Do You Need a Creative Writing Degree to Succeed as a Writer?

creative writing degree

Do you need a creative writing degree?

Young and new writers often ask whether they need a creative writing degree in order to become an author or professional writer.

I’ve seen skilled and talented writers turn down opportunities or refuse to pursue their dreams because they feel their lack of a degree in creative writing means they don’t have the credibility necessary to a career in writing.

Meanwhile, plenty of writers with no education, minimal writing skills, and scant experience in reading are self-publishing, freelance writing, and offering copywriting services en masse.

It’s a question that gets asked often: do you need a creative writing degree to succeed as a writer? Is it okay to write and publish a book if you don’t have a degree or if your degree is in something other than English or the language arts?


Before I go further, I should reveal that I did earn a degree in creative writing. However, I do not think a degree is necessary. But there is a caveat to my position on this issue. While I don’t think a degree is necessary, I certainly think it’s helpful. I also think that some writers will have a hard time succeeding without structured study whereas others are self-disciplined and motivated enough to educate themselves to the extent necessary to establish a successful writing career.

Do You Need a Creative Writing Degree?

First of all, a degree is not necessary to success in many fields, including writing. There are plenty of examples of individuals who became wildly successful and made meaningful contributions without any college degree whatsoever: Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Disney, to name a few.

In the world of writing, the list of successful authors who did not obtain a degree (let alone a creative writing degree) is vast. Here is a small sampling: Louisa May Alcott, Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, William Blake, Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter, and JD Salinger.

So you obviously do not need a creative writing degree. After all, some of the greatest writers in history didn’t have a degree. Why should you?

A Creative Writing Degree is Not a Bad Idea

On the other hand, the degree definitely won’t hurt your chances. In fact, it will improve your chances. And if you struggle with writing or self-discipline, then the process of earning a degree will be of great benefit to you.

A college education might indeed be necessary for a particular career, such as a career in law or medicine. In fields of study where a degree is not a requirement, it often prepares you for the work ahead by teaching you specific skills and techniques and by forcing you to become knowledgeable about your field.

However, there is an even greater value in the the process of earning a degree. You become knowledgeable and educated. You learn how to learn, how to work without close supervision, and you are exposed to the wisdom of your instructors as well as the enthusiasm and support of your peers. College is a great environment for development at any age or in any field.

Earning a degree is also a testament to your drive and ability to complete a goal without any kind of immediate reward or gratification. College is not easy. It’s far easier to get a full time job and buy lots of cool stuff. It’s more fun to spend your nights and weekends hanging out with your friends than staying in and studying. A college degree is, in many ways, a symbol representing your capacity to set out and accomplish a long-term goal.

Know Yourself

If you possess strong writing skills and are somewhat autodidactic (a person who is self-taught), then you may not need a degree in creative writing. For some such people, a degree is completely unnecessary. On the other hand, if your writing is weak or if you need guidance and would appreciate the help of instructors and peers, maybe you do need a creative writing degree.

If you’re planning on going to college simply because you want to earn a degree and you hope to be a writer someday, you might as well get your degree in creative writing since that’s what you’re passionate about. On the other hand, if you hope to write biographies of famous actors and directors and you already write well, you might be better off studying film (and possibly minoring in creative writing).

You may be the kind of person who needs the validation of a degree. Maybe you are an excellent writer but you’d feel better putting your work out there if you could back it up (even in your own mind) with that piece of paper that says you have some expertise in this area. Or you might be the kind of person who is confident enough to plunge into the career of a writer without any such validation.

You might find that time and money are barriers to earning a degree. If you have responsibilities that require you to work full time and if you’re raising a family, obtaining a degree might not be in the cards, either in terms of time or money. You might be better off focusing what little free time you have on reading and writing. But there are other options if you’ve got your heart set on a creative writing degree: look for accredited online colleges, find schools that offer night and weekend classes, open yourself to the idea that you can take ten years rather than four years to complete your higher education.

Finally, some people have a desire to get a degree but they feel they are too old. I personally think that’s a bunch of hogwash. You’re never too old to learn or obtain any kind of education. When I was just out of high school, I attended a college with many students who were middle-aged and older. I had tremendous respect for them and they brought a lot of wisdom to our classes, which balanced out the youthful inexperience of my other, much younger classmates. I don’t care if you’re eighteen, forty-two, or seventy, if you have a hankering to do something, go do it!

Making Tough Decisions

Ultimately, the decision rests with each of us. Do you need a creative writing degree? Only you can answer that question.

