‘Want fries with that?’

Or ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ (being the advice given to many an aspiring writer, by many saddened but wiser authors or people who trod the course before.)

Here’s the thing: chasing down your dream instead of taking the careful course has become fashionable. Who the hell am I to criticize anyone for doing so? I live on an island and write novels as a result of making choices that were not what most people think are sensible. It worked for me.

That doesn’t stop me knowing that many of my choices were really anything but sensible, and having decided to do it anyway.

That’s a very different animal to believing that a degree majoring in Wymyn’s Studies, and Impressionist Medieval Bathroom Décor would lead to a world of opportunity and was well worth getting deep in debt for… and then being terribly unhappy and blaming everyone else, when the most common opportunity (outside of teaching the same stuff others) oddly involves potato products.

It is this whole personal responsibility thing, which I believe is out of fashion.

It is a pity about that, because it works.

Now, all of this post is due to a very successful and skilled writer being asked by a wannabe if the wannabe should – in order to follow her writing dream, take BA majoring in English.

She answered – and I paraphrase slightly:

English Major = “Want fries with that?” Pick on something that will make you enough money to write what you want. *

Of course deeply offended English Majors promptly rushed to the defense of a degree they’d spent a lot of money getting. One even claimed to be a writer earning 6 figures. I’ve never heard of her, but it is possible.

It IS possible that you can be a very successful author with a BA in English. It is also possible that you can be a very successful author with a degree majoring in Wymyn’s Studies, and Impressionist Medieval Bathroom Décor.

Almost anything is possible.

That’s not the question.

The question is: how probable is it? Given some idea of that, you can make rational (or irrational) decisions about your best course toward your goal.

Back in pre-history when killer fax-machines roamed the streets with greasy hair-dos, I made some of my own choices, which did come with having to learn something of the dark arts (AKA Mathematics and Statistics. Yes, I already washed my mouth out with soap), and this forces me to say: the odds on becoming a traditionally published author, making a good living, are such that becoming an astronaut is not all that ridiculous a goal, and neither is winning the Lotto.

And unlike the aiming for becoming the astronaut, where sensible study choices and high intellect can reduce those odds hugely (they’re still very high) luck still remains a huge factor for authors (Yes, good persistent writers are lucky more often than people who write poorly and don’t keep trying). So unless there is a study course which makes you a lot more likely to win at games of chance… study probably isn’t going to be a deciding factor. That’s not say you can’t succeed as a writer having accrued $250 000 in debt doing a BA in English or Creative Writing… or Ichthyology. It’s just a lot of money to spend, and time to invest if your goal is being a writer, not just loving your College course.

“But, but… but… English! You’ll learn all about literature, and understand it.”

You probably will. Or at least to understand what you College Prof thinks it means.

And how, pray, will that make you a better writer? At least ‘better’ for definitions of ‘better’ which include earning a reasonable living by selling books to readers in general. It’s not about how well you bleg on Patreon. That’s a skill too, BTW. Not one of mine, but a skill. It might help you sell more English Lit textbooks to future students. Or – like several of my peers now hastily working on MFA’s – and a couple of Australians taking PhD’s on their own books, it may help to make you a living teaching wannabe writers. One is a little curious here – as this is a fallback position for failing as an author… how valuable would such teachers be? Possibly more value than the English Prof who has never sullied his hands with commerce, let alone spoiled his perfect mind with popular books: but still, this is people who couldn’t do, teaching.

Look, this is a profession where, honestly, failure is MUCH more likely than success. A lot of that comes down to luck.

So the key is how do you improve your chances as best as possible?

I’m going out on a limb here, and will say investing time in writing is going to cost less and pay more to you as a writer than any college training will. Most of the skills you need you can learn yourself, or should have, if you passed 8th grade English (assuming you wish to write in English). Yes, you need to spell, have a reasonable grasp of grammar at least to the level of your readers, and having a clue about structure helps. There are plenty of books which can fill in any gaps. You may find advice on writing sites too.

Secondly, read critically – not as a critic, but to learn the skills and techniques of popular authors. There is no point in studying the average English curriculum of literary works read by other academics unless you want lessons in what not to do (unless they are your audience). The exception may be if you can find a course which actually focuses on popular books and the techniques their writers use.

Thirdly, publicity, whether it is a blog following of size or being a Kardashian, or playing your race, sex or orientation cards, is probably still more valuable than most things. It’s relentless work in almost all cases. Yes, every now and again someone gets lucky or has the right connections, or has sex with the right person… but sustaining public interest is work. You can parley that into commercial book success, even if you can’t write well.

