Do writers need a specific degree to be successful? Can you get writing skills without college?
You’ve probably wondered about that if you’re an aspiring writer who never went to college. Could be you majored in something practical like business or computer science, or you earned a two-year technical degree. But now you want to get on with your dreams. Life is short, right?
Maybe you want to write a novel. You know, that novel, the one lurking around in your head just dying to get written.
But you’re afraid you don’t have what it takes. And you picture people laughing and making fun of it even though you tell yourself you can do it, you will do it…
Hold it right there and listen up.
It’s true that writers need to know a few things, at least. And many successful writers—not all—have degrees, often in English or journalism. Plus, if you want to work as a writer in a company that requires a degree, well, then you need one.
But when it comes to blogging, freelance writing, or even writing a novel or a nonfiction book, it doesn’t matter where you learned what you need to know. I’m serious.
Look. I have a couple of English degrees—with minors in this and concentrations in that and plenty of writing classes—and I value what I learned. Enormously. I use it in one way or another every day.
But how you get that education isn’t the point. It’s not about the degree. It’s about what you know.
Here’s what any writer needs to know and how you can get writing skills without college.
1. Writers need to know their subject matter.
I can write something pretty decent on half a dozen topics without doing some background reading. I can dig into a couple of others if I brush up a bit, and there are many more I can tackle if I spend some serious time with a few good articles and a book or two.
How do I know all this stuff? A lot is personal experience, but it all has to do with reading.
How to get some:
If you’re blogging or want to write on a particular subject for publication, read, read, and read some more. Become an expert. Know the subject inside and out. Develop opinions.
If you want to write a novel that takes place on an island in the southern Pacific, learn everything about that island: its people, the food they eat, the terrain, the wildlife, street names, the political system, the history, and what the weather’s like.
It’s about research, too, even if it’s casual. And whether you have a college degree or not, you still have to do the background work. It’s part of your job as a writer.
2. Writers need research skills.
An ability to write about a certain subject doesn’t have to depend on what a writer knows. It’s about what he or she is willing to learn and knowing how to use that knowledge in a legitimate way.
As an English major in college, research was what I ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Everything I wrote (except in creative writing classes) was on topics I knew little or nothing about. That meant hours and hours in the library, whether physically or online.
Even in my freelance writing and editing today, I’m still doing some form of research, even if it’s just looking up a company name, checking facts, or brushing up on current information.
How to get some:
These days, research has a lot to do with Google and other online search engines. If you’re writing about skin cancer, let’s say, search with “how to do a skin self exam” and you’ll get loads of results.
Thing is, you have to know the difference between a reputable source and one that’s shaky.
Most of the time, any university or a professional association is reputable, and you can trust the information. But don’t treat Wikipedia, WebMD, or CVS Pharmacy as authorities. They’re good starting places, but they’re secondary sources because those writers are reporting from other sources just as you are. They aren’t an authority.
And if you really want to get down to business, use primary sources such as peer-reviewed original research papers and other literature. You can find plenty in Google Scholar. You’ll have to pay for copies most of the time—unless you have university library access—but it’s worth it. The research and writing are usually done by doctorate-level researchers and go through many stages of approval before publication.
These levels of online information are similar for almost any topic: mainstream commercial sites, university and professional sites, and peer-reviewed research and literature.
3. Writers need to know what they don’t know.
I started off in college pretty confident, thinking I knew a lot of stuff. By the time I finished, I realized I hardly knew a thing. It’s a big universe, you know? My knowledge is a drop in a teensy little bucket.
But knowing what you don’t know means you’re unlikely to spew forth a load of bullshit. You’re going to do some reading and question things before you start writing.
It’s not easy to question what we assume is true. People used to believe the world is flat, after all. Of course, they didn’t have Google back then, and writers today don’t have any excuse.
How to get some:
Knowing your subject matter in Tip #1 is closely related, but it’s sort of flipped here. The trick is to be aware of what you don’t know and question everything.
- Check facts. Don’t repeat something you read in a book without cross-checking somewhere else.
- Get out of your head. Don’t write something you’ve believed all your life without looking it up. Be objective.
- Know danger zones. Be especially vigilant with popular topics like diet, health, fitness, politics, and spirituality (lots of bullshit flying around on these topics).
- Get smart. Educate yourself on context, history, source of information, and opposing opinions. You don’t want to quote a Liberal—no matter how good it sounds out of context—if your article has a heavily Conservative slant and vice versa.
- Question everything. Get in the habit of questioning everything you think you “know.” Look up anything that can be considered factual.
- Challenge assumptions. Learn the difference between “hearsay” or “common sense” and the facts.
- Be alert. Realize that urban legends usually contain a big enough grain of truth to sound believable, and they’re not always in email chain letters or on Facebook.
4. Writers need to read widely but not trust everything they read.
A few months ago, I edited an ebook loaded with inspirational quotes by famous people. Well, guess what? Some of them were attributed to the wrong famous people.
