What to Study to Become a Writer

Lucy Says:

Hi Justine! Firstly, thank you for all your posts about writing novels and the basics; I’m a young writer and your blog has really helped someone so inexperienced!

I’m in high school in Sydney and if you grew up around here I assume you completed the HSC? Or an equivalent, if it’s more recent than I think. I was just wondering what subjects you chose. English is obviously essential for any student who wants to be a writer, but did you find any other subjects particularly helpful? Thanks!

Thanks for your kind words. So glad I’ve helped.

I would definitely advise doing some kind of tertiary study, be it at university, or some kind of trade school. Getting qualifications so you can get a decent paid job is a really good idea. Because the vast majority of published writers do not earn enough to make a living. So those who want to be writers need to figure out what is the best job to enable them to write on the side.

I am on the record as not being a huge fan of studying creative writing. Do read that post and especially make sure you read the comments because plenty disagreed with me including Garth Nix.

Back in the day, I decided that being an academic was the best way to support myself while I wrote. And that’s what I did until I became a freelance writer in 2003. I went to university got two degrees: BA (Hons) and a PhD. In the course of doing so I had many other jobs: I worked retail, I was a receptionist, cleaner, admin assistant, researcher, IT help and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten. I had a scholarship to do my PhD and also taught at the university part-time. I then got my first real full-time job as a postdoctoral researcher.

While all of that was going on I was doing my own writing on the side.

That’s one of the many cools things about being a writer. It is the most transportable of talents. It can fit in with any other job you can name. It can be done anywhere and anytime.

I know other writers for whom technical writing is the main job. I know writers who are also lawyers. One who works in a museum. One who’s an ambo. And many who are teachers and librarians and journalists.1 And even more who work in the publishing industry. Mainly as editors.

I know writers who look at having to have a job other than writing as a burden and a penance and it drives them nuts. But I also know plenty who find that their day job feeds into their writing and who say that without it what would they write about?

It’s a good point: the more experiences you have the more you see of the world and how it works, the better equipped you are to write about it.

I do not know a single full-time pro writer who has not at some point in their life had a different job. We have all worked at something other than writing novels.

As a writer you can do any job you want.2 I would strongly advise not planning your course of study at high school or university around writing. As it really is one of the very hardest jobs to make a living at. While at the same time being, unlike, say, acting, one of the easiest to keep doing while holding down another job.

Deciding what to study for your last years in high school should be shaped by a few things:

Do you want to go to university? What do you want to study there?

If you want get a degree in something with a high entrance score3 then you need to pick the courses that are required for that degree and you need to pick subjects you’re good at and likely to do well in. Maiximise your chances of doing as well as you can so you have your choice of universities and courses.

Don’t forget about the sciences. There’s a huge demand for scientists, not just in this country, but all around the world. And every science is brimming with cool ideas. Perfect for a writer.

If you don’t have a bent for scholarly study or are good with your hands then consider a trade. There are loads of tradies who make more money than your average university-degreed person. Skilled plumbers and electricians and carpenters etc. are always in demand. Plus how many novels are there from the plumber’s point of view? Or the sparky’s? The world needs more of those novels and NO MORE novels from the point of view of middle-aged male university professors. I’m just saying . . .

Other than writing what are your passions?

I have a friend who has always loved the sea. She was a trained scuba diving instructor while still in her teens and now has a PhD in marine biology and a career she loves. Yes, she writes too.

It could be you have a skill, like scuba diving, that could lead you to a career perfect for you.

My sister has always been visually gifted, good at photography. She went on to study art and wound up in the visual effects industry. She has worked on blockbuster films like those in the Matrix and Harry Potter series all around the world.

Many people will tell you that studying art is useless. It wasn’t for my sister.

If you do go to university why not pick subjects you think are cool? That fit into your passions. Who knows where it will lead you? I know plenty of people who are now doing jobs that didn’t exist when they were in high school.

But maybe writing is all you can do and all you want to do. Fine, then. Do what Garth Nix says.

But whatever you decide remember that no one path is irrevocable. You an always change your mind. Most people these days wind up with more than one career during their lifetime.

Good luck, Lucy!

P.S. I did, in fact, do my HSC here in Sydney. A. Very. Long. Time. Ago.

  1. Though that last one seems to be a dying job. Or if not dying a transitioning one. []
  2. Within reason. Could be you live somewhere with high unemployment. []
  3. I’m keeping this generic so it applies to people outside NSW where the HSC does not exist. []


  1. Rose Fox on #

    I vote for studying EVERYTHING, formally or not. I’m a three-time college drop-out who variously majored in mathematics, computer science, linguistics, and architectural design. Now I’m a magazine editor with a side business editing novels. You really don’t need an English-related degree to write or edit professionally.

    With regard to writing in particular, the more broadly you look for interesting information to cram into your skull, the more interesting your writing will be. Never stop broadening your horizons and learning everything you can about the world around you.

  2. Alisa Alering on #

    I studied English (lit) in college, and wish I hadn’t. Why? Because I would have read all the books anyway, and if I had taken a different major (Sociology! Geography! History! Psychology! Biology of Rare and Cool Mosses!) I would have learned lots of other stuff, too. As long as you read (voraciously, widely), the more different things you study or pursue outside that reading, the better writer you are likely to be.

