Why you don’t need a degree to be an author

“I think young writers should get other degrees first, social sciences, arts degrees or even business degrees. What you learn is research skills, a necessity because a lot of writing is about trying to find information.”

-Irvine Welsh

Words of advice from a college graduate

Today I’m speaking mostly to young writers-those who haven’t gone to college yet or are still in their first couple years of school. But don’t stop reading if that doesn’t sound like you. Go ahead and skip down to the next section about those who didn’t even have to go to school to write.

This is my small piece of advice for young writers: think about what you really want to do with your life before you pick a degree. If all you want to be is an author, don’t major in English. You can be an author without that degree.

I went to school to major in English, because I thought that was the right step. I was told that to succeed, I would have to go to college. Since I liked to read and write, the obvious major was English. So I got a degree for writing papers and discussing great literature in class. But what I didn’t learn was how to use those things in the real world such as how to construct a story or find a publisher or write what people will want. In my experience, majoring in English was like entering a glorified book club. Yes, I enjoyed most of it, and I’m not saying don’t go to college. College was a great experience. The part I’m regretting is having majored in English rather than pursuing other dreams that I could have jumped right into after school.

Becoming a published author doesn’t happen over night. So what do you want to do as your “fundraising” job while you write? What will you do to support yourself? Think about what you want to do with your life before settling with a degree. If studying books and literary movements will help you with a job, then go for it. But otherwise, don’t make the mistake I did in thinking an English degree will help you as an author. It won’t. Take time to explore other dreams you have and pursue those as you also pursue your writing.

You don’t need a degree to be an author.

Writers who didn’t get a degree

You don’t need a writing degree to write. Harper Lee got a degree in law. If you’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ve probably at least heard of it. That was her. She wrote a book that has made it onto schools’ required reading lists without ever having to study writing. She started out writing for her school’s newspaper and magazine and became the publication editor. Then she got accepted into law school where she studied for a semester before dropping out to focus on her writing. So how did she get published? She made friends with people who knew people–people like literary agents.

harper lee

Harper Lee isn’t the only writer who didn’t go to school for writing. Charles Dickens was forced out of school at the age of twelve to be put into debtor’s prison by his father. Like Harper, Dickens’ writing career started by writing for a newspaper. He started small and built his way up to writing 900 page novels that are also read in schools today. Other writers include Jack London, who was self-educated and never attended college. Mark Twain dropped out of school at age twelve. And H. G. Wells was bedridden at age eight. Yes, some people have a more natural gift than others. But who said that next great writer can’t be you?

Again, I’m not saying don’t go to college. I’m only saying that it isn’t a requirement to be a great author or even a great anything. Go to college for your “plan B” and learn on your own about writing techniques to improve yourself as a writer. So for those of you who are older and got a business degree, nursing degree, culinary degree, etc.–that means you can still be a writer too.

It’s never too late to become what you want to be. 

I hope if you were feeling down on yourself about your writing or feeling lost deciding on a major, that this post helped you in some way. If you have any questions you’d like to ask me, post it in the comment section below.

Come back next Tuesday for thoughts on the new movie In the Heart of the Sea, the movie based on the book about the events that inspired Herman Melville’s book  Moby Dick.


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