Fourthly, the one thing you can learn from a degree is about the field you wish to write in. So: for example if you plan to write American War of Independence Historicals, it makes sense to study American History, especially that bit. If you want to write hard SF, Physics, Maths or Chem make some sense – and so on. Any subject WILL enrich your mind and help broaden your background (unless it is incredibly badly taught, and you are totally credulous. College SHOULD make a skeptic of you. If it doesn’t make you question what you’re being taught – you’re wasting your time.) Whether the cost and time – especially if it doesn’t lead to other opportunities – is worth your investing, is your calculation. Along with a habit of questioning accepted ‘knowledge’ you ought to learn research skills in academia (I certainly did) as well as bad writing habits that you will have to lose to appeal to a wide audience.

Finally: I know of no degree that focuses on ‘how to communicate entertainingly with people who do not share your expertise or interest.’ That would be a course worth taking, because that describes most of your customers.

So: what’s your opinion? Does taking English Lit qualify you as a writer or as staff at Burger-joint? Is it worth the investment, and why? Is any degree more relevant or useful, to the point that it is specifically worth being in debt for?

*Twitter is a hard environment to be subtle or tactful on. The author since removed the tweet, so I assume she’d prefer not to be named, which is fair enough. It’s not easy advice, but sometimes the best advice isn’t.

84 Comments

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84 responses to “‘Want fries with that?’

  1. I studied English Lit at degree level. Well, it was actually English Studies, which comprised literature, linguistics and creative writing. Did it help me to become a better writer? Yes. It’s like being a car mechanic, I suppose. Let’s say that you see a beautiful car that’s running perfectly and you lift the bonnet. If you don’t know anything about cars, you can appreciate the whole but lifting the bonnet doesn’t mean much. If you’re a mechanic, you can appreciate the creation as a whole, but you can also marvel at all the beautifully made moving parts underneath.

    Having literature and creative writing together was invaluable. The writing tutors were all published fiction writers (not academically published). They weren’t spec-fic writers but there are tools that span genres so it was all useful.

    Did it give me career opportunities? Not really. Not unless I wanted to move to London (at that time). Possibly moreso now, with website copy writing and other opportunities. My degree would be more useful in any case than a purely literature degree, but combined with my ability to type and spell, it meant I could find a job pretty easily in admin, instead of the factories I’d worked in prior to going to college. So, it’s probably unfair to suggest that all a person would be fit for is flipping burgers, but absolutely right that it won’t guarantee you a career in writing, either.

  2. Christopher M. Chupik

    I got lucky. My Library Information Technology degree got me a job at a bookstore, and eventually the library. All the while I was improving my writing skills. Now I make a little money from my writing . . . but I haven’t quit my day job.

  3. adventuresfantastic

    Good advice, Dave. The burger joint falls into what I tell my students are W jobs, where you say lots of words that begin with the letter W:

    “Would you like fries with that?”
    “Welcome to Wal-Mart” (For those of you outside the US, Wal-Mart is a large discount chain that employs greeters at the doors.)

    Most of my students are on a premed track and are so focused on grades that they tend to not think past the next exam and don’t have a plan B if they aren’t accepted to med school. I try to get them to think about the things you’ve said here and plan for multiple outcomes. Sadly, few seem to.

  4. “Finally: I know of no degree that focuses on ‘how to communicate entertainingly with people who do not share your expertise or interest.’ That would be a course worth taking, because that describes most of your customers.”

    Perhaps “would you like fries with that?” *would* be a good place to garner that experience, if you work at it. Or any job that requires you to deal with the public on a daily basis. For example… plumbing.

    People generally only call the plumber when there’s a problem, or one has gone past “problem” and straight to “disaster.” At that point you are in a person’s home, and are generally going to be there for more than five minutes. Even a minute of silence between people gets awkward.

    They don’t know you from Adam, and most folks aren’t like to just let you poke around in their homes unsupervised. There’s private stuff there. So they hover, and usually, worry. If you can talk to them it helps the worry decrease. So, people skills.

    A good plumber keeps up with the local news, sports games, and has a stock of stories to tell at that point while working (or an assistant who can manage people doing the same, and getting them out of his hair).

    Writers may not have developed people skills on their own. There’s that image of the writer sitting at home in disheveled nightwear, pecking away at the keyboard all alone with the rags of darkness giving way to the first hints of dawn unnoticed a window away… Which in some cases may be accurate, or not, depending. Telling a good story is engaging. Engaging what?