    For the record, I did take a creative writing workshop in college and, looking back, it did more harm than good. I was all sensitive, and probably lost a good 5-6 years of time when I could have been writing oodles of pages in happy ignorance and learning by doing instead of being afraid to write.

  3. Justine on #

    Rose Fox: Seconded! I know it’s a cliche but everything really is grist to the mill.

    Alisa Alering: Creative writing workshops are such a disaster for some people. I’m one of them. While being fabulous for others.

    And, yeah, way too many study literature who don’t really need to. Like you, I think you’re better off using university to push you in directions you wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

  4. Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (@rcloenenruiz) on #

    Before anything else, I grew up in the mountains in the Philippines and so I don’t know how relevant my experience may be, but for what it’s worth, I’m sharing it because I said I would.

    I didn’t study to be a writer because I didn’t know you could study to become one. I grew up loving books and read anything and everything I could get my hands on. My sister is also a bookworm, so we sort of fought over who got to read the best books first. My parents were also wide readers and we had lots of books on all sorts of things. We read histories and mythologies, fairytales, sermons, true stories and untrue stories, magazines, comics, the gossip pages, newspapers, the Bible– everything, even the encyclopedia. I started writing because I ran out of things I loved to read.

    When we got to the city, I still didn’t know you could study to be a writer. I just kept on reading and writing a lot. At a certain point, I decided that I only wanted to read award-winning books because I figured they had won awards and so they must be doing something right. Now I know that not all award-winning books deserve to win…but I still learned a lot by reading that way and I also read lots of excellent writers who made me want to be better than I was.

    When it was time to go to college, my Mom insisted that I go to Conservatory. So, I took up a music program and studied to be a piano teacher. I also took up voice and harmony and counterpoint and I had an excellent teacher who taught us about indigenous music and the history of my country’s music.

    I think the study of history (in particular your own history) is important to anyone who wants to write seriously because this knowledge makes you approach your work with more awareness.

    Has my study of music helped me? I think it has. It’s given me a stronger sense of rhythm and expression.

    One of the most important lessons I took away from years of daily “torture” under my piano teacher was this: talent, technique, practice and expression-you need all of these things to produce a beautiful work that moves people. It’s a lot of hard work but if you love it, it’s hard work that you love.

    It’s also important to learn to accept criticism and to learn to ask for it. One thing that studying music taught me: I learned not to be too sensitive about my work. If a word doesn’t fit, I discard it. If a scene is wrong, then it has to go. Nothing is holy and the only thing that matters is the story. This is the same aesthetic when you do composition. Even when you break the rules and make discord, you do it understanding what kind of sound you are creating.

    I think all good writers are perpetual students of life. I am still learning. Keep reading and writing and live life. Good luck.

  5. Justine on #

    Rochita Loenen-Ruiz: Wow. Thank you for the wonderful comment.

    Also: One thing that studying music taught me: I learned not to be too sensitive about my work. If a word doesn’t fit, I discard it. If a scene is wrong, then it has to go. Nothing is holy and the only thing that matters is the story.

    This. A million times.

  6. Suzi on #

    Totally agree with what Justine said – do something you love or something you’re good at. Don’t do something you think you “should” do – I wasted years slogging through a degree that everyone told me I should do, that there were plenty of jobs in but essentially left me bored to tears. The other piece of advice I would give is this: Travel. There is so much out there in the world, and the more you see, the more you realise how little you know about it, and that just opens up your mind and imagination to the endless possibilities.

  7. wandering-dreamer on #

    I always get frustrated when the setting for a story seems rather cliche and more like an add on (instead of being practically it’s own character) so I’d want people to study a lot about the world around them. I guess History fits in there, I took a great class called Society and Technology so now I always think about stuff like that for a story, I just feel like it’s harder for people to create a full-fledged setting without studying the world first so they should really try to learn how the world works and then play with that.

  8. Nikki on #

    Ugh, tried to comment once already and my iPod did god knows what with it. The gist of it was that my advice is to follow your passions. No amount of studying can make you a good writer if you’re not interested and eager to share that. Study life by living it.

    I’m an English lit postgrad student, but I don’t think you have to go that way to be a writer, and you definitely shouldn’t just to become a writer. For me, the research and learning old languages and reading a dozen different translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is my passion, and so I can write with feeling about the exposed nape of Gawain’s neck as he kneels down for the Green Man to cut off his head; a friend of mine is an astrophysicist and writes just as tenderly about far-off stars. Don’t just do something because you feel you ought to, because it might make you a better writer — do things because they intrigue you and experience everything you can. Every single experience makes your writing better.

  9. Sam X on #

    Indeed, I think what most everyone is saying is two things: Experience widely to develop your passion and then follow your passion.

    Experience takes many forms: travelling, reading, talking, trying. You need those different sources to uncover different aspects of our world, and to see which aspects stick with you.

    Passion is critical because without it, your desire to write will dwindle. We all love writing but not simply for the sake of words sandwiched together: we love it because it allows us to express something. For some that might be ancient mysteries, others want to examine the human condition, still others want to dissect political realities.

    I got a BA in creative writing (which was only truly useful because one of my teachers was as crazy as I am) and since then have picked up and discarded many ideas for further study. Literature, more writing, media, history. I have finally settled on international relations–all my writing is political–but it took 5+ years to get there.

    Anyhow: experience & passion. That’s what you need.

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