What You Need to Be a Writer

Thursday, January 27, 2022
The low road or the high road? 
Which leads to writing?
emondlafoto on Pixaby

Just over a month ago, a fellow writer tweeted a question. “Writers: Do you have a degree in writing? Does it help?” 

My first smart aleck thought was, “I don’t know. Is there a hole in your wall that you need to cover?” Sorry. It’s an old family joke that gets trotted out whenever someone is showing off a diploma of some kind. “You could cover a fair-sized hole in the wall with that!” 

Back to the original tweet. I’ve never really felt the need to go for an MFA but there was a group of people who told her that a writing degree was essential. These people, not surprisingly, generally had MFAs. They tweeted about how their degrees taught them about structure. They learned to be disciplined writers. They learned to do research. They emerged as part of a community. 

As I read through the responses, I wondered where were the people without writing degrees? I know we’re out there because I’m one of them. I’m not a unicorn for goodness sake. 

So I posted: “My BS in anthropology taught me to listen. My MA in history taught me to research. I learned to write by reading and writing. Volunteering at conferences drew me into a global community of writers, editors and agents.” 

Admittedly, I do know numerous writers with MFAs. But I write for young readers, and in that community other degrees are much more common. Many of my peers are former teachers and librarians. I didn’t take that path either perhaps because I didn’t consider being a writer until after I graduated.  

Then I spotted a post by Indiana Lee on diyMFA. Lee wrote about "Five Degrees to Consider in Pursuit of a Freelance Career."  What would she recommend in addition to writing? I expected to see education and library sciences so her list surprised me. Writing was #3. Before that were Finance (#1) and Web Development (#2). Following were International Relations (#4) and Graphic Design (#5). Lee’s emphasis wasn’t on degrees that you could combine with a writing degree as much as jobs you could do while also freelancing. 

And that’s the reality for many writers. They do other jobs while also writing. Many need to do that to pay their bills. Others truly enjoy the other work that they do. This work often helps fuel their writing. 

I hope that you are getting the point that there are many different paths to the writing life. Some of us know as children that we want to write. These people may or may not study writing in college. 

Interviewing WOW contest winners, I have interviewed students and teachers, doctors and athletes. Each of them has traveled a different path to publication. 

This isn’t to say that you don’t need an MFA. Maybe you do. Only you can decide which path you need to take to learn what you need to achieve your writing dreams.


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 30 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on February 6, 2022).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins February 6, 2022) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins February 6, 2022). 



Sioux Roslawski said...

A lot of people with a BS are full of the same thing. So are a lot of them with MAs or doctorates. Writers write. Sure, classes in creative writing, poetry classes--they can all help.

But if you want to be a writer, join or form a good critique group. Check out any local writing guilds or conferences. Take an online course.

And write...

Angela Mackintosh said...

Many of my writer friends have MFAs, but they advised me against pursuing one. From what they tell me, the best part of an MFA is the accountability and networking. But you can find your tribe without spending a bunch of money. One friend hated her MFA program because they were unnecessarily hard on her writing. She almost quit, and her writing is some of the best I've read. I prefer writing workshops that encourage your writing rather than cut it down. We could all use some kindness as we grow as writers.

I've always thought creative writing MFAs should include practical instruction on the publishing side of the business, finance, web-based writing, etc., so writers enter the field knowing how to run a writing business that generates income.

I didn't know you had an MA in history! No wonder you're a wizard at research and writing history books. :)

Andrea said...

I have a BS in English and am happy with it. My instructors gave me the support I needed, built my confidence enough that I know I am a writer. But I think my life experiences are what's really behind my writing. I use scientific knowledge as well as my identity as a native Iowan to write the stories that come through my fingers. I think writing requires the combination of grammar, sentence structure and life experience to truly be a good writer.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Reading and writing are definitely essential!

I know writers who learned how to create novels during their MFAs. But I also know people who come out and discover that nothing they've been told about marketing is true. Really hard to have to tell someone that.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I know a handful of writers with MFAs and they all have published novels. I know ten times as many writers who do not have an MFA or any degree, for that matter, and they also have published novels.

I asked a writer/instructor once if she felt her MFA helped her get published and she told me that MFA or not, she would have been published. The degree just got her there a little faster. (Not necessarily because her skills improved--she was already an adept writer-- but because the credential got her more looks at her work!)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Excellent point! It can definitely open doors.

Good for you! Ironically, I learned more English grammar when I studied Spanish than when I studied English. But you are right - life experience plays into it all as well.

Renee Roberson said...

My degree is B.A. in Mass Communication, so I honed the skill of writing for public relations, opinion pieces, newspapers, magazines, and advertising. I think it helped me more than getting a degree in something more general than English, but both would have required me to write and read a lot. I know I've told the story that I was rejected from two low-residency MFA programs. I think they would have helped me learn the discipline of novel writing, but I was able to teach the skill to myself, even if it took a bit longer. I think the most important thing we can do is practice the type of writing we want to create and read. Having a varied background of degrees is what makes writers interesting, in my opinion.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hi Renee,
You're right. Variety is so important. Otherwise we would all sound the same, write the same things, etc.

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