in college and had the experience you describe. My professor wasn’t that hard-core about it though. He told me I should focus on relating a human experience in the real world. Once I mastered that, I could look at doing so in a fantasy world.

    In retrospect, I think he had a point. At the tender age of 20, I didn’t have much life experience, so crafting characters, believable dialog, and an interesting story was harder then than it is now at 50.

    But what I really took away from that is that writing genre fiction, particularly fantasy, is actually HARDER than writing literary fiction. You not only have to craft characters and plots, but you must set them in an entirely imaginary world that is believable to your reader.

    Some literary fiction writers simply aren’t up to the challenge, so they feel compelled to denigrate genre fiction.

  • I was lucky, in that my first two college writing classes were taught by a woman who encouraged *all* creativity and even offered to read my WIP at the time. So I was excited when I took the second-year class … and this prof is published mainstream and he scorns *all* genre fiction. He marked me down for that.

    When I transferred to university, I was excited about the Children’s Literature class, because that was typically taught by a prof who focused on fantasy. Except somehow I wound up getting the one class where it was ever taught by another prof, and she focused on historical-themed books (set in the past, written in the present). At least she let me write my paper on time travel novels. 😉

    I am happy for my minor in English because of what I was exposed to. But I’m equally grateful that I majored in Geography. Learning about landscapes, cultures, and geomorphology was worth it. I still use it in my writing.

  • mudepoz

    For the few of you that know what I do, this may seem like treason, but…I don’t believe most of the students attending college need to be there. Most of what they need to learn can be accomplished in tech school. I’m thinking about enrolling in ESL, just to learn grammar and punctuation.

    The rest will end up having a blast partying and going on to do something that has nothing to do with what they studied.

    Faith, you don’t need to take anatomy. Hell, I taught it for 10 years and have yet to take the course. I just stayed ahead of the class by a week at the beginning. The Tall Dude has 5 or 6 undergrad degrees (sciences, history, history of science and education) and one in music he was a semester away from completing. An MS in education. And, five years ago, he retired from teaching and became an attorney. In order to become a teacher and later, the atty, he needed the degrees. The other degrees were for fun. Those are good reasons. If you think chemistry and physics are electives:)

    I never should have gone on to college. Everything I needed was available at the tech school. First I was an overeducated gardener, now I’m an overqualified custodian. Population genetics is a bit of a stretch for a custodian, but what can I say, it was there.

    There are some excellent local outreach programs here. There are crummy ones. The same for colleges. The horror stories I hear about the English department is scary. Better than soap opera scary. That was just from the former Chair who came over to be our financial analyst. PhD in English, now numbers cruncher.

    There was never a question I was going on. I went to a diploma factory high school, and was certain I was going to be a jeweler. Oh, wait, a geologist. Oh, scholarship in mining engineering? Ok. Calculus? Um, horticulture next? Great! Gardeners don’t have BS degrees? Help with husband’s forensics team. Meet up with old forensics coach and former creative writing teacher. Why aren’t you writing?

    Heh. I guess I’m going to take that ESL course after all. Now I’m going to blame Mr. Young for my lack of grammar skills since he kept insisting we do those silly writing assignments…

  • I had the exact same creative writing experience in college. As a result, I wound up going into history and getting a Ph.D., which, in the end, has been incredibly valuable for the latest phase of my career. I also took courses in biology, in planetary geology, in anthropology, and, yes, lots in literature. As Kalayna says, life in the best teacher, and studying widely is incredibly valuable.

  • From the standpoint of the drama nerd, I would suggest a couple of script analysis and theatre history courses. I’ve found that a couple of decades reading tons of scripts by dialogue masters like Mamet, Shepard and their ilk has really helped the dialogue in my writing. I took a couple of creative writing classes in college, but I stuck with the poetry classes. I enjoyed them, and learned how to condense thoughts into very compact phrasing (a skill I completely ignore when commenting on blogs, of course!). So in many cases you can get useful stuff out of almost any course, but sometimes you have to look harder. But whether you have a Ph.D. like David or are a grad school dropout like me, what matters is a desire to continue with a lifetime of learning, and that is why we all hang out here, right?

