Writing career advice (updated)

I am occasionally asked what you should study in uni (or “college” as USians call it) to prepare for a career as a writer. Should you major in creative writing?

In a word: NO.

The best preparation for a writing career are saleable skills in some other area. If you want to go to college study history or mathematics or sociology or engineering or whatever else takes your fancy. Variety is good. Anything, really, other than creative writing.

Never forget: The vast majority of published writers do not make a living writing. You will need some other way to make money to support your writing habit.

The courses that helped me prepare most for my writing career were in linguistics, history, and semiotics. The one semester creative writing course I did was by far the least useful.

Every single full-time professional writer I know had other jobs before they switched to full-time writing. They were teachers, software engineers, food critics, librarians, journalists, masseurs, dramaturgs, waitresses, receptionists, lead soldier pickers, copywriter, executives, lawyers, editors, and a bunch of other jobs I’m not remembering right now.

Most—but not all of them—earned an undergraduate degree, but none of those degrees were in creative writing. Not a single one. And very few of them have an MFA or other postgraduate writing degrees.

The best way to perfect your craft is to write and write and write. I’ve talked about that elsewhere. But what I haven’t mentioned is that another part of being a successful writer is having something to write about.

Yes, that’s right, experience, knowledge. Those are what help generate ideas.

Spending the majority of your time in uni (college) writing stories and concentrating on your craft, and not learning all the kinds of useful stuff (history, languages, physics, agriculture) that can feed into your stories can be a mistake. It’s hard to write well about the world if you don’t know a lot about it. Which is another reason I advise people to live in other countries if you ever get the opportunity. Preferably, ones where they don’t speak the same language as you do.

I also think it’s a really good idea to take a year off and work and travel before you go to uni. Meet a wide variety of people. Leave your neighbourhood, your town, your city, your state, your country.1

You may get lucky and find an awesome career that doesn’t require a degree. But, sadly, that’s getting less and less likely. Undergraduate degrees seem to be required for pretty much every career these days, which is a shame because some of the smartest people I know are autodidacts.

I digress.

To sum up: majoring in creative writing for an undergraduate degree? A thousand times no.

Update: A post in which I attempt to clarify my position. No, I’m not against MFAs.

  1. Now, I have occasionally met people who had so many experiences packed into their first 18 years of life that this advice is redundant. But they’re rare. They’d probably welcome the rest of a few years of writing workshops. []

32 comments

  1. cuileann on #

    Well, call me surprised and ship me to Panama.

    Thank you.

  2. Leahr on #

    Wikpedia kindly points out the dangers of autodidactisism. (can’t spell! aah!)

    “Autodidacts may focus too narrowly in a field of interest and neglect whole areas of reading and study in related areas or foundational studies that are required for genuine depth and perspective on the topic.”
    Ha. yes. I would never do math again. I do recognize that I should.

    “Many people who learn by reading books pick up a different pronunciation of technical terms and names.”
    No kidding! I pronounce absolutely everything wrong. Kind friends tell me how to say things as simple as opponent (OPPonent? opPOnent?) or chic. The troubles of having a big vocabulary simply from reading.

    I totally agree with you otherwise, though. I love teaching myself things. I learn some languages that way. Unusual ones. And I spend much time researching things on the internet, from geography of France to the history of small African countries. When I write I do this too- use knowledge of history for my story. Garibaldi gave me the basis for a plot set in a fictionland, and the fact that the Mali tribe had acess to gold mines was handy for a short story.

    The only question remaining is, if I do not study Creative Writing, what DO I major in? :-(

  3. Lee Battersby on #

    I couldn’t agree more. I took a Bachelor of Attendance in Creative Writing in the late 80s/early 90s, and it took me the better part of fifteen years, via stops in theatre, stand up comedy, and the Public Service, to unlearn the tripe they washed through my creative brain.

    Any course that consists almost entirely of thirty people of your level of achievement, sitting together in a room telling each other what they’re doing wrong on the basis of nothing more than that’s what they were told last lesson, guided by a person who may or may not have some significant publication, possibly or possibly not in a field somewhere in the same universe as the one you’re interested in, and who’d rather be back in their office working on their own stuff, is a *very* bad idea.

    Editors and writers. That’s who you should be hanging out with. There is *no* substitute for hard-nosed professional experience and advice. Preferably over a beer.

