Do You Need An English Degree To Be A Writer?

The short answer is no

One of the questions that I see writers struggling with is how to become a writer at all.

Partly because the path is often obscured and there’s so many different routes to take.

It’s different than say a doctor where you get a degree, go to medical school and then start a residency. It’s a defined path.

But for a writer there are nearly too many options. There are best selling writers that as stay at home moms or dads, writing around childcare. There are people that became teachers or professors before leaping into writing as a profession.

Often writes start as journalists. It’s a way to get a lot of experience and writing under your belt before striking out on your own.

The point being that there is no one direct path when one decides to make writing their full time profession.

But a common question I see is a potential writer asking if an English Degree is necessary to become a writer.

And the short answer is no. It’s not necessary.

And I say that as someone with an English degree.

Now, it can help, but for the most part you don’t need one.

I’ll explain mostly using my own experience.

I kind of fell backwards into an the English program.

I originally went to school for Nursing, but at this time nearly every other college student was doing the same and there was a waiting period to get in, even after the pre-requisites were taken.

So I changed course.

I had always wanted to be a writer and was planning on finding a job where I could work then write on the side, like how many writers started. However, like many of my peers I never could quite decide on what I wanted to do. The only thing I knew was that I liked writing.

I settled into the English department as I love books, and love writing, with the notion of either going to graduate school or law school. I also had an nagging wish to apply to medical school. You see, my school made you take a lot of credits in another department and most of mine were science related so I had all the premed classes as well.

So I really had no idea what I was doing.

Eventually, I graduated but still had no idea what I’d be doing. By this point, I knew I didn’t want to going to grad or professional school. I had some money saved and decided I wanted to make a go of being a writer.

I wanted the freedom it would give me. I was terrified of being stuck in an office all day. I wanted to spend time out in the woods up north, and live in my cabin. Writing allowed me to do that. Though there were some bumps along the way, I managed to do it.

Now, was an English degree necessary?

No.

Did it help?

Kinda.

You see, the type of writing you do when in an English program is a very strict format. Academic writing is something I excelled at, but outside of academics, it’s pretty much useless.

The kind of writing you’d be doing if you’re trying to make it as a freelance writer or fiction writer is very different. It’s not the rigid dense prose that a professor would expect. When you’re writing copy you need to be conversational and relatable.

There were things I with which I did not have much experience.

Nearly everything I learned about the writing profession I learned on my own and not from school. Plus, you need a bunch of different skills that aren’t found in just one discipline. You need marketing skills, social media skills, business training, etc. All of which I learned on the job.

In fact, if you want to be a writer, and handful of youtube channels and a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing as well as a copy of The Elements Of Style is really all you need to get the basics down.

Now I did get one major benefit from a writing degree.

You see, I was a god awful writer when I started.

I’m still not a great one. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

I wrote about it here:

But, I was able to get better at it because I practiced.

A lot.

And that was the biggest thing the English program did for me.

I was writing what felt like a dozen papers a week. I was seeing term papers in my sleep.

This lead to thousands of hours working on writing. This is not work I would have done on my own.

It forced to sit down and spend the time necessary to get proficient when I failed to do it on my own.

Back when I was studying other things, I tried writing on my own. And I would just sit there with maybe half a page typed up. And then I would lose interest and go on to something else.

But when you’re getting a grade on something it makes it more urgent.

To be fair, it basically did set me up with a model for freelance writing. In school, I’d get an assignment write it, and get a grade. In the professional world, it was much the same, just replace money with grades.

And I loved good grades but money is way better.

So you see, a degree is not necessary to start a writing degree. I have one and mostly it just provided practice. If you are self motivated you can do it without one. All the resources are available.

Actually, for most people I’d advice getting a solid education in something else, so if you decide not to become a writer then you don’t have to start all over.

Besides the best teacher is experience and if you throw yourself to the wolves you will learn quickly.

Trust me.

Written by

Matthew Donnellon is a writer, artist, and sit down comedian. He is the author of The Curious Case of Emma Lee and Other Stories.

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