  • I think John H really hit the nail on the head. I kept on in school because I enjoyed school. When I realized that I could spend all my time reading books and talking about books and ideas and all that kind of stuff–and get paid to do it–I thought “grad school is for me!” (no one had mentioned committees at that point) And honestly grad school was one of the most fun times of my life–even with all the pain and suffering. :) But the thing about writers, as John said, is a lifetime love of learning (love of words and stories, too, for fiction writers). If you don’t have that, then you probably won’t be a successful writer. I think lots of writers have degrees (often plural) because they enjoy learning, and, hey, college is the place where they learn ya stuff.

  • mudepoz

    Does it have to be university level? That would be my greatest argument. Unless you specifically want to be in academia, does someone really have to take English courses in order to do well as a writer? I knew a lot of writers way back when who had science degrees, brilliant scientists, who never took any English courses at all. Maybe the times have changed. Forgive me, I’m just very anti-college lately based on what I see lately. Then again, I’m not a writer at this point, so maybe I should consider taking university level courses. I believe I get a discount. Still, those tech college courses look pretty good.

  • Tim True

    This discussion brings up a matter I’ve wresteled with off and on over the years–now more on than off, as I have a daughter who plans to head off to college in a year. It’s the matter of general education–the older, liberal arts idea–versus specialization. Why is there such a focus today on kids choosing majors when they’re eighteen years old? As if any eighteen year-old really knows what specialization they want to focus on for the rest of their lives. Fiction writing demands a broad general knowledge of life, doesn’t it? Too, don’t fiction writers need the skills to research, to teach themselves, to be life learners? I would think, then, that a degree whose focus is broad is to be preferred to something more focused–something like art history or English or music or philosophy or classics instead of a focused technical degree. But, on the other hand (indeed, the mental wrestling continues), Tom Clancy knows a lot of technical stuff and writes a great book. Thoughts?

  • Tim> Here’s an answer from the bowels of academia. Sometimes kids need to choose a major early because if you don’t start immediately, you won’t finish in four years (indeed, lots of folks spend at least five now). Degrees like music and history ed where I teach struggle to finish in 4 years. That said, I agree with you totally in principle. I knew I wanted to be an English major when I walked in the door because it was what I loved to study. But it wasn’t until my Junior year I figured out what I wanted to do. What students need to get jobs, aside from some specialization (i.e. if you want to work in accounting, you need accounting classes), is the ability to critically think. That’s it. (It includes critical reading and writing skills). Now, studies have shown that it is best fostered in the humanities right now. (Not that sciences don’t teach it, but the most successful are coming out of humanities) and they aren’t THAT successful. So, no, it doesn’t matter what she majors in to some degree, so long as she puts in the effort, learns to read critically, think critically, and write well. But I’m a die hard “classic liberal arts education” (which, in its early conception WAS considered vocational. After all reading and writing were necessary for nobility class jobs: priesthood, running an estate, politics, etc.)

    Mud> I don’t think it needs to happen in college–but if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot. You can do that on your own. But if you’re in school, you might as well take lit courses because that’s where you’ll read stuff that is good (either by canon standards, or by popular standards, or something). That would be the advantage of college–you’re helping your writing AND getting a degree! :) But people can do this without a classroom, and many do. As I said, you have to have the desire to learn and grow. The how isn’t terribly important. Some may find it easier in a classroom setting, others not so much.

  • There’s a lot on here that’s already been said that I agree with, so I won’t repeat it.

    I will add that I’ve taken 3 creative writing courses (1 grad, 2 undergrad) and they were good and bad. Classes are good because (assuming they’re taught well at all) they make you practice writing on a deadline, they stretch your ambitions and skills by making you write beyond your comfort zone, they expose you to peer critique (and hopefully teach you how to offer constructive critique), they offer you the chance to work with a real pro who knows what he/she is talking about, and they make you practice rewriting instead of just giving up. And, if you’re lucky, they introduce you to like minded people for mutual support.

    But my other experience is that classes are bad because they subject you to the whims and prejudices of the teacher and his pets, they put you at the temporary mercy of people who may have nothing useful to say and lots of time to say it, and the class may be so theory heavy that no real craft is taught.