    Engaging emotions, most like. Pure intellect might pass a calculus exam, but a story carries you along for the ride. Highs and lows, tension and release, bitter loss and exultant victory. What are the stories that stick with us? The ones that most satisfy?

    There are genres to fit night every taste, but what the best ones do is pull those strings of emotion, gently, roughly, but makes the reader feel something as they make their way through the story. Doing that without jarring takes skill. That skill comes with practice, so writers… write. And read. And steal like bandits from the best practitioners of their craft, because those tricks *work.*

    So perhaps skipping the English major (and the debt associated with it) and heading straight to the writing, and the “would you like fries with that?” would be the best bet. Read. Analyze. Steal. Interact. Learn. And most of all, write.

    This was a good post to think on, sir. Much appreciated this morning. *grin*

  5. I attribute one thing I learned in college for much of my success (for certain values of the word “success”) as a comic book writer and, now, a science fiction author. That one thing I learned was how to play role playing games.

    Back in 1976, at the dawn of the time for role playing, I learned how to play Dungeons and Dragons. Since I was the only one who owned the rules, I ended up as the gamemaster more often than not. This was back in the days when gamemasters had to craft their own adventures. Since I was skipping classes to play the game (No, I never did get a college degree. What made you ask?), I had to create a lot of adventures. Even better, I got immediate feedback from the players. If an adventure was too boring, they’d go find something else to do. If some detail, usually added without much thought on my part, didn’t make sense to the players, I had to come up with a sensible reason for the detail.

    In other words, I learned how to craft stories, had one hell of a lot of fun learning it, and didn’t go deeply into debt. Oh, and I have never had to say, “Would you like fries with that?” I’ll bet none of those MFA students can make the same claims.

    • sabrinachase

      I would add *playing* true roleplaying games, where the emphasis is not necessarily on rules, stats, and die-rolls but “what would this character think a good thing to do?” It forces you to think as not-yourself. Also acting. I get a lot of mileage out of my high school theatrics experience–again, spending time trying to fool others into thinking you are somebody else. Also improv.

      • paladin3001

        The ultimate best GM I had emphasised players writing up after action reports of sessions and awarded XP for writing character back stories. Used to post them online on a forum and eventually a private facebook group. Gave him plot hooks, and gave the group ideas of what each other was thinking. Some great stuff. Alas real life intervened for me and I had to stop showing up to games. Some great epic stories were told.

  6. I think the most valuable course of study for aspiring authors would be Marketing. Obscurity is one of the worst career foes.

    • It worked for David Weber.

      • And Michael Anderle. He’s over a million in profits in just under 2 years. He is -all- about the marketing and done rather well at it.

        • Also, he seems to have a lot of books out.
          Does he do a lot of price promotion?

          • I don’t think he does any price promotion, but I could be wrong. He does however do a LOT of marketing.

            • Do you recall exactly what? I tried the Amazon ads and didn’t find them helpful.

              • As I understand it, he uses AMS extensively. I think he also uses or at least used to us, facebook. Not sure what other places he uses off hand. If you do some you-tube searches, I think you can find a speech or talk of his or something where he talks about some of his marketing.
                But he’s hit three big things, he’s in Vampires, mil scifi, aliens, and he has a female hero protag who is uber powerful and can kick anyone’s ass. There’s also a LOT of swearing. So he tapped into three big demographics, plus he aimed it heavily at women as well with the female hero.
                The writing isn’t bad, it seems to improve in book 2 (haven’t read 3 yet) seems to be fun, and again, highly targeted to the biggest demographics. The man is a marketer first, author second, and even admits it. Of course everyone is trying to copy him now as well.

  7. I took one English class in college, and it was about science fiction. I got to write a short story for one assignment. I studied philosophy and then law. I’ve always wanted to write and dabbled at it in an ineffective way since I was young, but I’m very glad I took the route I did because you have to have something to write about.
    Studying and doing other things gives you something to write about. I spent a couple decades at the FAA as a space lawyer, so I know about rockets, launch safety, reentry, administrative law, and bureaucracy. Boy, do I know bureaucracy. It’s a lovely source of obstacles.
    They tell you to write what you know. I think that’s because as you learn your craft you’re facing enough difficulties without having to do a boatload of research. But it only takes you so far. By my second book I was faced with orbital mechanics. I’d absorbed enough through osmosis at the job about getting off the planet that I was fine with that. And I knew what to research and ask about for reentry, because that was just starting for the commercial operators so I’d picked up a little. But the FAA does not have jurisdiction on orbit. My anxiety was high, but at least I had a starting point from which to learn. I got the idea for an orbital debris prize because of my job, and I knew what I needed to learn because of my job.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that life experience and knowing real stuff (fish, rockets, genetics, plumbing) gives you the ability to have ideas, build worlds that seem real, and make your stories rich. Can an English degree do that for you?
    The philosophy degree, by the way, was great for law, useful for reading Philip K Dick, and provided a good excuse to read Plato and Aristotle, but I don’t think I’ve used it one bit for my science fiction.

