Why You Don’t Need an English Degree to Write (from Someone Who Has One)

I have a master’s degree in English and creative writing, and here’s the truth: I don’t think you need a degree in English to be a writer. Personally, I believe my degree did help me. But not in the way you might imagine. I don’t think it made me a better writer. I was a pretty good writer to begin with. What grad school did was make me more confident in my writing. It helped hone my instincts and improve my editing skills. Honestly, though, I just liked going to school again.

While I’m a strong proponent of education, I also believe that you don’t need any sort of specialized degree to be a writer. I think my undergrad degree in history helped me hone my writing skills just as much as a graduate degree in English. Maybe even more. (I’m pretty sure I used a paper I wrote for one of my history courses to get into grad school.) Writing is an individual exercise. Something that worked for me might not work at all for you. But there are a few things I think can make you a better writer that don’t involve going to school.

You’ve probably heard a million writing rules by now. Including “there are no rules”. But that’s because none of them are right for every writer. I’ve written, edited, studied both things in depth, and read A LOT. And I’ve come up with two simple things that can make anyone a good writer.

First: practice. Writing is not like riding a bike. You get better the more you do it. But going a long time without writing has an impact, too. You don’t have to write every single day, but I’ve learned that it’s easier to keep going if you do. Don’t be discouraged if your writing isn’t great right now. Editing can fix it later, and you’ll become a better writer as you keep writing. You learn a lot about yourself and the process, and it becomes more natural.

Second: read. A lot. Read good books and bad books. Decide what you like and don’t like. Get inspired. Learn from people you admire. (But don’t copy them.) Use your reading to shape your own style and ideas. Reading is the most important thing a writer can do. If you don’t read (which I’m sure isn’t true for anyone reading this blog), and try to write a book, I can guarantee it won’t be that good. It might be decent, but if you want to write something great, you need to read. It’s that simple.

But what about that fancy piece of paper? The one I paid forty thousand dollars for and is currently collecting dust in my closet? You don’t need it. I promise. I don’t need it either. My degree is in English and creative writing with a specialization in fiction. And, sure, it made me a better editor. But it didn’t necessarily make me a better writer. At least not beyond all the reading I did, which I probably could have done on my own. It forced me to get over my insecurities and write – because I had to turn something in – but that’s where the value was for me, personally. (Though, to be fair, it is kind of nice to brag about it. Because most people’s reactions are surprise. I was even told I’m too nice for someone with a masters degree. Whatever that means.)

I do believe a degree in English can make you a better writer simply because it forces you to read and practice. However, I’ve also seen the other side of the coin. It can make your writing, well, not so great. You might have previously heard me call this MFA syndrome. More often than not, I can tell you whether an author has an MFA (it’s usually the MFA grads, not really holders of MAs – like me) simply from their writing. Why? Because they very obviously try too hard. Yes, there is such a thing as beautiful prose (just go read a Neil Gaiman book). And lovely writing from authors with advanced degrees in English (like Sarah Perry). But, sometimes, it really just feels forced (I won’t name names).

Grad school is a really unique environment where you are competing with your peers on a higher level. You can’t just write a good paper, there is enormous pressure to write something that stands out, something that is a little bit out there and different and amazing. Often, that results in the kind of writing that you really want to roll your eyes at. But, in grad school, that urge gets suppressed, and, instead, people push each other farther. Maybe too far. Here’s an example of the product of a recent MFA grad (in an actual published novel): “We all walk in a cloud of mourning for the New York that just disappeared.”

Raise your hand if you rolled your eyes. Even a little bit. Sure, writing “we’re all sad because New York has changed” might not have the same flair (it’s not even that good). But it’s more accessible and definitely less pretentious. Doesn’t that one sentence kind of scream hipster lit? Here’s the thing: it’s not bad. It’s just not necessary. It feels like these writers are showing off in a way that can isolate readers. There is something to be said for beautiful, simple writing that can speak to anyone. Take this piece of imagery from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: “He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”

Which sentence do you like better? Which would you rather read?

Guess what, Neil Gaiman never graduated from college. And he wrote that. He writes pure magic. (Seriously, I met him once, and words just come out of his mouth like that, too. I think I stopped breathing for a second.) You know what he did? He practiced. He read. That’s it. That’s all it took for him to make magic.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with getting an advanced degree. I don’t regret getting mine (except on days when I have to make my student loan payments). There is always room for more English majors in the world. There will always be room for more fairy tales and more imagination and more stories that speak to us in a way that makes us feel we belong in this world. But you don’t need a piece of paper to tell you that you can be the one to create those stories. All you need is you.

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8 thoughts on “Why You Don’t Need an English Degree to Write (from Someone Who Has One)

    1. Glad you enjoyed this! Honestly, the only person I’m still in contact with from grad school is an elementary school teacher who writes on the side. Personally, I work in medical education now. Completely unrelated, but I do know that having a masters bumped me to the top of the interview list when I first applied.

      I don’t think getting an MA in English opens up a huge number of job prospects. (Though it does qualify you to teach at a junior college.) Most of the people I know seem to have done it for themselves rather than for a specific job.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I loved this post! I’d love to be able to write amazingly, but sometimes it’s easy to doubt, to think “I’m not as cool as all the other people who know what’s going on”. Then it’s words like these which remind me that probably all the “cool people” have no idea what’s going on too. Maybe what it takes is inside yourself, and that you can do fantastic things, if only you’re willing to try. Besides, I really like how you brought Neil Gaiman up as an example. I agree, he writes magic. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you liked it! I learned you need to ignore the self-doubt, finish a draft, and then fit it later. That’s the only way you’ll ever finish anything. (Plus, if you think your writing isn’t great right away, you’re miles ahead of all the people that think they’re amazing and end up publishing mediocre books.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. MFA syndrome is totally a thing (though not everyone catches it). But in my case, getting degrees did help my writing but indirectly. It allowed me to *think* about narratives in a deeper way. It gave me tools to analyze and compare and dissect. It MADE me practice using those tools and get comfortable using them. And it exposed me to stories I might not otherwise have found or thought to study. Could someone do that on their own, with a library card? I suppose they could, but it might be hard without a guide along the way. But I agree — there is nothing stopping you from picking up a pencil and writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! Not everyone catches it, and I think it might depend on the program you complete. I did a lot of work in grad school that I could have done on my own, but probably wouldn’t have. I think getting an English degree might help, but it’s not necessary. I don’t think it necessarily trumps years of practice, but I also don’t think one is better than they other. Different paths work for different people.

      Like

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