  4. Liset on #

    I’m a creative writing major!!!
    O_o
    fortunately I’m a double major,
    so my second is Philosophy and Religion.

  5. Heidi on #

    You are sooooo right! From the beginning, I’ve always known that a BA in Creative Writing was a bunch of BS. How? I took a few creative writing classes at college and boy, were they the anti-helpful! If I wasn’t already published, in love with writing, and under the care of an excellent mentor, those classes would have turned me off writing for good.

    Ditto mee too on the day job. I can only think of one writer (Elizabeth Bear) who makes her income solely off writing, and even then, I might be mistaken, and she might have a trust fund somewhere I don’t know about. But everyone else? Day jobs.

    Meanwhile, for Leah: study whatever you want, and change your mind as you see fit. It’s okay to change your major if you want. There’s a great, big wonderful world out there and nothing says you have to be locked into one study/career choice for the rest of your life.

    I started out studying biology, changed my major to film and music and now I work in IT. Go fig.

    Oh yeah, and I write.

  6. Tim Pratt on #

    I was a creative writing major as an undergrad, though I did my emphasis in poetry, which is of course no way to make a living. I did publish a fair bit of poetry for a while, but these days it’s fiction all the way. In retrospect, I agree that it wasn’t the best choice. I learned a lot more useful things from my history classes, which taught me how to do proper research and how to look out for biases. My folklore class was wonderful, as were many of the weird interdisciplinary art/psychology/etc. classes.

    I nearly did a double major with History, but went to Clarion instead of taking the couple of summer classes I needed to complete the history BA. (Clarion, now, that was useful — more practical information packed into six weeks than I’d gotten in years of university study of writing.)

    Mostly college was good for falling in and out of love a few times, doing stupid things, seeing lots of live music, making great friends, and learning how to be a grown-up (but not too grown-up).

  7. Garth Nix on #

    To give you an example of just how badly majoring in creative writing will hold you back, take me for example :-)

    I essentially majored in Creative Writing, graduating with a BA (Professional Writing) from the University of Canberra in 1986. Admittedly I did wander about for a few years before I went to university.

    Given that a BA is pretty much a generic work ticket for graduate entry jobs, I don’t think it matters what you major in if that’s the degree you’re going to do.

    As to whether majoring in creative writing helps or hinders the development of an author, I think it depends on the individual, on the course, on the fellow students and the instructors.

    There are a multitude of possible roads to follow if you want to write and be published. What you do or don’t study as an undergraduate is, in my opinion at least, not as important as some other factors*

    *You know the secret stuff we’ve all sworn never to reveal. Like reading widely and writing a lot. Oh damn, I just revealed it.

  8. lili on #

    I sooooo agree about the studying creative writing thing (although I think doing a Professional Writing course AFTER a more general course is a great idea).

    I did a semester of Creative Writing at Uni, and it was all blah blah YOU SHOULD ALWAYS WRITE BY HAND blah blah LET YOUR WORDS FLOW THROUGH YOUR ARM AND OUT YOUR PEN blah blah EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST blah blah nonsense. I learnt much more in Philosophy and Cultural Studies and History. And I learnt more about the craft of writing from my cinema studies class…

  9. Lindsay on #

    Heh, I love to write, but I didn’t even like the one creative writing class I took in high school.

    If I’m going to pen stories, I don’t want to write literature… I want to write something people will actually buy and enjoy reading. ;)

  10. claire on #

    i have both a BA and an MFA in creative writing and i agree with justine. don’t do a BA in CW no matter what you do. it’s useless, even insofar as what you major in might be useful. take a few creative writing classes, and think very carefully before going for an MFA.

    MFAs are good if you want to be taken seriously in the literary fiction world, but writing and getting published trumps everything.

  11. lotti on #

    I don’t see how majoring in creative writing would help anyone. Either you have the ‘spark’, or you don’t. I’ve gotten the lamest advice from some of them. One person suggested taking the worst thing that could ever happen to you and the best thing that could ever happen to you, and then tying them together. Unhelpful much?

  12. Herenya on #

    I’ve done one semester of creative writing at uni and want to do more. I am not planning on majoring in it, but my rationale is that, I might as well have something in there I am doing just because I enjoy it.
    The class was one of my favourites, and I found it really useful – discussing different approaches to writing, seeing what others were writing, spending time with other people who wrote, and being encouraged to write things which were not necessarily within my comfort zone.
    Also, we were told of how unlikely it was any of us would actually earn a living from writing (I vaguely remember the tutor telling us to get out if we wanted to make money and go and do something else.) I guess I felt I came away with a good sense of perspective.

