Friday, February 17, 2012

Writing isn't a major, it's a lifestyle choice: Advice for Aspiring Writers

Because I work in a college writing center (and maintain this and other writing-related blogs) a question I get asked a lot is "What do I major in if I want to be a writer?" Because I'm online in several places, those questions now come more often as emails and messages.

Here's an actual message sent to me on Tumblr the other day...
"I'm a freshman in college with an undecided major. What do you think my major should be if I want to be a writer for magazines and websites maybe eventually write a book one day?"
The correct answer is: Whatever you want to major in is fine. Writing isn't a major, it's a lifestyle choice.

I've said it before and will say it again: Unless you want to teach, the schools aren't going to teach you anything you cannot learn much better and at less expense by sitting down and doing it. Major in business; it's more useful to an artist than an art degree, I assure you.

Ignorance of business principles is the number one reason why artists starve.

If I had my way, everyone who wanted to be a writer would get a business degree. In other words, major in something that pays the bills and minor in something that stimulates your soul. Because the 'starving artist' thing is overrated.

No, I'm not kidding.

YA authors, because of the age of their readership, get asked this question constantly. Let's see what New York Times bestselling YA author Maureen Johnson has to say on the topic.

I've heard dozens of bestselling authors give the same advice, MJ was just nice enough to put it on Twitter in her usual charmingly emphatic style.

Does Maureen Johnson saying it make it true? No. Neither does it make it true because Ann Patchett said it. Certainly, majoring in Creative Writing or English isn't going to hurt you. But as Ms. Patchett points out, this isn't medical school we're talking about here; you're not very likely will never recoup the cost of your degree by working in your field.

As I've noted before, I majored in journalism and then left that program to go to art school. Art school taught me nothing about art and a lot about finances, mostly student loan interest and structured payments.

Everything I actually know about art or writing, I taught myself or learned by doing it. Everything.

I think anyone interested in becoming a writer after college should read an essay by Lawrence Block called "Dear Joy" (you can read it for free by following that link). It is written as a letter to a college freshman who wants to become a writer and should be required reading for anyone else who wants to do the same. It's worth noting that he doesn't tell her not to major in a writing-related field. He just tells her the pros and cons.

It really is a great essay and I wish I'd read it as a high school senior.

Which brings me to this: If you're in college right now, majoring in writing or English, I am not advising that you change your major or drop out. For heaven's sake, finish your degree. No one is going to look down on you or refuse to publish you for having completed a college degree. I work in a college writing center; I know how hard it is to get from your admission letter to your diploma.

When you walk down the aisle in your cap and gown, you'll have genuinely accomplished something. You have every right to be proud.

But in all honesty, an arts education isn't something that happens at an institution, it's something that happens in your head. The ivy covered walls, the brick paths, the echoing classrooms... it's all stage dressing for the artist. That what I mean when I say that art and writing aren't majors, they're a lifestyle choice.

When you're majoring in the visual arts, your college admission garners you access to valuable and expensive studio space and things like ceramics kilns that you cannot afford on your own. But for a writer, it's all about what's between your ears. And you don't have to pay for the privilege of using that space, you just have to do it.

Reading is the only education a writer gets. The only thing you need to get access to that education is a library card and those are usually free.

Read. Write. Experiment. Pack your inner art studio with all the supplies you can get your hands on and then sit down at a keyboard and see what you can do. When you type The End on your first novel or short story, that's a graduation of its own. No professor required. The story is your diploma. You have genuinely accomplished something. You have every right to be proud.

That diploma is not what allows you to call yourself a writer or an author. Like Ms. Patchett said: This isn't medical school. You don't need a license to practice (and no one dies if you do it wrong).

The only thing that qualifies you to be a writer is writing something.


  1. Thanks for this, Scott, especially for Block's essay.

  2. My pleasure, James. Incidentally I fixed the link. It should take you right to his book on Google Books. (Chapter 7, in case it breaks again.)

  3. Thank you, Scott. Once again you just said the right thing.
    Could one add that it is not only a lifestyle choice, but also an attitude or would you cooperate that in lifestyle? What else would you refer to as writer's lifestyle? I am sure one can't say many things in general, but experiencing the issues of writing in a not very good situation, I not only notice the need to motivate yourself, deal with drawbacks ... do you have more on that issue?

    1. Being a creator changes your relationship with everything that touches on what you create. From the middling changes such as carrying a notebook all the time to the complete re-wiring of our brains.

      Writers and visual artists are very alike in that way. Whenever we look at anything, in the backs of our minds we are filtering it through our choice of mediums. Artists are noticing line and form and color, and writers are asking themselves: How would I describe this? How would I relate this feeling to a reader?

      I think that writing is (or quickly becomes) our way of looking at the world and our way of working through ideas and problems. Writing becomes a method of talking to ourselves, of externalizing our thought processes.

      Our loved ones really do put up with a lot.

  4. I tell people this all the time. The great virtue of a 4-year degree is that you have to stick to it to get one. It's a great goal. And my degrees in English were not wasted time, not at all. But they're not what made me a writer. The whole idea of majoring in "creative writing", as if that will make you a writer is just silly. As far as I can tell, what people mostly learn is to write for their professors or worse, to write like their professors, and like each other.

    Contrariwise, I know of one literary agent who directs her interns to give automatic preference to anyone whose query letter mentions having a BFA or MFA. I take it the agent has one too. People who do tend to be very smug about them.

    Just write. Live, do stuff, meet people, be interested in everything, read *everything*, and write.

  5. Well I'm a high school senior at the moment and I plan on becoming an author. I don't know wheter I should use Creative Writing or Business as my major....and I have no idea how publishing books works. Any advice?

    1. Hi Anonymous! Sorry, I didn't notice your new comment right away.

      Major in whatever you want. Generally I advise students to major in something that will put food on the table to allow them cover to devote their minor or spare time to whatever invigorates their soul.

      Like Lawrence Block said in his 'Letter to Joy' it doesn't hurt you to major in writing or English, but it's not really necessary either. Most of the really successful writers I know don't have degrees in writing.

      The thing I wish someone had told me about about writing is that doing it is an art, but succeeding at it is a business. The same is true of any artistic pursuit, by the way.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).