What Should an Aspiring Writer Major In?
What Should an Aspiring Writer Major In?
A pretty common question I receive when talking about the writing life, especially when talking to high school classes, is something along the lines of: “If I want to be a writer, what should I major in?”
There is no one answer here, which I suppose sets writing apart from some other professions. To practice medicine, for example, doctors have to get a medical degree. Dentists must get a dental degree. Engineers must get an engineering degree. But to be a novelist . . . well, let’s just say there are many options, including degrees in communications, English, journalism, etc.
The thing is, there is no one tried-and-true educational pathway to becoming a writer. Every author finds their own way. Some never take a single formal writing class. Others on the far end of the spectrum study writing for years and go on to obtain the coveted MFA.
I’ll share with you the path I took, and then offer what I learned along the way. If you don’t know me and/or don’t particularly care about my path, feel free to skip ahead to see what I learned along the way!
The Path I Took
When I enrolled at Wright State University in 1995 straight out of high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I dreamed of someday being a published novelist. So I majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing. After a few quarters, I decided to minor in Religion because I was fascinated by other people’s belief systems. I figured knowing about other religions would help me develop more layered characters. I took a lot of great writing courses at Wright State and studied under some real masters of the craft, including poet Gary Pacernick and writer Jimmy Chesire. Those classes definitely gave me a solid foundation in writing poetry and short stories.
I earned my BA in English in 1999 and began working as a technical writer for a small company in Cincinnati. After a few stressful months in the corporate world, I decided that was not the life for me. I applied for a job doing grant writing and fundraising research for the medical school at my alma mater, Wright State, and thankfully landed the job.
As I began my career in the world of fundraising, I spent less time writing fiction and poetry and more time focusing on my job. One of the great perks of working at Wright State is tuition remission for employees, so I began taking classes in biology and environmental science in hopes of someday getting a job related to environmental or conservation issues. I also worked for a time as a freelance environmental reporter for the now-defunct local weekly newspaper, Impact Weekly. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue a career in environmental work (though I still compost with the best of ‘em!). Instead, I pursued an MA in English with a concentration in composition and rhetoric. I wanted an advanced degree, and I figured this would be the clearest route. Plus, the ability to teach writing at some point would be a good asset. The very last class I took for that degree was a summer poetry workshop that inspired me to begin writing poetry again.
Soon after earning my MA in 2005, my daughter was born. Becoming a dad flipped a switch in me. Suddenly, I had stories to tell. I wrote a few screenplays that went nowhere, some pretty decent short stories, and a few hopeless novels. I must’ve sensed that I still needed to hone my craft, because I enrolled in 2007 in the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio.
During that week-long immersion in the craft of writing, I attended sessions led by an array of talented writers, including an afternoon intensive with fellow Daytonian writer Katrina Kittle. My experience at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop built on the foundation already provided by my Wright State classes. What’s more, I met and became friends with many other aspiring and established writers.
Taking what I’d learned from AWW, I continued evolving my craft and in the coming years, eventually wrote a draft of what would become my debut novel, That Risen Snow: A Scary Tale of Snow White & Zombies. I continued to work in fundraising at Wright State, though I moved away from grant writing into alumni relations and later into a more technical role related to big data analytics and business intelligence. That may seem like a strange fit for a person with two English degrees, but guess what big data does when analyzed in a thoughtful and critical fashion? It tells a story. So, it’s actually a perfect vocation for a storyteller.
In 2012, I wrote a ghost story called “Bump” that won Best in Show in the Dayton Daily News/Antioch Writers’ Workshop Short Story Contest. That earned me a fully-paid scholarship back to the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. There, I once again studied under several masters of the craft. I also workshopped the opening chapters of That Risen Snow during an afternoon intensive with crime noir author Led Edgerton. I had a great week with Les, learning important lessons on the craft by day and closing out the bars by night. A few months later, Les connected me with one of his publishers at the time, StoneGate Ink. I soon went into contract on That Risen Snow and my dream of becoming a published novelist was on the verge of coming true.
