The Education of Writing

A question many have when they begin to kick around the idea of pursuing a career in writing is, “Do I need to go for higher education to do so?” I had this curiosity, as well, especially when I was in my junior and senior years in high school. I spent quite a bit of time researching it while I considered my career plan, but I never found a clear answer.

In truth, there probably isn’t one answer that covers every type of author. For instance, if you want to write nonfiction on history, self-help or specific topics like that, you’d be expected to have certain credentials to back up your area of expertise. Hence, I can only speak to what I—a novelist who didn’t go to college—have experienced in my decade in the book publishing world.  

In most professions, you present a resume to a perspective employer, in which you list your level of education and degree you’ve earned. When it comes to pursuing publication, you submit a query to agents and/or publishers that introduces your manuscript and you, but unless your education is somehow relevant to your story, you typically don’t mention it. Rather, you focus on your history with publishing and what makes you a good candidate to write the story. Of course, you have to reach a little when you’re getting started, and a degree can be helpful in that regard. More than anything, however, editors and agents want to see you as a person and what gives you a unique perspective to be a storyteller. You’ll find that, too, when you’re exploring companies to figure out where to submit. I’ve never come across publisher guidelines or agent wish-lists that mention the need for a degree.

The bottom line is, having a degree won’t hurt you, but it also isn’t a sure-fire way to land you a book deal. You may wonder, though, if you should further your education in writing, even if it isn’t required. In my opinion, that depends on you. Proper grammar and formatting goes a long way in making your work attract attention…the right kind of attention. My education in primary school has been invaluable, but there are quirks in publishing that go beyond that. What gets you straight A’s in English class may not be up to par from a publisher’s standpoint.  Perhaps a course would teach you such, but there are also a plethora of books that offer instruction, too.

On a personal note, something that held me back from pursuing a major in creative writing was my fear of losing my personal writing style. I’ve always been a student who follows instruction pretty much to the letter, and I’m prone to doubt myself if I’m made to feel that I’ve failed. I excelled in all my writing courses, including an AP one, and they laid a foundation for everything I’ve done since. At the same time, I didn’t know what I was capable of creatively until I went for it on my own and wasn’t confined by a grading rubric. I didn’t have a professor standing over me and saying I was wrong to do something just because he didn’t like it. I could learn on my own terms, and I flourished.  

I don’t regret my choice not to go for a degree, but I’ve had to compensate for my lack of higher training by studying on my own and being willing to accept correction. Like I stated earlier, you might think you’ll blow an editor’s socks off with a technique that earned you praise in school, but it ends up driving him/her crazy. For example, teachers want us to change up dialogue tags often instead of just relying on ‘said’ or ‘asked.’ For years, then, I flexed my creative muscles by using every word I could think of to avoid such, but I’ve recently learned most companies prefer the more common tags, if you must use one at all. Trends like this change somewhat often, so it’s good to take refreshers so that you’re better equipped to satisfy a publisher.

In all honesty, writing is a craft in which you never stop learning, whether you have a degree or not. Just because you didn’t attend college doesn’t mean you shouldn’t educate yourself, even after you’ve had a book published. You have to be open to being a student, regardless of if you’re in a classroom or in your living room. When you do so, though, you have to have a balance when it comes to trying to implement everything you’re taught. Remember that readers, agents, and publishers alike are looking for unique storytellers, and you can’t become that by falling into someone else’s mold. Whatever path you choose to take, let it guide you to your individual voice, and your talent will take you from there!   

Also See

The Hidden Pitfalls of Publishing

Editors: A One-Person Jury or a Friendly Doorman to the World of Readers?

5 thoughts on “The Education of Writing

  1. Great Post. I think it does really depend on what your writing. If it’s a factual book like local history, having a few credentials will help. However if it’s a crime novel, then the power is in the writers hands, regardless of education.

    Liked by 1 person

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