One of the first bit of advice about writing I ever received was to never take writing classes. This was from a veteran author with decent success in the Science Fiction market, so take it as you will. But she had a point then, and she has a point now, based off of my albeit limited experience.
I think there are two stories revolving around this. A writing degree, and by extension an English Literature degree, could greatly benefit someone: teach them what excellent writing looks like, what the rules are, the tricks of the trade. There’s a lot of books out there by people who would really benefit from a few classes (*cough* E.L. James *cough*).
But then, there are the people who get hurt by writing classes: because of the rigidity and grading structure, individual style and voice can get beat out of them. ‘This is the right way to write this idea/interpret novel, your way is wrong’ sort of issues. Because a grade is necessary to pass the class, there is no choice between following the rules or sticking to your style. Your grade depends on it.
A lot like how forcing kids to read can cause them to hate reading, I know a few people who have been unable to write (or sometimes even read) after they finished their degree. The critical, editing voice has been built up to such a degree that their creativity and flow has been stifled; it’s no longer fun, fulfilling, or engaging as it once was. Reading has become a chore, filled with the right and wrong ways to interpret a novel. All of this, of course, can be gotten over. And I am sure there is benefit from these classes. But it makes you wonder if it’s really worth it.
Writers are people who write; a degree makes a writer not. If you’re already going to write, going to work to improve yourself and your craft, why spend a lot of money on a degree to have someone else tell you the “right” way of writing when your way of writing will be different anyway? Or, for an English degree, pay someone to tell you what you’re reading? (Especially with all the online help that’s available nowadays, too)
Of course, you need a degree in said thing if you’re going to teach it. I see that. And maybe your ideal job requires said degree (publishing, maybe? Or maybe a job that doesn’t have anything to do with writing but the position you want). But even then, I feel that this can work against people. For instance, my step father has a degree in fine art. What does he do? Runs a multi-million dollar business as its President and co-owner. Why? Because he thinks outside of the box. His art degree is more valuable than the business degree because it’s creative, and learning the rules of business only gets you the rules, not the ability to adapt and thrive.
So as writers, what are we really writing about? Life. Experience. Love. Survival. Maybe dragons and unicorns. These things are learned through living, not a classroom.
Yes, yes, getting all those things on paper in a decent way generally has to be learned. Some have the natural talent for it, some do not. But as I reiterated above, there are SO many resources out there available for people to learn good writing skills and develop oneself as a writer. It’s there for the taking. Even all those books you read in English classes, too. Right there.
This, of course, takes a lot of personal time and effort to do without a structured course. If you’re anything like me, it’s harder to make that effort when there isn’t an instructor hanging over you wielding the grade stick. Well, maybe it’s time to suck it up. We can all improve. And even if you do want/need classes, you’re going to have to continue to improve yourself anyway. And sometimes you have to unlearn the things professors have taught you to really be able to write as you should.
So. Instead of spending all that money on an English or Writing degree, maybe you should book a flight to South America and immerse yourself in the culture so you have real experience of the place when it comes time to write that book about the teenagers in Brazil who get possessed by soul aliens that haven’t been seen since Aztec times and –
Wait. Hold on, that’s me with that story idea. Whoops. Nevermind.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that you don’t need a degree in Writing or English to be a writer. All you have to do is write. And gain experience. And live life. And be happy (or depressed, whatever floats your boat).
Now, don’t write about soul aliens in Brazil, go write your own story.
P.S. If you’re one of those people who thrive on English/Writing classes, you’re probably awesome and know more about writing than I ever will. Just remember once you’ve gotten out and don’t have to worry about grades anymore, you can be your own writer, too.