College Writers: Do you need to study writing to be a writer?

As time crawls forward to graduation, I find myself wondering if I have any regrets. If I would have done anything differently if I had different information.

I have been a Creative Writing major since my acceptance at Oswego University (though I did add a Theatre minor my junior year) because I couldn’t fathom doing anything else. My original plan was to go on to get a Master’s in Library Science, but that plan has fallen by the wayside as I have slowly realized I’d rather do something active than sit behind a desk.

My passion for the written word hasn’t waned, but I do find myself wondering whether my major was worth my time. The answer I have come to is pretty complex, so buckle up.

ABOUT THE CREATIVE WRITING B.A.

My required classes have consisted of multiple tracks of practical, workshop-based classes (I took Fiction, Poetry, and Playwrighting), with some basic English courses sprinkled in. Perhaps the most interesting and unique writing course that Oswego offers is the Living Writers Series, in which faculty invites writers to talk about their work.

Other majors at other colleges have different programs. Some have more general majors, usually just branded as “Writing,” that focus more on business-oriented, professional writing, and of course a Journalism degree would be relatively similar.

YOU SHOULD NOT MAJOR IN IT IF:

I’m going to be honest. I don’t think that aspiring writers need to get a degree at all, let alone a Creative Writing one. Writing instructors cannot teach you anything that you cannot learn on your own from reading and writing extensively.

If you love to learn, and you think you would enjoy academia, by all means go to college. College is an amazing experience, and if you are a scholarly type (like me!) and it fits into your career plans, I highly recommend it. However, consider majoring in something else.

Writing is both a trade and an art, and therefore you learn much more by doing than by sitting in a classroom. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience things like foreign languages and science are much harder to study just from reading and practice, and therefore might make a better major.

Secondly, majoring in a secondary interest may be worth it just to broaden your scope. Basically, writers need something to write about. My experiences in Political Science and Linguistics classrooms have permanently altered my worldview, and I think my writing has become more mature as a result. And– don’t flinch– this also serves to open up your career options. If you love science fiction, why don’t you augment it with science journalism? If you write like George R. R. Martin, get a political science degree so you can also blog about current events. You know yourself best; all I am saying here is to consider your options.

Many writers choose to major in English, and despite its reputation as a useless major, I think it’s a really good path, for fiction writers in particular. If nothing else, you will be exposed to a bunch of literature you may not have otherwise read. And if you dedicate yourself, all that reading can really do you good: after being forced to read the entire Iliad in three weeks, nothing seems too dense. Shakespeare isn’t much harder for me than an average novel (aside from his pop culture references, of course). If professional-level reading competency fits into your career plans, an English degree is pretty useful.

YOU SHOULD MAJOR IN IT IF:

There are two reasons that a Creative Writing major is indispensable.

One thing is networking, though as always this is more feasible at larger, more well-known universities. Meeting other writers, both those with established careers and those who are your peers, is valuable for a variety of reasons. Since OSU is a small school, I doubt you have heard of any of my professors, but what if you could attend a class taught by Maya Angelou? Peers are useful too: some of them are bound to be very talented, and maybe together you could set up a very successful YouTube channel, or just have someone to read your future work. All writers know how valuable a skilled and articulate beta-reader is!

The other is market research. It may sound cold, but reading what your peers are writing will help you get ahead. Learn from their mistakes (personally, I am sick of reading love poetry and fiction set in college dorms, so I don’t write it), but don’t ignore their successes. Though I think people often put too much stock in it, it is still a fact that publishing goes through trends, and you could be in the perfect position to jump on the newest one.

WHAT ABOUT CREATIVE WRITING MINORS?

On the other hand, I think that a Creative Writing minor is a great idea, even for people who don’t want to make writing their career. At my school, this is a more focused program, meaning that you only have to practice one medium. Many people choose it just to devote time to their hobby, but in our increasingly technological world, how could getting experience writing well possibly hurt you?

SUGGESTIONS FOR PROGRAMS

My Creative Writing classes have been focused around work-shopping, to the point of neglecting most kinds of instruction. I remember one lesson on publishing, another on first sentences, and maybe a few others on different kinds of poetic forms, but for the most part, the entire semester’s worth of classes was focused on the piece that became our final project. In my opinion, this is extremely short sighted. Even if work-shopping helps students publish all three of their fiction pieces, or every poem they handed in (about 15), what then? How does this help a writer go on and create a career?

This could be fixed by limiting work-shopping to only one round (most of my classes have done two) and doing more short assignments, which students can apply to future projects. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re in-class or for homework, but finding effective ways to practice dialogue, exposition, stage directions, line breaks, imagistic language, etc. could really help student writers in the long run.

My other suggestion would be a wider variety of classes that majors could take as electives. For example, we got little-to-no instruction on publishing, blogging, genre fiction, journaling, or reading for audiences. I’m sure there’s many more useful skills that I could list that I haven’t even been exposed to. I think my career would really benefit from practicing skills that don’t apply to sitting in front of the keyboard.

OTHER OPINIONS

Of course, every program is different, and every person’s experience is different. I invite you to comment (or write your own post!) about your thoughts and feelings. If my advice is missing something, I won’t hesitate to rethink!

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2 thoughts on “College Writers: Do you need to study writing to be a writer?

  1. All good points. For me, the creative writing major was one of the best decisions of my life. The biggest things that helped me which I wouldn’t have gotten just practicing on my own were these:

    1. Professors to talk to who were professional writers. They were all literally in the field and community I wanted to enter, had years of experience, and were willing to talk one on one about anything relating to be a writer in this world. I could find out information about MFA programs, different journals, how to approach agents, and trends in the publishing world that would not have been nearly as reliable if I had typed the questions into Google.

    2. I learned a lot about how many ways there were to write. One thing about all of my classes was the huge amount of stories and poetry that I read, discussed, and critiqued by writers of different backgrounds and skill levels. Before college, I was only exposed to the small window of books I chose to read and to my own first instincts about how to write things. My experiences in class critiques allowed me to learn from some of the techniques of my peers– what worked and what didn’t.

    3. Creative Nonfiction. I knew almost nothing about this entire genre before college. An entire genre!

    4. I learned how to write really good critiques and how to talk about writing with other writers in an intelligent and respectful way. I think everyone needs more practice knowing how to encourage someone to improve rather than just being critical.

    5. It made me understand the value of being part of a writing community. There are often a lot of jokes about writers being asocial recluses who hide away in little rooms in front of computer screens, but (at least for our generation) being a writer and a literary citizen involves way more than that. I learned a ton from trying to bring together people for different literary events or attending those organized by others (cash mob at the River’s End Bookstore, poetry readings, workshops, etc.). I learned how to promote other writers’ work and why it’s so important to work together collaboratively and as a community instead of competitively. There is a world of difference between “I’m so upset that this person published and I haven’t” and “Oh my gosh! Someone I know was published!” Learning how to work together and support each other makes being a writer in this world feel a lot more hopeful. The sense of camaraderie was incomparable.

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