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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Reader Question: Should Writers Have English Degrees?

(For some reason I did not write down the name of the person who asked this question, nor did I write down where it came from. So, if you asked this, please leave me a comment here letting me know so I can give you credit!)

I think at one point people thought that they had to have a creative writing degree or something related in order to be a good writer. Perhaps a lot of people still think this. The reality is that there's no reason that you have to get a degree to be a writer or to even be a successful one. While creative writing programs can be wonderful, they can also be terrible depending on what you write. Most of what you learn about writing comes not from taking a class, but from reading and doing. You can take every college course imaginable and there still will be no guarantee of you learning how to be a better writer, or that you will get published as a result.

This isn't to say that creative writing programs, or English programs, aren't beneficial. You certainly can and probably will learn things from a creative writing class and professors of creative writing can help you develop your craft based on their experiences--the hope is, of course, that these professors have a significant publishing career behind them to add credibility to their advice. But the brutal truth is that having a B.A. in creative writing means diddly squat to most editors, and having one doesn't automatically mean that you're better than all those also trying to get published who don't have such a degree. Creative writing programs tend to be a mixed bag. Some are fantastic, some not so much, but none of them can promise to churn out excellent writers--Iowa Writer's Workshop does have an excellent track record, though, and that might be worth acknowledging if you're interested in a degree.

And then there is the fact that quite a lot of writers who are successful have no degrees whatsoever. Some have degrees not even related to the writing field at all--look at all the scientists who become science fiction writers, etc. Ultimately, it really doesn't matter if you have a degree or not: you can be a writer either way. If you want a degree, however, get it because you want to have a career that isn't necessarily based on something so obviously without guarantee. Creative writing degrees are good, but I've always seen them as being largely pointless unless you pursue them at the M.A. or PhD. levels. A B.A. in creative writing is essentially even more useless than a B.A. in literature or English--and let's face it, a B.A. in almost anything is worth less than the cost of printing the certificate; this is the sad state of affairs in the education world. I'd recommend that those who want to eventually have writing careers should have a fallback plan. There is literally no guarantee that you will ever have a writing career, no matter how much work you put into it, no matter how you do it, whether it be traditionally publishing novels or short stories, or doing it on your own. Being conscious of that when pursuing advanced education will help you make an educated decision about your future. What are you willing to do for a career while you try to develop your fiction skills and get the publishing credits you need to reach that point where you can quit your day job?

Thinking about that can certainly help ground your career goals. But let's not leave it up to me. What do all my readers think about this? Leave a comment.

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21 comments:

  1. "So, if you asked this, please leave me a comment here letting me know so I can give you credit!"

    That would be me. I asked you on twitter.

    Thanks so much for your insight. I'm starting college soon (I'm an academic late bloomer) and wanted all the feedback I could get so I could make decisions about how much time and effort to put where. You've been a great help.

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  2. Sure thing. Take some creative writing classes for sure, but if you plan to stop your education at the B.A. level you might consider getting it in something that has a higher likelihood of getting you employed in something worthwhile. You have to take into account where you live too. If you're in New York City or San Francisco, or even Los Angeles, then a creative writing degree will have a lot of very obvious open doors for you (not as a writer, but as an editor, intern at a publishing business, etc.). But if you're in the middle of nowhere, you won't have as many opportunities.

    If you are planning to go to graduate school, however, then get a creative writing degree if that's what you want to do, because grad school will have a different impact on you as far as employment is concerned. You still won't be guaranteed publication, but you will have a better chance of finding a job related to what you care about with an MA, regardless of where you live (since moving won't be that big a deal at that point).

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  3. And to make one more point: If you go to college, always be conscious of what you want to do for a living and the possibilites of that happening. I too want to be a writer for a living, to sit at home and write books and stories all the time, 8-5. But getting a degree in creative writer cannot guarantee me that I will get to do that, so I thought about what I wanted to do besides that. I asked myself: What would I want to do if I couldn't be a writer? What would make me happy?