    I’m interested you suggest taking a gap year before uni, because that’s what I did! :) I think I managed everything you mention in that paragraph, except leaving the country. Oh, and meeting a wide variety of people.

    I love the new poll, although I have to say “kid” makes me think of when I was a lot younger. Not those incidents of reading under the desk during year 12…

  13. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Geology and Literature double major for me.

    One semester I took of CW was total crap.

    Now I’m a full time writer.

  14. Patrick on #

    I believe if you want to be a professional writer, you should learn from a professional writer. Where do you find them? Writer conventions, writer workshops, and writer organizations, such as RWA or SCWBI.

    Always look at what the writer you are listening to has done. If they have only written 1 book and it is a ‘how to get published’ book, you might want to look else where. It doesn’t make them wrong, but if they had the answers, wouldn’t they have more books?

    Always take all advice even from the multi-published with a grain of salt. They are telling you their experience, your mileage may vary. Stephen King’s advice may not be right for you.

  15. Gabrielle on #

    What about majoring in English? Is that essentially the same?

  16. JJ on #

    My dad once said that your undergraduate major didn’t matter, that you could major in Underwater Basket Weaving and in the end, it came down to the training you got at your job. The ability to articulate yourself well during an interview trumped most things. Take me, for example. I majored in English Literature and Art History and now I work in finance in New York. (It pays the bills as I write.) So, if you want to write, major in whatever the hell interests you; it ultimately won’t help or hurt you in your CAREER, although it may or may not add to the wealth of experience you have to draw from.

    I’m torn about going for an MFA in Creative Writing, not because I think it will be helpful in getting published, but because I yearn for two years in which I do nothing but write and not have to worry about the real world.

  17. Steve Buchheit on #

    I have a minor in CW. The actual writing courses were mostly less than helpful, although the literature study course (Fantasy, SF, and two independent study courses which focused on SF) helped. Not so much on the actual knowledge from the class, but from the habit of reading, analyzing, and critiquing published works.

  18. Carrie on #

    I majored in English (wish I hadn’t) and came close to majoring in Art History and Arts (my undergrad didn’t have minors). I’m not sure if I’d have started writing as young as I did without taking a creative writing class in high school. And I actually feel like I learned a ton from the creative writing classes I took in college (which were essentially workshops). Maybe it’s because I had an amazing prof who didn’t tell us there was only one way to write. In fact, I remember when I “found my voice” — it was during an exercise for a class on writing personal essays and the narrative structure.

    For me, part of what I loved about writing classes in college was talking about writing with others, getting and learning how to give feedback (I strongly believe you learn a ton about writing by critting others). But it was also finding the time to write, setting a schedule, working with deadlines. I don’t think a class can teach you how to write, but I think it can give you a way to figure a lot of stuff out on your own.

    So while I don’t think that creative writing courses are at all necessary, I do think they can be helpful.

  19. eric luper on #

    Justine, I was a creative writing major in college (perhaps now the only one you know!). However, I do agree with you. My other courses of study were far more useful in preparing me to be a writer and for preparing me for my life. Even READING was more useful.

    I will say this though: most English degrees are achievable with 30 or so college credits (of 120 required for graduation). A creative writing degree is only marginally more than that. This leaves 80 or 90 credits of OTHER STUFF an English major must study to get an undergraduate degree. I studied sciences, math, humanities–all sorts of interesting stuff in college–because I had the latitude and flexibility to do so.

    My recommendation is if you are considering a career in writing pick up a SECOND major in something that will be useful to you as a starter career. Sitting in a classroom with aspiring writers, thickening your skin to criticism and reading, reading, reading is never a bad thing.

    And how cool of a feeling is it to know you have a better publisher than many of your college professors??? :-)

  20. Amber on #

    Hear, hear on travelling. It transpires Kiwis, Brits, Canucks and Aussies _do_ speak different languages, too. Drink a flat white, a double-double, or just a coffee? Wear a hoodie or a bunnyhug? Stow your farm machinery in a barn or a quonsett? (Ok, that one might not be so handy on a day-to-day basis. But you know). I think a lot of the best fiction-about-a-place comes from having been outside it. Didn’t Tim Winton write Dirt Music when he wasn’t even _in_ WA? (not a YA title btw). Maybe JL’s homesickness for Sydney puts the place in starker relief.

