How to Decide if You Should Go to School to Become a Writer
Do you need an English Literature, journalism, or writing degree if you want to become a writer? It depends. These tips for deciding if you should go to school, college, or university to learn how to write in a formal setting, as well as a few tips about what type of writer’s education you should pursue.
I was inspired to write this article for a reader who said:
“Hello Laurie, thank you so much for taking the time to write this article!” says Chandra on What You Need to Know About Making a Career Change at 40. “It’s refreshing to see so many people here that are interested in this. I am 42. I want to start a new career, as a Writer/Author. I actually made a career change once in my 30’s and it worked out well, but it still wasn’t what I wanted ultimately. I’ve been writing for years but have not been able to find a lucrative enough income to finance my life. So I’ve always remained moderately employed and continued to write as a hobby. I finally know that I want this to be my career full time.I finished writing my first book and it will be published soon. But getting a book published doesn’t automatically guarantee a steady paycheck.”
That’s amazing that she wrote her first book and it’ll be published soon! Awesome. That means she’ll become an author, in addition to being a writer. Being an “author” means you have a book published; being a “writer” means you write as a hobbyist or professional. Or both. But you’re not traditionally published.
Chandra goes on to say:
“I’ve always wanted to finish my degree. I’m wondering if I should pursue a degree in English Literature or something that will give me a guaranteed career in the writing field to fall back on. Or is it unnecessary and a waste of time and money? I love education, teaching, writing, and researching so I figure it’s not off the path. What do you think? I just want to make a smart decision, and you obviously know a little bit about this! : ) Thanks Laurie!”
How to Decide if You Should Go to School to Be a Writer
When I wrote Do You Need a Writing Degree to Make Money as a Writer? back in 2011, I didn’t discuss something very important: you don’t need to go to school and get a degree in writing, Journalism, or English Literature…unless you want to be a specific type of writer.
Deciding if you should go to school to become a writer depends on what kind of writer you want to be. This means you need to take time to think about where and what you want to write.
In Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Film, Video Games, and Books, Justin Sloan shares tips on how to become a novelist, screenwriter, or video game writer. He offers information on the writing process and improving the craft, but mostly focuses on how to get discovered and where to concentrate energy in the meantime.
Creative Writing Career is a guide for aspiring writers who know how important it is to position themselves in an extremely competitive field. This book includes writer interviews with some incredibly gifted people who share the wisdom they have gained. Justin says, “With writing, as with most aspects of life, I have chosen to rely on those with demonstrated wisdom to move ahead.”
Explore different types of writing careers
Here’s a quick list, off the top of my head:
- Graphic Novelist
- Literary Writer
- Catalogue Copywriter
- Online Copywriter
- Freelance Magazine Writer
- Science and Research Writer
- Academic Writer
- Comic Book Writer
- Children’s Writer
- Speech Writer
And that’s only the beginning. For more writing jobs and ideas, read 10 Careers for Writers Who Want to Make Money.
Learn which writing jobs and careers require an education
What if you want to be a political speech writer in the President’s Office? I’ve met several speech writers, and only a few had writing degrees from universities and colleges so I know you can work your way up the ladder to the President. That said, however, an education in Political Science and Communications would be extremely beneficial for your writing career.
Same if you want to be a graphic novelist or comic book writer because of the complex interactions between illustrations and writing, as well as a literary writer because of the literary techniques. If you want to write “serious literature”, you need to learn what makes literature serious and how the masters (eg, Hemingway, Shakespeare) wrote.
Start dipping your quill
Here’s another question from a reader:
“I’m 16 and really struggling about the future,” says Ashleigh on Making Money Freelance Writing – 5 Ways to Support Yourself as a Writer. “I don’t know what to do yet, so much pressure has been put on me. I want more than anything to just write. Write what I see, touch, smell – but my mum is nagging on at me saying that ‘Egotistic people like you need a job y’know!’ I’ve no idea what kind of job I’m looking for.
Should I go to college and take a Journalism course? Go to University and get a degree in English so I can become a full-time journalist? My teacher gave me some local newspaper e-mails. ‘Send them some of your stuff Ash,’ she said, ‘Get yourself recognized. They will love it.’ I have my doubts, but do YOU think it’s a good idea?”
