Why an English Degree hurts Writing

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.

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About R. K. Brainerd

I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. My characters are pretty much always clamoring for attention, and if I don't listen, they plague me with insane dreams and nightmares until I start writing. I also raise dairy goats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. My debut novel -- an alternate-history fantasy -- it set to come out in 2018, probably Fall time. Welcome to the adventure. View all posts by R. K. Brainerd

33 responses to “Why an English Degree hurts Writing

  • Jess Nguyen

    I love this post! Definitely comforting to read this. I always wondered whether I should’ve been an English major because I love writing, but I didn’t realize that writing in a structured setting like a classroom can hurt my development as a writer as well. I definitely agree that sometimes you need to experience to make you become a better writer!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aspire to Fly

      It’s what I’ve always been told by authors I’ve met – a lot. And I’ve seen it happen to my peers. I’m sure it’s not true for everyone, but I’m pretty sure it’s true for a lot of people. And yes, experience and adventure and reading whatever you can get yours hands on and writing, writing, writing!

      You can be a writer no matter what! And kick ass too. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  • Ej Lowell

    Can’t yell “yeessss!!!!” loudly enough. I’ve taken exactly two writing classes in my life. One was “creative writing” in High School, which I failed miserably because I had marching band and Algebra hanging over my head that semester, but oh well. The other was “writing college research papers” or something to that effect, and I booked it out of that class as fast as I possibly could because… nah. There’s something about doing anything art-related for academic purposes that turns me off BIG time. I feel like I’m being channeled that way. Which is probably why I ended up trying for a Geology degree and failing miserably at Chemistry instead. XD

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aspire to Fly

      You make me laugh! Ha. Academic writing classes aren’t bad, I liked them (but I was also decent at them, so that helps), but it’s just when “academics” tries to be “creative writing” when things don’t mesh… at least in my opinion. Seems you agree. 😉

      Hey, Chemistry is math! None of us creative types like that much… unless they are those musically gifted geniuses which are enviable.

      Geology is awesome, how are you enjoying that!?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ej Lowell

        Geology is awesome! I’m surprisingly good at being able to tell one rock type from another, formations are endlessly fascinating… but Chem. Had to take it, didn’t work, aaaand now I’m not in college anymore. XD For the moment, anyway.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Aspire to Fly

        I did a bit of Geology studying in High School and absolutely loved it. Maybe I should go look at it again…

        I know a lot of peers who hated Chem! And one person who loved it…. but she’s kinda like an uber-genius and doesn’t count.

        Eh, sometimes you need a break from things to get perspective. Sometimes you need to push through and just get it over with anyway. All depends on you.

        Like

      • Ej Lowell

        Yeah. I needed a break. XD Badly. I’m better for it, now, I think. I’ve gained some perspective, realized a lot about myself and what I want, and the only time I really regret was the time spent in the Chem labs. *shudders* Oh well. Onward and upward.

        Liked by 1 person

  • Ej Lowell

    Reblogged this on Being the Hermit and commented:
    To the person who feels like they need an English degree to be a writer, read this. It’s helpful.

    Like

  • aspiringwriter22

    I wish more people thought the way you did.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Steph H. Barker

    Very interesting read. I’ve studied a lot of creative writing in university and though my writing and process has improved, my confidence in my writing hasn’t. When you’re so used to getting a mark for a story you really focus on pleasing the reader and can often feel that it isn’t good enough. This sometimes means you write for other people and not yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aspire to Fly

      Confidence in writing is so hard. There’s something about baring of the soul like that where I don’t think any amount of classes or success stories or published novels are going to help. (Of course, what do I know?)

      I bet that you end up focusing on the reader more than yourself! That makes complete sense. I know I first started writing when I was pretty little, and I did it only for myself for the longest time. When I grew up a bit more and started “thinking about my reader” and focusing on that aspect, I went a little overboard. It took me a while to get back to writing for me again – while still trying to the keep “the reader” as a niggle in the back of my head.

      Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂

      Like

  • Catherine Lynn

    However…a good grammar class could really help. LOL. Seriously, what I learned in grammar class has really helped me not make a mess of things. On the other hand, I don’t remember a thing about my creative writing class. Which is probably a good thing. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aspire to Fly

      Yes! Grammar would really help 90% of the population. I actually have never taken a Grammar class (eep!), but I do like grammar and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about it. I think a lot of academic paper writing helped with that one….

      There you go! Forced memory loss. Ha. The benefits probably soaked in somewhere and hopefully all the bad bits flew out the window with the memory 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  • jcarsonwrites

    I studied English Literature at university, but only ended up staying for one year. All I heard from people was that I needed a degree to get a job and I needed English Literature to become a writer. But since I left school I’ve done so much better in my writing (in my opinion) and I actually enjoy reading again. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aspire to Fly

      I’m so glad to hear you’re writing and enjoying reading again! I have a particular loved one of mine who’s just starting to get out of it… it’s good to finally see.

      If the focus is a degree that melds getting a job with being a writer, I think that almost anything can help writing. A degree in the science fields – hey! Any sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, thriller, etc that deals with, well, anything science related. Humanities degree – well, right there you’ve got all sorts of human-nature like stuff that’s going to help with creating better people inside your story. On and on.

      I’m a writer, I’d like to think I’m pretty decent, and I got a degree in Political Science and Economics. Why? Because I loved the subjects. And I think they help my writing because now I understand that aspect of human nature and how the world works. Also, it helps that those degrees lend themselves much better to getting jobs…

      But that’s just my personal, not-so-humble opinion in the form of a rant. 😛 Thank you for adding your thoughts and experience!

      Liked by 1 person

  • Lindsay Ann

    I love your discussion about the business degree versus a fine arts degree. I find it funny business majors often don’t see the point in a liberal arts education while liberal arts people don’t see the point in a business degree. I think the latter are more correct, though, as you said, a business degree can only teach the rules and not creativity. Which, you can learn the rules working for any type of business anyway.

    The trick with education, however, is finding how it fits to you. If you don’t believe writing classes are going to be helpful, then don’t take them. But, if you feel technically you are lacking and want to expand on your knowledge, it won’t hurt. What we need is to teach more people to take others’ opinions (yes, that’s what they are in an English class, even from the professor) with a grain of salt. Everyone has experience and everyone builds on that experience differently.

    Good post and cheers~

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aspire to Fly

      Very good points! And YES – education is supposed to be about respecting and learning from other opinions. Everyone is different and wants/needs different lessons and experiences. Somehow that grain of salt needs to be taught along with the respect – but maybe that’s where life after college comes in.

      Liked by 2 people

  • Lynn Love

    This is really interesting- a debatable subject- what works for some wouldn’t work for others.
    I definitely think if you want to be published mainstream, you have to fit fashions, write sparingly (few adjectives/adverbs) lose the passive voice etc.
    But who says that’s essentially ‘good’ writing? It’s all subjective. Ever read The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Hugo writes pages and pages about Paris, how it looks and feels, before cracking on with the narrative. Fashions come and go- today we’re expected to write in a certain way if you want to be commercial.
    My creative writing short course helped me a lot and put me in touch with some great people, but I’ve learnt just as much from writing magazines and websites.
    As you say, its all out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  • authormbeyer

    I was an English major. Still, I agree with you. I taught middle school and high school writing for 31 years. I couldn’t have done the job as well as I did without my degree and the writing courses, especially creative writing courses I took in college. It may have done me in when it comes to my own writing now that I am retired, but if I had tried to just be a writer from the outset, it would’ve all turned out as drivel anyway. Having been a teacher that long has given me something important to write about even if no one ever chooses to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aspire to Fly

      Hey, you’ve had a lot of time to figure out stories and hone your skills! I’m sure you’ve got so many stories and experiences to share; that’s one of the most important bits. (At least in my barely-knows-anything opinion)

      Liked by 1 person

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