Writing Q&A: Do I need to study English to be a writer?

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Q: I’m interested in writing a book. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I’ve been blogging for a while, but I’ve never tried writing a book. Should I go back to college and take some English classes? I’ve also considered getting an MFA. Would that help?

A: You certainly need to study, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay university prices to do so.*

If English is your native language, and you’ve been a writer all or most of your life, college English courses will not give you a huge boost toward achieving publication. I know a lot of writers, but I don’t know any who got their book published because they had a master of fine arts degree. The common element of successful writers is that they write a lot and seek constructive feedback from other writers.

If you’re a writer by nature and you read a lot, and widely, your instincts are likely to be solid. If you feel there are problems with your writing, the first thing to do is diagnose the specific problems, and a good way to do that is through a critique group, preferably one that includes published writers. Once you’ve identified your problem area—for example, plotting, character development, or grammar—there are tons of resources online to help you grow that skill through independent study: books, websites, critique groups, conferences…try Googling the name of your state and “writers association.” Try to find a chapter near you and go there to ask for help.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you can also hire a professional to diagnose the areas of your writing that may need improvement. A book doctor or writing coach can offer more directed assistance than a college course.

If you’re not a writer by nature, but want to write a book for personal or business reasons, creative writing courses, rather than English, are primarily what’s needed. Even if you’re writing nonfiction, creative writing classes will help you present your material in a more engaging way. This is often called creative nonfiction. If you already hold a degree in your topic area, there’s no need to go back and get another in English to write about it.

Here are some options for self-directed learning:

  • Coursera—web-based free classes from major universities
  • iTunes U—mobile app with free recordings of university classes
  • The Great Courses—audio and video classes by college professors; pricey, but high-quality

Writing, like many other skills, is better developed through applied practice than through classroom learning. Write, seek critiques from writers, and write some more.


* Like Peter Thiel, I’m of the opinion that university tuitions are experiencing a price bubble. Economists have shown that those with degrees out-earn those who don’t, but when students take on loads of debt to get the degree, it devalues the earnings. So be cost-aware as you consider college options.

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1 Comment

  1. Meanwhile, over at LinkedIn, Penelope Trunk wrote an article called “Don’t Go to Grad School.”

    Excerpt: “Given the choice between getting paid to learn the ropes on the job and paying for someone to teach you, you look like an underachiever to pick the latter.”

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