‘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.