    Ask yourself the same questions. What career that has a more stable work force, one with more guarantees, would you want to have if you couldn't be a professional writer? Would you want to be an editor? A teacher? A biologist? When you can answer that, then you'll now where to direct yourself academically. (Take courses you like, too, obviously, because you should broaden your horizons somewhat to keep yourself sane; I only take lit courses because that's really all I like...).

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  4. Er, BAs aren't useless. If I'd finished mine, I could have landed a nice job in a lab, and then worked my way up to some top job, or moved back into the academic field. Just before I quit I was given the opportunity to work in the hospital across the road in the department that dealt with genetic diseases in children. It was a cool job, with great prospects.

    So yeah, don't bash people with BAs, especially over here, because unlike you Americans we actually spend three years studying our chosen topic, not faffing around waiting to pick our "majors".

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  5. I have no degree and I earn a more than decent living writing. If I were going to go back to school I think instead of writing I'd study world history... maybe even go to Europe or Asia to get a different perspective. Philosophy is another study I'd like to make... writing classes are best for helping create discipline - imo - unless, of course, the professor actually earns most of his/her living writing.

    Anne Wayman now blogging at www.aboutfreelancewriting.com

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  6. I suspect if you check any "great" writers, you'll find that few were degreed in English. Such a B.A., if you pick all your electives judiciously, can certainly lead to your being well-rounded and capable of technically proficient writing. But the only way to write is to just write. And then plow away at getting published. Be aware that self-publishing is legitimate and not the same as what we used to call "vanity publishing."

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  7. Ellira: That's true. I should clarify that I am speaking primarily from an American perspective. Our job market is so saturated with people with BAs that they are essentially useless. And the way we get them certainly influences how educated we are by them. But our MAs and PhDs are essentially second to none.

    Anne: Thanks for stopping by and offering your opinion :). I agree!

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  8. Stephen: Well, the self-publishing part being "legitimate" is a whole other argument that I've already had here, but degrees don't necessarily influence writing (mine has, to a certain degree, but I'm a modern literature major, so only the ideas side of things has been adjusted).

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  9. As editor of Every Day Fiction, I see a ton of writing, and let me tell you, most of the work from people who identify themselves as Creative Writing majors is terrible.

    They have perfect grammar, but they're like a teen who, having been behind the wheel of a car once, wants to race the Indy 500. They try to write in present tense when the situation doesn't warrant it, attempt 2nd person POV without understanding the pitfalls, or write in purple. They have usually been taught the lessons, but don't understand them.

    Often, their writing is soulless.

    I think a Creative Writing degree is actually a hindrance to good writing. Having studied it for four years, too many of these students think they can write

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  10. Jordan: It might have something to do with a sort of grown-in arrogance. "I've got a creative writing degree, so I'm better than most people." But, as you said, that's not necessarily the case. I don't think it's fair, though, to say that a creative writing degree instantly means you suck, because I imagine that the numbers are about the same for those with and w/o who suck (percentage wise).
    But, you do have some personal experience with it, which is important to note here, and definitely relevant, since it does clearly show that a degree doesn't matter that much.

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  11. No, no, I'm not sure I said that having a Creative Writing major means your writing instantly sucks.

    But it could be more likely to suck.

    The problem is that Creative Writing classes are only rarely taught by people who can write. Often, an instructor has ONE book under their belt, usually published by a university press. Most of the labs are taught by graduate students who have published nothing.

    However, they have analyzed the shit out of a lot of writing, so they think they know the rules. This is learning by "hearsay", and I can't imagine a less helpful way to learn.

    Also, if you're studying Creative Writing, you're NOT studying the kind of life experience you need as a writer. If you'd studying Biology, you could incorporate that into you work.

    Sure, there are SOME creative writing programs taught by bestselling authors. AND there are some massively talented individuals who enter bad programs and can still write. But I think that Creative Writing programs are just as likely to mess you up as to actually do any good.

