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.
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.
- 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. [↩]