Why Aspiring Authors Shouldn’t Major in English

This article was originally posted on Insatiable Booksluts.

Do you want to be a writer when you grow up?  I know I do.  When I was in high school trying to decide on a college and a major, English seemed like the perfect subject to study.  After all, English is the language I would be writing in, right?  Looking back, I think I made a huge mistake.

Perks of Being an English Major

This is exactly how my life went . . . oh, wait . . .

The major problem with majoring in English was that, although I gained some marketable skills from it, it did very little to prepare me for being a writer.  Here are some of the reasons why I don’t think it’s a good idea for writers to major in English:

  • You already know English.  If you can read this, chances are you already have native or near-native proficiency in English.  Why would you spend tens of thousands of dollars on a program where you’re just going to learn more about a language you already know?  Most programs don’t even spend much time on grammar or linguistics, so you’re not really gaining any arcane English knowledge that you couldn’t have picked up while you were in high school.
  • Writing classes are required for every major.  For most four-year degrees, regardless of what you major in, you will be required to take a course in English composition.  My upper-level English composition class had students from every major in it.  Even at the most basic level of English 101, you will learn how to write an essay and you will learn correct grammar.  Best of all, one of your required textbooks will be a grammar reference.  Make sure you hold onto it; I still have mine.
  • You’re just going to read a lot of literature.  If you want to be a writer, but you don’t already read as much as you possibly can, I want you to hit yourself.  No, really.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait . . . Okay, as I was saying, if you want to be a writer, you probably already read all the time.  Something has to inspire your desire to create worlds, right?  The things you read will have a major impact on your writing style and the kinds of stories you will create.  For me, I enjoyed reading great English literature from a variety of time periods, but as a writer, I find that those were not the kinds of stories that inspired me.  I drew most of my inspiration from my leisure reading of speculative fiction–not from reading the classics.How to Read a BookFortunately, there’s a whole book on the subject.
  • Studying other subjects gives you a different perspective to write from.  I really enjoy reading a book with realistic details about careers, hobbies, and interests outside of my own scope.  It provides a kind of escape from my own mundane life.  I don’t know much about business, law, or science, but I think books that revolve around these topics are fascinating.  Michael Crichton is a good example of a writer whose expertise in scientific fields translated into fascinating science fiction stories involving everything from biotech to mutant gorillas.  All I’m saying is you don’t want to be the kid who writes about writers writing.  Only Stephen King can get away with that; he breaks all the rules.
  • English programs don’t teach job skills or business sense.  Let’s be honest: most writers are going to need a second job while they’re writing that bestseller.  On a resume, you look about as smart as the French exchange student who got good grades in French.  What’s more, in order to succeed as a writer, you’ll need to know how to be an effective communicator and an effective promoter.  You would think that writing letters or e-mails and writing fiction go hand-in-hand, but they don’t.

I don’t necessarily want to discourage aspiring writers from majoring in English.  Plenty of successful writers have been English majors.  However, it’s important to realize that an English degree will leave gaps in your education and skill set.  If I had to do it over, I would have picked a journalism or business major instead, and I would have also joined up with the school newspaper and a few other clubs that interested me.  Get out and try some things that are outside of your comfort zone, because fiction writing is about characters overcoming conflict, and you won’t know about conflict until you’ve faced a challenge.

Maybe you’re planning to major in English anyway, or maybe you’ve already got an English degree.  What was your experience with an education in English?  Leave a comment!

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