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  12. Oh, I didn't assume you said it, I just wanted to clarify the point, because folks who read online tend to skim things and will miss important words (I think there's a habit to look for the black/white (yes/no) in everything).

    Just to make something clear, though, when an instructor has a book published by a university press it's not necessarily and indication that the work isn't of a certain quality. Usually such manuscripts are part of their MA or PhD requirements, which are not to be taken lightly (unless the program is particularly crap). You don't graduate with an MA unless the school deems you worthy, and if your final product is drivel, well, then you're not getting the degree. That's the same for the PhD (only even more anal). That does depend on the program, though, but there are few creative writing programs at the postgrad level that are crap.

    I also suspect you don't get a lot of submissions from the Iowa Workshop, which happens to be the best creative writing program in the country and has a brilliant track record. (It's taught by real writers and also exceptionally brutal on new writers).

    But I also don't necessarily agree that a creative writing program is more likely to make you a bad writer. Arrogant, sure, but not necessarily bad. The problem is that a creative writing program can only teach you certain things. It cannot teach you ideas, plots, etc. It can only teach you "how" to write based on either example or workshop. That doesn't mean you're necessarily a good writer, because a writer is so much more than just writing okay prose.

    And I suspect some of your issues with CW programs is based on personal preference. I would assume that CW programs have a tendency to churn a certain brand of writer (usually "literary"), which may not be your cup of tea in the first place (or at least no their particular "literary" brand). But these are guesses.

    What universities have people gone to? I'm really curious.

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  13. SMD,

    I don't want to get into naming certain programs, though I don't think the Iowa Workshop is among them. Like I said, there are good programs.

    I've minored in English in University, so I'm fairly well versed in "literature". Also, I run a literary magazine, not a pulp mag. I do like Heinlein, Asimov, and crew, but I also like McCarthy, Mieville, and Arundhati Roy.

    I invite you to read slush at any major magazine for a couple of months, and you'll see what I mean. Lord, I had one submission from someone who claimed to be a creative writing PROF which was barely literate.

    About university presses and PhDs and such: who judges whether something is worthy? Other professors. who. may. never. have. published. a. book.

    If books published by university presses were any good, why aren't they picked up by a major publisher? Hell, publishers are picking up self-published books these days, it seems like nothing's off limits.

    About Creative Writing programs in general, I've been accepted to Clarion West, and thus been researching it pretty heavily. I've seen tons of people who've said they've learned far more in their six weeks at Clarion than at their entire MFA, but I've never seen someone claim the opposite. Something to think about.

    In any case, I know that you've been accepted to a MFA program, so I don't want to seem like I'm peeing on your chips. You may be a great writer and your program may be brilliant. But there are far more bad programs out there than good ones, and far more bad writers with MFAs than good ones.

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  14. Sorry, about personal experience.

    My university offers ONE Creative Writing class, and to take it you needed twelve English credits as a pre-req. So I decided to minor in English so I could take it.

    By the time I'd accumulated the credits, the instructor had changed, and now, in the Creative Writing class, they teach poetry. Freaking poetry. There's nothing wrong with poetry. It's writing. And it's creative. But for chrissakes, if you're teaching a poetry class, call it poetry.

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  15. Jordan: No, I didn't get into an MFA. I'm in an MA program studying literature, not writing. I chose not to get a creative writing degree specifically because of what I've said in the post. I want to write, but I don't need a creative writing degree to do it, and in a lot of ways a creative writing degree would be the wrong thing for me because of the genre I write and how difficult it is to find CW programs that are interested in and supportive of genre fiction. I'm getting an MA to teach literature at the college level and to pursue my interests and hopefully get more people babbling about science fiction and fantasy in academic circles.

    EDF publishes, in my opinion, a very specific kind of fiction that may not be inclusive of the kinds of things that CW programs tend to push. To be fair, the primary issue with CW programs is that few of them have opened their doors to more broad views of fiction, so many of them still hold to an ideal of how fiction should be written that is not consistent with reality.