  8. And another thing: I don’t know if a degree in English will introduce you to Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, but that is one incredibly useful book for understanding how to structure a novel. It’s about techniques, craft, the mechanics of it all, and, yes, even the rules. (I once asked about rules and was told there weren’t any. That is technically true, and what I should have said was that I wanted to know techniques. People don’t always use the right words, so I’m throwing them all out there.)

    • Thanks for the tip on Dwight Swain.

      • You bet. Also, I’ve found that he’s worth re-reading. I meticulously followed the instructions about scenes, but forgot/didn’t understand/didn’t internalize all the stuff about sequels until I re-read him.

        • I re-read him every five years. HE was the difference between my selling nothing, and my selling 90% of everything I write.

          • I learned about him from you here at MGC. 🙂

          • caitliniwoods

            I’m about half-done since you recommended it… amazing, so far, in that I’ll read a part, it’ll put a fire under me to use it, I’ll go on a few days, I’ll get stick and frustrated, read some more, and it will address exactly what I needed.

            My only success so far is getting amazingly further in a long-fork project than I every had, and ideas on how to make prior projects functional. As you can imagine, even this is a great success indeed. 🙂

            So, um. Thanks!

    • paladin3001

      Got to love a good tip. Thanks. Ordered a copy for the shelf.

      • You’ll be glad, and he writes nicely (as he should). There’s just a lot to absorb.

        • paladin3001

          Reading the first chapter (Thank you Amazon for that feature), and yes he does write well. Making a great deal of sense in the introduction. Think this is the one time that getting a dead tree edition was the smart move. 🙂

          • Agree on the tree. I generally prefer non-fiction to be on paper so I can flip back and forth and scribble. My version has a lot of scribbles on it.

  9. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, but at some point when I was getting that degree in English, I noticed that all the writers whom I really enjoyed reading – and done something else for a living. OK, some of them had been working reporters … but none of them had followed an academic track – and most of the modern writers who had done so and written novels while perching on the higher levels of academia were … really rather boring. The way to be a writer of readable, entertaining books was to basically have an interesting life, have a interesting job in any field, go out there and be an interesting person.

    So, after getting that somewhat useful BA in English (Hey, it guaranteed back then that I could spell, use proper grammar and could do research) – I went and enlisted in the Air Force.

    Yeah, it worked out for me.

    • The key seems to be ‘Get Out and Do Something’ then? And that something should be a thing that doesn’t need too much explanation. Granted, there is probably not too much story in “I dig ditches” by itself, but at least people understand what is/was done and the utility of it. There was some bit about a fellow who had a Grand Title and was asked what he actually did. After a few cycles of repeating the title, the person asking, in exasperation, finally put it, “If I followed you around all day at work, what would I see?” And then… well, the non-answer kinda spoke for itself.

    • Some of the most readable historians (Barbara Tuchmann, Shelbey Foote, Stanley Vestal) either did not have advanced degrees, or had degrees in fields far outside their writing field. Vestal was the pen-name of a prof who taught non-fiction writing at OU, and *gasp, horror, smelling salts!* required his students to sell a piece of short writing to a periodical in order to pass the class. They all did. During the Great Depression. The rest of the department looked down their noses at him. Oh, yeah, and his history books are still in print.

      • TRX

        Winston Churchill wrote a number of history books, but the academics savaged him because he didn’t have the proper credentials.

        • Theodore Roosevelt wrote what was (and maybe still is) considered, on either side of the Atlantic, the best book on the naval portion of the War of 1812. He’d spent his undergraduate time at Harvard concentrating on natural history, and was working on law degree, at the time he wrote the book.

      • *writes down these names*

    • Javahead

      Some of the writers whose fiction I’ve enjoyed have been academics. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of any whose Ph.D was in English or Literature. Or, at least, any who’d admit the fact.