Before you think about the content of her comment, note her writing style. Natural voice or what, huh? See Ashleigh write! She didn’t go to school to learn how to become a writer; she simply loves to write. But she’s not published yet.
Now think about what she was saying…her teacher is encouraging her to send her writing to the local paper, but she’s uncertain. That’s natural – it is hard to share your writing with the world! Really hard. But if you want to be a writer, you have to do things that are hard.
So I said to her:
“Yes, Ashleigh, I do think it’s a good idea to send your writing clips to your local newspaper. It’s a low-risk activity (that feels scary) – but it can reap big rewards! Or, maybe nothing will come of it at all. Either way, you win. If you sit on your writing, you gain nothing at all.”
Learn how to break into the writing career of your choice
I just finished reading The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters: Insider Secrets from Hollywood’s Top Writers by Karl Iglesias – not because I want to become a screenwriter, but because I love reading about writing.
This is the book you need to read if you want to become a screenwriter. You’ll learn more about writing movies for Hollywood in that book than in a semester of screenwriting classes at college or university. You’ll learn why you shouldn’t move to Hollywood until you’ve already written a script you want to sell, and the number one secret to getting your screenplay published.
As with most of the different types of writing jobs and careers, you don’t necessarily NEED to go to school to succeed in the field because you can learn a ton about writing from books, blogs, online courses and other resources…but getting a writing degree probably won’t be a waste of time or money.
Go to school – but not to learn “how to become a writer”
Okay, back to Chandra’s question at the top of the article. YES I think she should go to school or college or university and get a writing or English Literature degree! But not so she can “become a writer.” I think she should go to school because she loves education, learning, writing, and changing careers. If Chandra was sitting in front of me right now, I would say:
“If you don’t go back to school, will you always regret it? I went back to university for my MSW (Master of Social Work) because I thought I was done writing. Blogging sorta got dull because I’d be doing it for a few years, and I needed a break. I thought I wanted to be a social worker instead.
Now, three years after getting my MSW, I still haven’t found time to look for a job as a social worker because I’m too busy writing! My love for blogging has been renewed, revived. So even though I ‘wasted’ those two years getting a MSW…I am so glad I did it. I totally would’ve regretted it if I didn’t take the leap when I did.
There are no guarantees that an English Lit degree will get you a writing job…but boy, those might just be the happiest, most fulfilling years of your life. And if they’re the worst years of your life, then at least you know that it’s not your thang. Go to school! Get thee to a university! Go study. Where will you apply? What do you want to major in? I’m so excited for you! In fact I think I’ll join you…. 🙂 ”
Do a cost/benefit analysis of going to school to be a writer
I’ll help you by listing some of the benefits of getting a formal education in the field of your dreams. I invite you to add more benefits in the comments section below.
Benefits of going to school for a journalism or English Literature, or other type of writing degree:
- Gaining exposure to textbooks, courses, materials, and resources you’d never find in a book
- Networking with other aspiring writers and published authors
- Learning “the tricks of the trade” from experienced professional writers
- Learning discipline to overcome “writer’s block” by having to submit papers, essays, reports, interviews, etc.
- Feeling the satisfaction of earning a degree in Writing, Journalism, or English Literature
- Getting certification in your chosen field so you have formal references and education to back you up as you apply for writing jobs
If you’re leaning towards a career as a journalist or newspaper reporter, read How to Decide if You Should Major in Journalism.
Drawbacks of going to school to become a writer
You tell me what drawbacks are if you go to school to become a writer.
Learn how to become a writer
In The Wealthy Freelancer Steve Slaunwhite, Pete Savage, and Ed Gandia proven share ideas and real-world examples from dozens of successful freelancers.
In this book, you learn:
- Why striving to be the “best writer” in your field almost never works, and what to do instead
- How to charge more – and earn more – by creating new income streams closely related to your core business
- How to “test the waters” and land freelance writing work now, even if you’re already employed
- Stories of real-life freelancers who destroy the myth that freelancers barely scrape by
I do not believe writers need creative writing degrees, journalism degrees, literary arts degrees, English degrees – or any type of degree at all, in fact – but they do need to educate themselves in their chosen field.
I’ve written for several national print magazines and many online e-zines and content sites, and have never once been asked what degrees I have. Of course, that’s me as a freelance magazine writer – it’s not me applying for a formal reporting job on a newspaper or overseas with the BBC or National Geographic, or for a job as a speechwriter or copywriter.
