I was answering an email today from a WRiting Excuses listener, and halfway through I thought: “This is a great question, and people ask it all the time, so why don’t I just put it up on my site?” So I am, and now when people ask I can just point them here. If any of my readers have advice on the same topic, feel free to add it. I don’t know if this kind of thing will become a regular feature on my blog or not, but for now, enjoy the wonder of From the Mailbag.
First off, I just wanted to say that I loved Serial Killer. After listening to Writing Excuses for months I couldn’t stand the fact that I had never read anything of yours, so I broke down and bought the UK version. It was well worth the extra effort (I never buy books online) and I am looking forward to Mr. Monster.
The reason I am writing is to ask for a brief bit of advice. I will be attending a university this fall and am still undecided as what I should major in. Since elementary school it has been my dream to write, but I am unsure as to how I should pursue that path. Do you think getting an English degree is the best possible choice for a aspiring writer? Would getting one improve my writing skills, or is it valuable just in having time to read and meet other writers? I am reluctant because I fear that I will get an English degree and then end up teaching at a High School somewhere with no other job prospects. As an English major yourself and a successful writer to boot, what would you recommend? English or something more useful in getting a good job?
All the best,
An English degree can be useful to a writer, but in most cases (including mine) it’s not as useful as just writing all the time. You learn more about writing by sitting down and writing than by any other method. That said, I didn’t major in English for the writing, I did it for two major reasons:
1) I love reading. I studied literature, not writing, and I feel that I was introduced to a much wider range of books and poetry and writing styles than I would have gotten otherwise. This wider range of literary experience has, in turn, impacted the way I write.
2) I graduated with an editing emphasis, which helped me get a job as an editor/copywriter. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew I needed something to pay the bills in the meantime. Since I love words, this was an obvious, early choice.
On the other hand, there are two reasons I kind of wish I hadn’t majored in English:
1) Writing all day at work, and then going home to write all night, is very hard. I got very burned out, and in eight years I only wrote six books–not a very good pace for a professional author. Working on something else all day would have made the nighttime writing easier (I assume).
2) With an English degree and several writing-based jobs, I’ve been immersed in words since 1998, day in and day out. That’s fine in some ways, because I love writing, but it’s also limited my experience; I’m pretty good at writing, but what do I have to write about? This is why most of the “literary” novels published today are about aging college professors who teach writing–because that’s who writes them, and that’s all they know. Obviously I have a life outside of work, and I try to read a wide variety of stuff, but I often wish I’d dropped English and studied history or psychology or something similar. Something to give me a different facet of background to draw on.
I suppose what it all comes down to is: weighing the pros and cons, would I do the same thing again? Yes I would. I’d even take the same horrible Technical Writing class again, just because I think it helped me in the long term even though I never became a technical writer. As much as I wish for a wider base of knowledge, the truth is that I’ve been out of college for ten years this summer, and I’ve never stopped reading and researching and I feel like I’ve filled in those gaps fairly well. I studied literature, and now I create literature, and I absolutely love it.
Thanks to Alex for submitting the question. If anyone has other questions, go ahead and send them in (dan AT fearfulsymmetry DOT com). I always answer all of my email, and if I feel like I have anything valuable to say on the subject, I’ll put it up here on the blog.