      I’ll admit I’m prejudiced by personal experience. I finished my B.S. via an external degree program while working full time, with about a third of my credits by exam rather than classwork. By an odd turn of events (I needed 5 more semester hours in the humanities to graduate, and they gave 30 hour’s for a sufficiently high score on the English Lit exam) I ended up with sufficient credits for a dual Computer Science/English Lit degree.

      Someone asked me which path I wanted to follow – I pointed out that with English Lit I’d need either a graduate degree or a teaching credential to find any job where that specific degree was a requirement. And that I had no desire to be an academic, while to be a teacher I’d need at least one year of work on a teaching credential. While the job I already had (entry level SW Engineer) I was already earning far more than the salary cap for experienced teachers in our our local school district.

      Mind you, I enjoyed the undergraduate Lit classes I took, but I’m a weird sort. And even then I saw little intersection between “great literature” (that almost nobody reads for pleasure) and “popular fiction”. Going for an English or Comparative Literature degree may quite possibly give you the technical tools to write critically-acclaimed works highly esteemed by other academics. But it’s either unnecessary or an active impediment to writing popular books.

      Also: it really helps if you have enough familiarity with people whose background, skills, and education level are different from your own to write them as believable characters rather than caricatures. Even more so if you realize that they can be experts in their own areas of endeavor rather than clueless hicks. For some reason, this last appears to be negatively affected by graduate-level degrees in English and some of the other Humanities.

      • Well, oddly enough – that turned out to be a good reason for enlisting!

        A couple of years ago, when we were on our way to an event in a small town – my daughter’s SUV broke a belt that drove the AC compressor in her Montero. What with one thing and another, we wound up parked on a side road, while a volunteer mechanic wrestled with the mysteries within, trying to install a replacement belt, and the Daughter Unit and I made conversation with him, and his friends. Who were mostly lightly drunk on a Saturday morning, but all of them were veterans … We both got on with Volunteer Mech and his pals to an amazing degree.

        Of course, the funny part was that we were in the parking lot of the local grocery store with the hood up — this is a cue in Texas for helpful people to begin descending on you! — and a local lady not only took me to the auto parts store to buy the replacement belt, but testified to the good character of Volunteer Mech himself.

        Vets and working-class – our tribe.

      • Ben Yalow

        Dr. Charles E. Gannon, I think, meets your “academic” criteria (and his bio page at http://charlesegannon.com/wp/bio/ admits it).

        His fourth book in his current series just came out from Baen. Which means a long wait until book 5 comes out, unfortunately.

        So there are clearly some definite exceptions.

        • (wry smile) Ben: To answer your comment with a reading comprehension test (does not require a PhD in English – Flesch-Kincaid comprehension scale grade 6 ).

          Question 1) What does this sentence from the post above mean? : ‘It IS possible that you can be a very successful author with a BA in English.’

          Question 2) Given that you have grasped question 1, read the following quote from the post above. Does providing proof existence of occasional English grads who are successful novelists run counter to the statement the poster made?
          “It IS possible that you can be a very successful author with a BA in English. It is also possible that you can be a very successful author with a degree majoring in Wymyn’s Studies, and Impressionist Medieval Bathroom Décor.

          Almost anything is possible.

          That’s not the question.

          The question is: how probable is it? ”

          Question 3) Given this quote from the post above: “And how, pray, will that make you a better writer? At least ‘better’ for definitions of ‘better’ which include earning a reasonable living by selling books to readers in general.” did your example earn his main living as a writer before or only as a result of the academic career? I suggest using this quote from my friend Chuck’s bio to base your answer around: “Prior to his academic career, Dr. Gannon worked eight years as a scriptwriter and producer in New York City”

          So as we’ve established (I hope) that I did not say it was impossible, just improbable, and that your example in fact was a writer who became an academic, rather than an academic who became a writer – why did you bring up your exception?

          Yes, I am being snappy. I had a sleepless night and just buried my cat.

          • D##n. Sorry to hear that. We’ve been petless for four months now, and just can’t bring ourselves to adopt another yet. It hurts to lose our furry family.

          • Ben Yalow

            My condolences on the loss of your cat.

            And I agree that you did not make the impossibility claim in your main posting. However, I was reacting to Javahead’s comment, just upthread from mine, which made the stronger claim that, “Some of the writers whose fiction I’ve enjoyed have been academics. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of any whose Ph.D was in English or Literature. Or, at least, any who’d admit the fact.”

            And, while I don’t know if Javahead knows Gannon’s work (or enjoys it), it’s certainly possible that he does, since he’s a deservedly popular author, in which case the stronger claim is refuted.

            And your more general point, in the main posting, continues to be unrefuted (and, overall, wise).