    Gabrielle, on BAs in English? I think these days many BAs are mostly about learning to learn and to think critically. “Pure education” subjects such as History, English – rather than “targeted” subjects such as marketing, creative writing – teach you a set of skills that are applicable to a lot of things (or, depending on which way you look at it, nothing at all…)

  21. hereandnow on #

    On the flipside, I did some creative writing classes as part of my English major and they were very, very helpful. They developed my understanding of structure/narrative techniques, etc, and they helped me decide that I didn’t want to become a serious writer in the near future. *grin*

    I haven’t altogether ruled out writing but my current (writing-related) career makes me happier. I’m much more of a reader by temperament!

    The non-Arts half of my double degree, Law, has also turned out to be useful in a backgroundy way. Despite the fact that I didn’t go on to the professional training, so I am not an actual lawyer.

  22. Janni on #

    (Gabrielle): I found an English major useful enough–exposed me to interesting literature, and I discovered that as liberal arts degrees go, an English degree is one that many folks assume makes you qualified to work for them, maybe because they assume an English major knows how to put coherent sentences together. (Not necessarily true–I learned that on my own–but it’s a useful assumption.) For all the talk of English majors starving, I think English majors have to do less justifying of their skills than, say, comparative literature or language majors. (Not justly–I think those majors give all the same skills an English major does–but one maybe has to do a little more convincing to employers of this.)

    My second major was biology, also useful, in a skills-to-better-understand-the-world way–and it’s let me do some science writing alongside my fiction, too.

  23. Corey J Feldman on #

    I figure major in anything you want. Just be prepared to go get an MBA, Law degree or some other grad school to help advance your career if the whole writing thing doesn’t quite pan out. To be a better rounded person and hopefully writer, fill your electives with lots of interdisciplinary courses. Know the classics and mythology. If I had the time and money, I would still be taking classes.

  24. Eric Bourland on #

    >>>The best way to perfect your craft is to write and write and write.

    I think that’s the second best way. The best way is to read a lot.

  25. May on #

    Thank you for this post, Justine.

    I wish people would get this so that they will stop assuming that because I write that I’m at uni for a CW/Eng Lit etc type degree.

    Not sure that I would learn anything useful in a writing program, but economics? It’s taught me to write concisely and to the point. My analytical skills have picked up considerably, and so have my research skills. Plus I get the bonus of an ‘employable degree.’

  26. behindpyramids on #

    I’m a creative writing major (with a second degree in psychology, which actually taught me far less)…this kind of crushed my soul.
    I would argue that if you want to major in creative writing, it’s a good place to get feedback and test out your skills….but creative writing should definitely be paired with another major.

  27. Justine on #

    behindpyramids: Don’t let it crush your soul! If it worked for you then it worked for you. Clearly my advice is wrong in your case.

  28. Jess on #

    I have a BA in creative writing and I think the only thing it’s good for is giving me something to put in the bio section of my query letters. >.< The only problem is I figured this out too late to change my major. Luckily, I have a variety of interests and am self-motivated to learn about them, so that’s kinda okay, but it does suck trying to find a job in the real world. You’re definitely right about not doing it. I’m trying to get a job at a uni so I can go back and learn useful things for free. :)

  29. Emma Bull on #

    Hi there! Just weighing in on the other side, because, you know, yin, yang, blah de blah. I double-majored in English Literature and English Composition (double whammy!). Loved it. Had two outstanding profs, Chad Walsh and Robert Ray, who really knew what telling stories was all about and had no prejudices about genre. And I had to read books I never would have sought out for myself, which taught me heaps about the tools and techniques of fiction.

    My degrees didn’t prevent me from getting any of the jobs I subsequently took to support my writing, which included technical editing, journalism, and making rubber stamps. *g*

    I still use things I learned in college writing classes, and try to pass them on to other folks. But of course, I also took classes in history, physics, chemistry, comparative lit, psychology, sociology, photography, and ceramics (I flunked that last one. Ooops.) because they wouldn’t let me have a degree without ‘em. They turned out to be useful, too.

  30. Gabrielle on #

    Thanks Janni. I guess it’s always best to major in something “useless” (heh) like English or Creative Writing as well as something else. I agree that English is useful anywhere though.

    And I really love the new layout, Justine! It’s not that different, but it’s awesome.

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