    And I really would not consider Asimov or Heinlein as "pulp" or even as lesser literature than anyone else. Those two are some of the most thoughtful, interesting writers of the 20th century for sure :P.

    "About university presses and PhDs and such: who judges whether something is worthy? Other professors. who. may. never. have. published. a. book."

    Generally speaking, no legitimate postgrad program would consist of graduate committees containing professors or members who have not adequately proven themselves to be worthy of the privilege to judge the work of new scholars. They get into that position by doing something significant to have advanced the field in some way. I'd be concerned with any university that employs professors to be graduate advisors and committee members who have not done anything themselves in the field they are "judging."

    Professors are also required to publish a certain amount of material within the years they are employed or they lose their jobs (i.e. they do not get tenure, etc.).

    "If books published by university presses were any good, why aren't they picked up by a major publisher?"

    University presses aren't exactly "small" either. Material printed by them does get circulated quite widely. And some have been published by major presses (some who have taught creative writing have include Karen Joy Fowler, James Patrick Kelley, and many others whose names I don't know because I don't read their kind of fiction).

    Those that are printed by university presses (which are just as interested in quality as anyone else; they have no interest in publishing someone's work just to further that individual's career) are largely writing a kind of fiction that is not generally of interest to mainstream publishers: short story collections, poetry collections, etc. While those things do get printed by mainstream publishers, they are rare and even more so for the style of fiction these folks tend to write (a sort of high-brow "literary" blend, which certainly hints to a lot of the issues with CW programs in general).

    And mislabeling anything pisses me off, to be honest.

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  16. To be fair, EDF publishes the best of what is submitted. Often, we aren't able to be choosy because we don't get enough original, well-written fiction.

    However, I did turn down a piece that mimicked Virginia Woolf's style. English profs the world over just gasped at that last sentence, I know. But Woolf's work was never very popular with the public (though it has since gained traction with the pretentious crowd), and people just don't write the way she does these days. The zeitgeist has moved on.

    I know the old argument about university professors having to publish a certain amount of material, but, remember, critical papers also count. One doesn't need to be able to write to scorn the work of others.

    Show me a program headed by a Man Booker Prize winner, or a Hugo Winner, or even a Pulitzer Prize winner, and I'm guessing that's a great program to be in. But there are many, many programs where the professor only publishes in obscure academic literary journals... and those just don't count in my humble opinion.

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  17. Did ... you just brush all Masters and Doctorates in my country as worse than yours?

    Jerk.

    Self publishing is a viable, wonderful option. You should try it.

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  18. Ellira: Not in those words, no, but the U.S. does have pretty much the best postgraduate educational system in the world, with few rivals.

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  19. I don't think it is needful, and it may indeed not be helpful.
    Many bestsellers were written by people who didn't have a sophisticated command of the English language.
    Inspiration is what really counts. People wants something fresh, something that is somehow new. If I need correct English grammar, I'll go get a textbook that teaches Queens English.
    That is not to say that it is not to say that CREATIVE writing classes are a waste of time and money. What I mean is, if the inspiration is not there, CREATIVE class can't help make you a good writer.

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  20. Jordan: I don't know if critical papers count as publication for CW professors. That would be something I'd have to doublecheck.

    Also, you'd be surprised how non-obscure those journals are. A lot of them I've never heard of, but upon further inspection realize are actually quite popular and pay handsomely.

    Organic: Agreed!

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  21. Really? I admit that I'm not as informed as perhaps I should be on the subject. Do you have any links to these high paying literary magazines? I might send work to those that don't ask for a CV up front ;)

    I think I'm being shoe-horned here, though. In nearly every message, I've said, "but there are great...". There are great CW programs, great professors with great publication credits, and great students with great careers in front of them. It's just that CW programs in aggregate are a little like Capitalism with a capital "C". They create more losers than winners.

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