          • I’m very sorry about your cat.

            • Javahead

              My condolences too, Dave. Our current furry overlord is getting up in years – still healthy, but slower-moving and creakier than she used to be. Hopefully, she has a few more good years yet, but I still can feel the clock winding down. And I know it will hurt when I lose her, whether this year or 5 years hence.

              To Ben Yalow – no, I wasn’t aware of Dr. Gannon’s educational background. Whether that’s because he hasn’t made it a big part of his book info (I did find it on his homepage bio) or because I’ve got tunnel vision is open to debate. Probably the later.

              Yes, I do like his writing, though I’m still catching up to the latest Caine book.

              I will stand by my original point that advanced academic specialization coupled with little adult experience outside the academic cocoon can work against your ability to write engaging or believable characters. Not make it impossible, as you’ve just pointed out, but work against it. If you live in social bubble (which academia often, even usually, is) with specific viewpoints and literary tastes, writing about and for other viewpoints can be difficult.

              Part of the issue is the accepted stylistic conventions of “good” literature are peculiar to academia, and part of the issue is the tendency for some highly educated people to assume “uncredentialed == uneducated == stupid” (a false equivalence that seems less common on the STEM side).

              I’ll qualify my original statement to: “Some of the writers whose fiction I’ve enjoyed have been academics. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of many whose Ph.D was in English or Literature. Or, at least, any who’d admit the fact.”

              Note the change. Though – to my own taste, YMMV – I still handle the exceptions to the generalization on a case-by-case basis, on the grounds that in most of the world if you hear hoof beats approaching you’ll be more often right guessing “horses” before “zebras”.

          • My condolences on your loss, Mr. Freer.

      • adventuresfantastic

        I enjoy Bill Crider’s mysteries, and he’s a retired Englidh professor.

  10. The most useful thing in college that I had towards storytelling was improv. A good improv group will help you to learn to deal with the unexpected and keep you from hanging on to something that isn’t working any more. (A bad improv group ends up like one of those obnoxious comedies where the “humor” comes from people getting hurt.)

    The second most useful thing was philosophy, though I will add the caveat that I went to a Jesuit school, and they taught philosophy with rigor. A lot of places teach fluff.

    • *waves at fellow philosophy student*

      • I did first year Philosophy, so did my older boy – as minor subjects aside from our degrees. Paddy has found it honed his logical skills and taught him a huge amount about writing a coherent essay arguing his points. I found it useful in writing ‘Doc’ in RBV 🙂 Done right, with a focus on logic, it’s a worthwhile life-skill course.

      • If I’d known how close I was to a philosophy minor, I would have gotten one. Found out in my last semester that another two or three classes would have done it. I loved the last one I had, which was a combo undergrad/graduate course (the graduate level was for seminarians, even.) Same readings, same lectures—their papers just had to be twice as long. 😉

  11. Not being an English major, that’s outside of my expertise, so I don’t know one way or the other. I don’t even work in the field I studied because life happens. I do think there’s a difference between studying a language and it’s literature and learning creative writing. Offhand I know of only one English major who has quite a number of best sellers, and Stephen King was writing long before he went to college. To read his book On Writing, you get the sense that he was inspired much more by horror films than “appropriate” literature. I don’t think being an English major made him a best selling author, but it did let him land a job as an English teacher, which I think he held until he did hit it big.

    My college English experience was geared more toward essays, and being hard-headed aspects of it didn’t stick. None of the professors discussed the hook, or how to keep a reader’s interest, or what separates a good composition from a bad, though both may be grammatically correct. The courses taught English grammar and literature, but none taught how to write.

  12. Do you want fries with that?

    Instead of being a minimum wage slave, open your own fast food restaurant and get paid for working 12 hours a day, dealing with recalcitrant employees and an obnoxious public. When things settle down and the place is well in the black, hire an experienced slave driver to run it for you, then go and be a writer. If your work sells the way you’d like it to, wonderful. If not, you’ve still got an income.

  13. isolumikko

    To learn Maths, Physics, maybe Chem but not the practical side, don’t go to college at c40k USD / year, log on to Coursera, edX, etc and study at Harvard, MIT, Stanford etc for coffee money, at your convenience, without getting in the way of your day job. Of course if it’s the credential you need, that won’t work, but if it’s just the knowledge it is the best way.

  14. BobtheRegisterredFool

    “Do you think I need a law degree to become President?”

    Has issues as an analogy, but might communicate possibility for failure to those who don’t get it from the astronaut analogy.

