A Would-Be Writer Asks: “MUST I Go to College?”

A Would-Be Writer Asks: “MUST I Go to College?” November 24, 2008

This morning I received an e-mail from an aspiring author. “I am currently paying the bills with a job in telecommunications,” he wrote, “but ultimately would love to make the transition to being a full-time writer. From your experience, how much would a formal education/bachelor’s degree help me to make this transition? Having been to college for two years already (even though that was over 10 years ago), I can certainly understand the benefit of formal instruction. But I’m wondering if the benefits of that formal education would justify its cost. Any professional writer thoughts or wisdom you’d care to share?”

My answer:

Bend your life as far as you can in order to enable yourself to go to the best college you can afford. You’re unlikely to make it as a writer without a college education. You can, of course—anything’s possible!—but (and especially these days) trying to make it as a writer without a college education is like trying to play the violin without lessons. It’s possible that you’ll create great music, but it’s way more probable that you’ll spend some time making noises no one cares to hear, and then quit.

The main reason college is so critical for a writer is because it’s hard to have anything interesting to say about the world if you don’t know anything about the world—about history, culture, literature, science, etc. Generally speaking, the broader the context, the richer the thought. College is also good for writing insofar as you have to do so much writing in college, all of which gets read and evaluated by professors who have spent their lives engaging with great writing. College also has humongous value in a purely utilitarian sense, because those same professors know people out in the publishing world who can help jump-start your career. The publishing business is just like any other: Whom you know seriously helps. College professors know people.

All that said, though, it’s also true that creative writing is just that: creative. It’s an art form. And while you can certainly nurture and train an artist, you cannot make an artist out of someone who’s not. Journalism, you can teach (though I doubt whether you can teach the qualities of personality good journalism demands). But you can no sooner teach or instill the kind of artistic vision it takes to be a successful creative writer than you can teach a cow how to play canasta.


Related posts o’ mine: How To Make a Living Writing, John Notes for Lit 101, John Notes for Philosophy 101.

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  • Dustin Fox

    I agree that college provides a lot of writing experiences. I am a songwriter who just went back to college for a creative writing degree and the literature I have been studying has provided me the ideas of many of my songs as of late. Also, I have been able to make connections in the Christian music business through one of my classes that required me to interview professionals in my field. My life experiences are broader, and my source if ideas is unlimited when I take a look around me at school.

  • I kind of did the same thing. Writing-wise, I'd just hit a wall—and so, at 33, I went back to college. Changed my life.

  • Rickr0ll

    John, i haven't seen Morse around. You two haven't broken-up, have you? That makes me sad to think about :{ Say it ain't so John! I'm sorry too, for all the meanie things i said! I can't be mad at you, you're such a nice guy John.

    Anyway, i hope you guys will make up and all that. I hate to see two intellectual adults fight like this. it's a terrible tragedy that Athiests will no longer continue peaceable talks with Shoreland. anyway, just thought i'd stop in and say that.

  • Rich

    Speaking as a 33 year old who is considering this very topic, it's nice to see that the waters in front of me are not completely uncharted.

    Great advice.

  • I'm a big fan of college, for most any reason, and at any age. Not that I think it's for everyone…but I think most anyone will benefit at some level (many of my greatest benefits from college have been non-academic).

  • I already have a graduate degree in business so I'll all too aware that this has probably ruined any chance of being a meaningful writer. I know how to write many words without saying anything of value, which is the opposite of what I'd need to publish something I'd actually want to offer the public!

    Now I'm off to pillage the innocent and sit back on my piles of cash, muahahahahaha!