I spotted a few errors right off. I knew there was no way T.S. Eliot could have written that, and I searched until I found the correct author. But a certain popular website said he did. How could the writer have known?
I spotted it because questioning everything is my job as an editor. But that’s a writer’s job, too, and if you quote someone, make sure it’s correct by cross-checking with another reputable source or two.
How to get some:
- Know who’s who. Get familiar with the most respected authors in your field. This could mean browsing that category in a library or a bookstore, online or off. Find a list of recommended reading in your area of interest (or check bibliographies and reference notes in books you like), and then read, learn, know.
- Make a plan. If you’re really ambitious, look up each writer, philosopher, scientist, politician, and any other famous person on one of the quote sites. Spend an hour each day on each individual. It will be well worth the time spent for the knowledge gained (and the equivalent of at least a few introductory classes).
- Go deep. Of those quotable people, choose individuals who interest you most and do some deeper reading. This amounts to your upper-level courses 🙂
- Get the big picture. Read novels, poetry, and Shakespeare (it might even help with writer’s block). You can start right here—free. Try this site too.
The idea is to educate yourself on a wide variety of topics—no matter how you do it—and focus on a specialty that applies to what you’re writing about. You don’t want to spew forth bullshit, right?
Bullshit defined: Machiavelli quoted as a business expert when he was, in fact, a politician, an historian, a writer, and much more. Or articles that claim feminism started in the 1960s or the 1920s when it actually started a couple hundred years ago with Mary Wollstonecraft. You don’t want to be one of those writers, trust me.
Bonus: The more you read, the more you’ll absorb different writing styles, and the sooner you’ll develop your own style or improve it. Plus, good grammar, spelling, and punctuation will become more intuitive. Ever hear of a musician who doesn’t listen to music? An artist who never looks at paintings? Writers read. ‘Nuff said.
5. Writers need motivation, persistence, and self-discipline.
These skills aren’t taught in any university that I know of, but if students don’t have them, they’d better learn them real quick or they won’t make it past their first semester or two.
It’s all about dedication, willpower, commitment, drive, tenacity, goal-orientation, belief in oneself, willingness to learn, courage, self-awareness, organization, and much more.
And writers need all of these as much as any student.
That’s because you have to keep going no matter how you feel. You do what you have to do.
Trouble is, writers working all alone don’t often have extrinsic motivation or outside rewards to keep them going, at least not at first. Grades don’t exist, and there’s comparatively little praise, approval, or fear of public failure that keeps students motivated in a structured environment. (If you don’t write that novel, who will know?)
Writers don’t always have paychecks coming in, either, especially not while developing a novel or writing anything that doesn’t pay right away—if ever. And the only structure is the structure you create.
As a writer, you have to focus on your own rewards and work with intrinsic motivation—a drive that comes from within. You have to believe in yourself, believe that your work has worth, and believe that you’ll reach your goals.
How to get some:
There are as many ways for writers to learn motivation, persistence, and self-discipline as there are pages in books on personal development. But here’s a start:
- Write 1000 words every day, no matter what. That’s discipline, and having a goal makes it easier. Develop a habit of writing by setting aside the time to do it and getting it done.
- If you don’t have a blog, set one up. It’s not hard, and it’s not expensive. You can even do it for free at WordPress.com, Blogger.com, or Tumblr.com. Make it private or public, but either way, it can be motivating and make you want to write better. (If you need a writer’s website, though, for business, I don’t recommend the freebies though they’re good for practice.)
- Believe in yourself. If it means a sticky note on your bathroom mirror that says YOU CAN DO IT, that’s great. Do what it takes to get and stay motivated.
- Set a goal. So you’ve dreamed of writing a novel. Great. What progress have you made so far? What steps do you need to take? What must you learn? Do some brainstorming or mind-mapping.
- Take one small step at a time. Every day or once a week, evaluate your next step to making your writing goals a reality. Revise as needed. Do some reading. Get that novel-writing software. Create your own little space to write. Make a schedule. Join a writer’s group. Read articles and books about writing. Just keep moving forward, little by little.
A lot of successful writers have degrees in English: Stephen King, Anne Rice, John Updike, Toni Morrison, and Stephenie Meyer to name only a few. Journalist Diane Sawyer majored in English, and Nora Ephron held a degree in journalism.
But it’s not necessary. Jack Kerouac dropped out in his freshman year. And William Faulkner was a high school dropout who later attempted college but quit after a few semesters. Journalist William Safire—two years of college. You get the picture.
A college education isn’t necessary to become a successful writer. But that doesn’t mean you can just start writing and become an A-list blogger, a famous columnist, or a best-selling novelist. Degree or no degree, be prepared to do a lot more work behind the scenes than any of your fans and followers will ever realize.
Did I miss anything? What do you think writers need to know? Do you agree or disagree that successful writers don’t need a college education? Have a question? Share in the comments.
Photo: US Mission Geneva: Human Writes Performance Exhibition