  15. Out of curiosity, has anyone actually heard someone ask “Do you want fries with that?” in the past, oh, 10 years or so?

    Since they went to Extra Value Meals, they’re more likely to ask if you want the meal or just the sandwich. Though, usually, if you give the name of the sandwich, you want just the sandwich, while if you ask for the number, you want the meal.

    I haven’t worked front line in ages (Well, there was the one time there was only one manager (no crew members) up front, and they yelled at me to get up there. But I don’t think I was much help.). I am rather enjoying working fast food, other than the constantly sore feet, having to be there at 4 am every day, and not always having enough brainpower to write when I get home.

  16. Joe in PNG

    Getting a degree in English Lit to become a writer is a bit like getting a degree in music to become a rock star. While it may be helpful- Dream Theater did meet up at Berklee, if memory serves- very few actual rock stars have attended Juliard. The list of influential rock musicians with no formal secondary music training is massive: the Beatles, the Who, Rush, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and so on.
    These guys became good by playing music endlessly, not by sitting in a classroom.

  17. My instructions for the kids were the ones I used: get a degree in something that will pay the bills. The rest can be improvised and you can learn almost anything you want to, without paying tuition.
    My plans were thrown off by moving to another country where my English degree was no use for teaching (despite my having taken a teaching minor) and neither English nor German were very useful for translation outside NYC. (You had to build a business. Could be done, but was a lot of work on the building the business side.) etc. BUT if I’d stayed in Portugal they’d have been amazingly useful. The kids, barring major dislocations, are taking useful training. Writing/drawing on the side. Who knows? Maybe they’ll get lucky.

  18. Christopher M. Chupik

    And of course, we have a generation now who’d sooner organize a protest for a higher minimum wage, rather than trying to get a better-paying job.

    • Pretty soon, that tendency of theirs is going to make “burger flipping robot repair tech” an entry level position. Anybody who can’t tell a Beagle Bone from a Raspberry Pi is going to be S.O.L.

  19. I have done the burger flipping job, I’ve done explosives, physical therapy, house painting, computers… you name it, I’ve probably done it. Also two degrees and two trips to trade school.

    Writing, zero training. Just lots of reading. I probably -should- read the Dwight Swain book, now that you’ve so kindly pointed him out.

    But, getting back to the schooling, the ONE thing I’ve learned about schools over the years is that you are not getting useful information that you will use in the field. You are getting a CERTIFICATE. Should you be fortunate enough to land work in the field, that is when your training will-begin-.

    An English degree. They do not teach you to write, nor even to read. They teach you the various opinions that famous intellectuals have about various works of English literature. What you will be learning is all the reasons why The Handmaid’s Tail (!) is swoon-worthy litrachure, and why Nora J should win the Hugo every year. They teach you the approved format for regurgitating the approved opinions in a paper and on an exam. They also teach you the penalty for expressing a DISapproved opinion.

    An example of the expected output from a university English and philosophy education would be Crapheadstros Fragatron. That guy is the very acme of current Ivory Tower graduates, and a cautionary tale for the effect of said “education” of one and all.

    If you want to learn to write, get a job flipping burgers or scraping the paint off a boat. Something boring and physical. Buy books written before 1970 for the mass market, and copy what those guys did. Write at home instead of drinking beer all night in front of the TV. Its cheaper than university, and you don’t have to associate with smarmy, ludicrous hipsters.

      • It’s easy for us though, Dave. We know how it all turns out already. We’ve spent the four years in university and come out dumber than we went in. It took me ten years to get over that.

        The one thing I can say I got, purely on the strength of having a BA, was a crappy one bedroom apartment in Toronto. The guy let me rent it because I had a degree. I was a ‘step up’ from the usual schmucks and drug addicts. That was when I really understood the worth of a university education.

    • Ahhh… No. Unless you’re willing to exclude trade schools. I got my first job because there were no other children’s librarians who could run a digital catalogue conversion project – the only thing I DID NOT use on the job from my Library School Uni. degree was the course on the history of the book, but I knew that class was pure self-indulgence when the visiting Berkely prof showed up to teach it.

      Now finding that trade school is a trick, and no mistake. There may be no honest journo and teaching schools left on the planet, and a number of library schools are pure quill SJW indoctrination camps,

      Not that I disagree with the main point – but the solution for most folks isn’t just “teach yourself” despite the job security for me! It’s “how do I find the right teachers to help me get where I’m going.”

      For example, take a look at any art school grad – say, Minna Sundberg (SSSS comic) and compare her work – from day 1 to mine.