That’s why you need to figure out what type of writing job you want.
Talk to working writers who did not go to school
The answer to the “Should I go to school to learn how to become a writer?” depends on who you ask. I think you should ask the most important person: you. (Actually, God is the most important but let’s stay focused).
If you want to give yourself an educated answer, find writers who are working in the field you’re aiming for and talk to them. Remember that there are so many different jobs for aspiring writers, and all have different education or certification requirements. For instance, you don’t need a writing degree to learn how to become a freelance magazine writer – you just need drive, perseverance, motivation, creativity, and self-discipline.
Try different types of writing jobs and careers (it’s called “pivoting” now)
I taught grade 8 Language Arts and high school Journalism. I didn’t really like teaching about writing – I’d rather be writing! I worked as a freelance writer for a couple of years, and didn’t like pitching feature article ideas to editors. Then I wrote monthly health articles and various projects for BC Women’s Hospital, which I loved at the time but now all I want to do is Blossom on my blogs.
No matter how old you are – 16 or 66 – you don’t have to make a decision now that you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life. You can start getting a writing or journalism degree, and switch to a different type of certification if you choose. You can start a career as a freelance writer, and switch over into owning your own business or blogging or teaching surfing in Hawaii.
Don’t pressure yourself to figure out your future right now…just take it one step at a time. The first step may be sending writing clips to your local newspaper, or applying to a journalism school or university, or working retail for a year while you write a book. Don’t get hung up on the details; just take it one step at a time.
If you need to work while you learn how to become a writer, read Best Jobs for Introverts and People Who Love to Work Alone.
Two final thoughts for becoming a working writer
Are you still wondering if you should go back to school to become a writer? That’s okay because I have two more things to tell you.
- Professional working writers do not succumb to “writer’s block”
- Working writers do not take advice from people who don’t have writing experience
Here’s a comment about full-time freelance writing from a reader who was responding to Chandra, on that same article about making a career change at midlife:
“Before you dive into the whole writing thing don’t quit your day job even though you want to,” says Ayla. “Can you live on virtually no income? Just because two people were saying they worked at jobs making a moderate income and writing on the side doesn’t mean it’s a real career possibility. If you weren’t making any money writing when you had a full-time paying job, what makes you think you will make money writing when you don’t have a job? The only difference is a lot less money. If you quit your job to write full-time you’ll have more stress and more free time which doesn’t mean you’ll spend those extra 40 hours a week writing the great American novel. What if you get writers block?”
Ouch. Don’t believe everything she says! Why? Because you can prove her wrong. And because:
1. Professional working writers do not succumb to “writer’s block”
Full-time freelance writers may feel stuck for ideas sometimes (though that has never happened to me – the world is full of ideas!), but they don’t get “writer’s block.” Not if they want to pay the bills and keep working as a writer. Professional freelance writers work at their job the same way as doctors, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs, and teachers: they keep learning about their industry, they update their training and credentials, and they stay on top of new developments in their field.
Invest in the current Writer’s Market if you tend to get stuck for ideas. Look through the thousands of print and online magazines, periodicals, ezines, and other places to get published. Get advice from writers and authors who are actually making money writing.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing writer’s block can stop you from becoming a writer! Fight the darkness by learning what opportunities exist for you and how you can get your writing published – even if you decide not to go to school to become a writer.
Jack London said he doesn’t “wait for inspiration to strike.” He shows up every morning at 9 am and sees to it that he is inspired. Because his job is to write.
2. Working writers do not take advice from people who don’t have writing experience
If you get advice about writer’s block or making money freelancing – or deciding if you should go to school to become a writer – make sure you’re talking to someone who has actually worked in the writing world and made money freelancing and decided to (or not to) go to journalism or other school.
Stay open-minded, but stay on track. Seek advice from experienced freelancers. Gather information…and then make a decision for yourself based on your gut instincts.
And don’t be afraid to start over if and when you need to.
Are you thinking about becoming a freelance writer? Read 8 Things You Need to Know About Succeeding as a Freelancer.
Your comments are welcome below, fellow scribes. What did you think of the cost/benefit analysis of going to school, college, or university to learn how to become a writer? What would you add? I’m also curious…do you think you should go to school to be a writer?