Does A Degree In Writing Help?

I recently saw this question and thought it might be appropriate to weigh in.

To begin with – I did graduate college. I obtained my degree in history with a European concentration. As such I spent a lot of time reading and writing for my degree which I have no doubt helped my ability to write. I also took quite  few creative writing courses and literature courses. Unfortunately, that led me to my conclusion. Mileage may vary; your teachers will make all the difference in the world, so I can’t speak for if you have amazing professors.

My literature professors were amazing, and I learned a great deal from them. On the other hand I learned very little from the writing courses I took. In fact they were more damaging than helpful to my writing. The professor told me that genre fiction was a lesser form of writing, and literary fiction was king. And we spent a fair amount of time that semester reading a book she had published. I will admit that I didn’t read it. I never even opened it. I thought it was more than a little egotistical for her to be making us buy her book and then read it while she talked about her own genius. Not all of the creative writing professors were like that, but most of them continued to “poo-poo” genre fiction and tout the genius of literary fiction.

Fast forward a few years to when I began working in the industry. I started in the slush pile weeding out the good writing from the bad. While the writings of those with degrees in the field was mediocre most of it looked the same. While I will be the first to admit I wasn’t excited by literary fiction then or now, a lot of what was sent to me tried too hard to be “deep” and “meaningful”. It was all the same drivel, and most of them included their degree in literary fiction in the query letter. While I understand that college can’t make a sow’s ear into a silk purse it didn’t look like it helped as much as might could have.

On the other hand I know several people with multiple degrees in writing, and their work is exemplary. Like I said, it may depend on the school and the teachers.

What I think one of the biggest culprits is in the situation with folks with creative writing degrees is that many of them believe it will be a quick route into publishing. Having the degree doesn’t guarantee that you will be picked up. The assumption that it is the fast-route to being picked up by a publishing company leads to ego problems. It can become a crutch in that way – leaning on the fact that you have a degree to prevent you from pushing yourself to become better once you leave school.

If I were to sum up my opinions on the matter I would say to be very, very careful to choose the right college when you are considering going. And remember to analyze everything you hear – just because someone is a professor doesn’t mean they know their backside from a teapot. Take what you can out of it, but you should also know it isn’t the only way to learn to be an exemplary writer. If you have the extra money to devote to furthering your education I won’t tell you know, but realize it isn’t the shortcut to publishing. The only way to get there is a lot of hard work and practice.

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3 thoughts on “Does A Degree In Writing Help?

  1. gemwriter2013 says:

    I have to agree, a degree in writing doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer, or a marketable one either (these two are not synonymous, as many are well aware). My professors molded my writing into they way they thought good writing should be – and we all know how subjective a subject that is.

    I believed I’ve learned more in the past two years since achieving my degree by reading, deciding what I liked and didn’t, and then emulating the authors I enjoyed the most. And, as you state, “The only way to get there is a lot of hard work and practice.”

    • E. Prybylski says:

      I’m sorry I missed replying to this sooner! You are absolutely correct on all fronts. You definitely can learn a lot from college writing courses, but it is the nature of many teachers to – as you said – mold your writing into imitations of what they think is best. And what they think is best is often extremely subjective.

      There ARE some teachers who break that mold and who teach only the tenants of writing and encouraging students to explore their own voice while pushing them to improve on the important parts of structure and craft. Unfortunately, they’re rare.

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