  20. I think that another thing that helps you become a fiction writer is having varied life experiences. I lead a very sheltered life, which is not really conducive to writing about experiences like taking to sea in a storm to save a kid’s life (to pick a “random” example).

    Four years of backpacking around the world is likely to result in much better stories than four years of university.

  21. Funny you should mention astronaut.
    I did want to be an astronaut. Right up until the moment where I was side tracked in my career by events beyond my control and then 3 weeks later the space shuttle blew up and the space program got put on ‘hold’.
    It was why I got an Engineering Degree, and why I joined the Air Force. I was busily trying to line everything up and make it happen.
    Cost me over 20 years of my life, until it suddenly all fell apart (and trust me, there were many times where it looked like it was never going happen, but I kept overcoming the many obstacles in my path, until I hit the big one).
    So I took my BSEE, flight, and military experience and went into Aerospace, and then eventually other things when peace broke out and Grumman Aerospace went out of business.
    The writing thing? Was always a dream, because I enjoyed writing. Doing it for a living? Never expected it to happen. Still wonder if it’s going to last. It really wasn’t on the road map back when I was a kid in the 60’s. Even if I did read everything I could get my hands on.
    Life is funny that way.

    • Holly

      I wanted to be a Martian. It became obvious NASA wasn’t going to cooperate in that goal before I even started college, and private space companies hadn’t got started yet. Then I was going to be a professional musician, but my body broke. Then I was going to be an Army officer, but my body broke again. So I’m a mom, which was always a goal, but on Earth instead of Mars.
      Sometimes even the backup to the backup plan falls through. No reason not to have one, and you’ll pick up some stories and meet some people along the way. (And possibly end up appreciating mil-sf, too.)

      • This may sound strange, but I don’t believe in backup plans when it comes to goals or life. The reason, believe it or not, comes from something I heard Eddie Murphy (who grew up not far from where I did) say once many years ago.
        He was talking about how his father and uncle had tried going into show business, but ended up instead doing their ‘backup plan’, and about how so many people always end up doing their backup plans. So when he went to Hollywood, he had no backup plan. He wasn’t going to focus on anything else but success, one hundred percent. Backup plans mean you lack commitment, that if things get hard, you’re more likely to bail than to stick it out.
        I pretty much agreed with that.
        Yes, if you fail then, it certainly is devastating, but you will always know that you gave it your all and never once settled for anything less right up until the end.

        • Erm. You’re doing backup plan wrong.

          The back up plans are for your goal.

          1. Go to Hollywood, be actor–> apply for acting jobs
          2. Backup: use construction skills to apply for union work on sets, make contacts to apply to getting acting jobs (and also don’starve and/or become welfare parasite)
          3. Backup: use construction skills to get jobs freelancing w/rich Hollywood householders towards 2, then 1.

          And so on. Systems, not just goals.

      • Being a mom is my favorite thing.

  22. tcinla

    , good persistent writers are lucky more often than people who write poorly and don’t keep trying

    Sage advice.

    I’ve been doing it for 37 years. Screenwriting, some fiction, lots of non-fiction lately (aviation/military history) that happens to have been a lifelong interest. Time in the military in a war, a degree in history and ten years working in professional politics was good training for all that.

    The one thing I never did was take a writing class. I did, however, take a typing class in 9th grade to get enough credits to get out of junior high, which turned out to be the one useful class I took in 18 years of school. But then I had a lifelong writing class – I read 10 books a month growing up (basically educated myself at the public library in spite of the educational system, being a then-not understood – and not so understood today – Aspergian), which is essentially the study of publishable writing. Also went to the movies every Saturday growing up, and somewhere along the line learned what “good” is.

    I did try teaching a class to wannabe writers, but when i discovered on the first day that only two of them had read a book each in the previous year that wasn’t required, I told them to all go take classes in being a stockbroker or real estate sales or some other job where being a moron wasn’t a bar to success, went to the school office and quit.

    As I recently said to an editor who worried he was giving me too many magazine assignments, “Hey, I write. It’s what I do.”

    • “only two of them had read a book each in the previous year that wasn’t required”

      If you don’t love the product, why would you want to create more?

      (I am also reminded of my college ceramics professor, who decided that the 101 class was not going to be an easy A. You had to learn about the history of ceramics, the different glazings and how they work, and various firing temperatures. And you had to produce pieces according to the varying rules. No wheel work until the second semester, when you were mixing your own clay after dire stories about folks who had ignored the safety warnings on the mixer. I liked him.)

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