    So, I say buyer beware. Classes can be wonderful, useful experiences. But the craft of writing can be learned in lots of other venues too. I still think the single most useful aphorism about writing came to me from my pottery teacher. After showing me how to refine the details on the mug I was making, he said “There is no art, without craft.” If there’s any art in my writing, it has come out because I’ve learned to practice the techniques of my craft.

  • I’ve met people with degrees who seem to know nothing and met people without degrees who seem to know more than their years would indicate.
    The good thing that higher education can give is the practice of putting your thoughts into words on paper. I think writing skill comes from practice, like many skills, so while a degree can inspire you or provide a career so you can afford to write, writing is what gets writing done. :)
    Bum in chair?
    PS: I remember studying anatomy in university, but I was more interested in the practical side…

  • Late to the party, so my own comments won’t mean a hill of beans, but… commenting anyway.

    That is, just to say my own degrees weren’t in English, Creative Writing, or any humanities, or in any sciences. I have a business undergrad (with a minor in comp. sci.) and an MBA (I’m not the soulless kind, though).

    I took as many humanities courses as my degree coursework allowed for in Undergrad (philosophy, foreign language), but ultimately missed a lot of things I would’ve liked.

    But my goal in undergrad was to live by this mantra: breaking in to the writing world is difficult, and not at all gauranteed. Have a back-up plan.

    Businesses, I figured, hire people, and they always need people who know how to run businesses. Ergo, get a business degree. Back-up plan: solved.

    That said, as it turns out, publishing (and writing, if you want to make a career of it) is a business. And having an MBA means I’m developing a better understanding of that business even without actually being in the industry. I suspect, if I’m ever able to break in, I’ll be better positioned to navigate that business environment than some writers are, and to make sound business decisions for myself.

    However, I wouldn’t advise other writers to get business degrees: unless you plan to go into a business career field (and especially if you are thinking of an MBA, you’d have to seriously consider a rather writing-time-unfriendly career in consulting), you probably won’t get a good ROI (that’s MBA-speak for “Return on Investment” or in the colloquial parlance, “bang for your buck”). And accounting and finance classes make poor fodder for the sorts of inspirational life experience that fuels good writing. Unless you’re writing a character who’s also an accountant.

  • Cyprith

    I’m very glad you wrote this. I feel like it something people heading into college (and even people in college) need to know.

    The very first creative writing class I ever took, tender little 18 year old me, gave me panic attacks the likes of which I have yet to experience again. It was so bad, even thinking of that class made me want to throw up. The teacher, while she meant well, was *awful*.

    She believed that fantasy as a genre was trite, cliché and dead–and that I was a cliché myself for writing it. Apparently 18yr old girls just into college always want to write fantasy and that, she believed, was a flaw to be heavily discouraged. She told me that my writing would never sell and that it had no intrinsic value (it being fantasy, and all). She implied that as long as I continued writing in the genres I liked, that I could expect to go nowhere in life. My writing was crap, no one wanted to read it, and why didn’t I write something sensible like normal people, doing normal things?

    It’s some comfort three years later to note that everything I wrote during that time has since sold. But the fact that it happened and is still happening to other kids infuriates me. I know there’s a saying somewhere along the lines of “if I can discourage you from writing, you’re not a writer”, but I think suffering for the art is out-of-date, over indulgent bullshit.

    If writers were encouraged in school to write anything, so long as they wrote it believably, more kids would come out knowing their way around a plot arc. This literary snobbery, and all the “my genre is better than yours–I write about divorces and broken down cars, and that actually HAPPENS, so THERE” is just juvenile. To me, it feels like a bunch of five year olds insisting, “my dad could beat up your dad! Yes-huh, he could!”

    As it is (in my college anyway) students get praised for opaque, meandering crap. If it’s inscrutable and has no discernible plot, then it’s proving itself too highbrow for the plebes, and thus actually a brilliant example of literary fiction. They *encourage* writers to not say a damn thing straight.

    So I majored in English, instead of Creative Writing. You get to read all kinds of stuff in English — even science fiction. Dissecting other author’s works taught me more about my own than writing deliberately obtuse prose for a fiction-bigot ever did.