The following year, I wrote an essay called “Me Am Dad” about my imagination-fueled adventures with my daughter. That essay won Best in Show in the Sinclair Community College Creative Writing Contest. Yet again, I earned a full scholarship to AWW. This time, I spent the week in an afternoon intensive with fantasy novelist Jeffrey Ford. By day, I attended sessions. By night, I put the finishing touches on my final draft of That Risen Snow, which was finally published in 2014.
So there you have it. Those eight paragraphs summarize my educational pathway to becoming a published novelist. Was it the best path? I have no idea. Did it work? Apparently so.
What I Learned Along the Way
So. Back to our opening question. If you want to be a writer, what should you major in? My answer would be to major in whatever interests you and/or whatever can provide you with a career you’ll enjoy.
If you’re fascinated by science, then maybe that’s a better major. A science degree can provide you with the foundation for a great career, and it can also give you an edge at telling stories that incorporate science. The same could be said about a degree in nursing, history, criminal justice, and so on. I’ve often wished I’d majored in a biology-related field, because it would be great to use that knowledge in my stories.
Think of an author like Michael Crichton who had an M.D. and incorporated much of his knowledge of science brilliantly into his fiction. Another example is Scott Turow, who had a J.D. and wrote very successful legal thrillers.
If you do opt for a non-writing degree, you could always couple it with a minor in English or creative writing. Minors can be a great way to round out an education, and they will make your resume stand out from other applicants.
On the other hand, a degree in English or creative writing can give you a massive head start on learning the craft. As well, you’re likely forge friendships with other writers in your classes. Knowing other writers is a huge asset for a beginning writer. Those relationships could be future writing partners or beta readers. As well, other writers will help you stay in the know about where to submit your work, or where to avoid, and countless other opportunities.
There are plenty of other degrees related to writing that may be the best of both worlds. A degree in journalism, technical writing, or communications could hone your writing talents while also starting you along a marketable career path.
A good thing to ask yourself is—assuming you’re going to have a “day job” that is coupled with your writing on the side—do you want to be writing in both pursuits? In other words, do you want to write technical manuals as a full-time job while also writing novels in your spare time? Or would you rather your main job be something completely unrelated to writing?
Beyond Higher Education
Even after you earn whatever degree (if any) you choose, there are many writing conferences or writing retreats available where you can continue your writing education. Attending a credible writing conference offers you the opportunity to hone your craft, meet fellow writers, pitch to an agent, or network with publishers.
There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a community of writers to reignite your creative energies. One of my favorite writing conferences is the annual StokerCon event sponsored by the Horror Writers Association. This event offers a variety of workshops, panels, and other programming, including pitch sessions, author readings, and—my personal favorite— the Final Frame Short Horror Film Competition.
Apply Yourself (to Scholarships)
One of the biggest takeaways from my story is to put yourself out there, especially when it comes to winning awards or obtaining scholarships. You may not think you’ll ever win a contest. I surely didn’t think I would ever win, but I entered my stories and essays anyway. And sure enough, I won not once but twice. Those scholarships helped make me the writer I am today.
There are many scholarship opportunities out there—both inside and outside of academia. As someone who has sat on multiple scholarship committees, it’s surprising that more people don’t apply. So, put yourself out there. Tell the story that makes you special.
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Rob E. Boley likes to make blank pages darker. He lives with his wife and his daughter in Dayton, Ohio. By day, he manages and analyzes big data. Yet each morning before sunrise, he rises to strike terror into the hearts of the unfortunate characters dwelling in his novels, stories, and poems. His fiction has been seen lurking in places such as A cappella Zoo, Pseudopod, Clackamas Literary Review, and Best New Werewolf Tales. His poetry has been known to prowl in publications such as Wild Goose Poetry Review, California Quarterly, Horror Writers’ Association Poetry Showcase, and Undead: A Poetry Anthology of Ghosts and Ghouls. He co-founded Howling Unicorn Press with his wife, author Megan Hart, to conjure tales that thrill, chill, and fulfill. You can learn more about this weird figure of the dark by visiting his website at www.robboley.com.