If you’re still not sure, then check with a local school (a community college is a good place to start) and make an appointment with an adviser in the English Department. If you’re in high school, get in touch with your school’s career counselor. Sometimes, these professionals can help you evaluate your own needs to determine which is the best course of action for you. But in the end, make sure whatever decision you make about your education is one that you’ve carefully weighed and are comfortable with.

And whether you earn a degree in creative writing or not, keep writing!

Sources:

Most Successful People Who Never Went to College
Famous Autodidactics

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

32 Responses to “Do You Need a Creative Writing Degree to Succeed as a Writer?”

  1. Nicole Rushin says:

    I think in some cases it can hinder or stifle creativity. I am actually glad I did not go to school for writing. When I hear the words creative and degree together they don’t mesh for me. You can go to school and learn about punctuation and grammar, but creativity comes from real life and growth and learning through experience. Just my opinion – but I only learned about poetry in climbing tree.

    • Hi Nicole, I appreciate your thoughts on the matter, but since you didn’t go to school for writing, how can you know that creativity cannot come through academic means or through study? I strongly believe that a degree is unnecessary for success in writing, but I personally found that it sped up my development process and did in fact stimulate my creativity. Specifically, I would say that being surrounded by creative people (other students, in particular) is excellent for promoting creative thinking. Also, writing is only one small piece of what a successful writer must do. In fact, I learned very little about punctuation and grammar during my time in the creative writing program and I learned a lot about my own creative process. Probably the biggest benefit for me, personally, was exposure to many wonderful authors and poets that I otherwise might not have discovered. While I don’t think college is necessary, I have to strongly disagree that it stifles creativity. But I do respect your opinion and perhaps you had some experience in school or observing other writers in which it did stifle creativity. I can only speak from my own experience, which was highly positive.

      • Ray says:

        Hey all! I’m torn too: I went to art school for 4 years for a degree in painting. I learned a lot and am grateful, because art school added: ways to be cognizant of art, writing about my art and the work of others, and how to be a really great critic.

        Only problem was, in a lot of ways, art school also beat down my self confidence and robbed me of some of my intrinsic motivation to make art. It became less spontaneous and more cerebral.

        As of late, I’ve turned to creative writing for a creative outlet that has not been…well, I won’t say ruined, so I’ll go with, hasn’t been tampered with. And I find myself in a place where I can definitely improve (A LOT!), but I’m not sure if a formal degree will do it. I am playing with the idea of taking some informal workshops though…

        Do you think school for the visual arts is at all comparable to school for creative writing? Maybe it doesn’t help that the folks in my year of art school had some pretty nasty and rude people when it came to critiques!!!

        • Ray, thanks for sharing your experience. I was hoping someone would offer a different perspective. I can understand how undergraduate work may seem to inhibit creativity and make the process more cerebral. This is where we get into an extremely hazy area of art and creativity. I believe that the spontaneous expressions come from our emotions and personal life experiences. They are strictly expressions. When we bring a cerebral quality to our work, we are usually looking to make a statement or observation. The former cannot be learned. It comes from the inside. The latter, however, is the result of critical thinking. I think it’s unfortunate that you did not find yourself in an educational setting that was positive and supportive. I am not sure how visual arts schools are similar or different from schools for creative writing. If you’re interested in pursuing creative writing, my suggestion would be to sign up for a class and try it out or request a meeting with someone in the creative writing department to get a sense of the program and the people in it.

          One final note – it’s my personal opinion that people being rude or nasty during critiques is absolutely unacceptable. If there was an instructor present, I would say the responsibility falls to him or her. Their job is to moderate critique sessions and provide an environment conductive to positive development. I once signed up for a class, and within the first two weeks it was clear to me that the instructor did not have students’ best interests at heart. I dropped the class and the following semester, took the class with another teacher.

    • Rose says:

      I can see where you’re coming from, but college is so very different from high school. The public secondary education focuses on “STEM” (science/math, basically) rather than STEAM (science/math and the arts — as in. a liberal education.) Most universities (public or private) encourage creative thought, even in degrees that are not considered ‘uselessly’ artistic by ignorant politicians. It depends on the university one attends (although I am transferring, the University of Oregon pushes for artistic and creative thought in all fields, and is not at all stifling) but, for the most part, a writing degree would not detach students from ‘real life’ experiences. Many students are living on their own and working full-time. Some are married and have a family and bills to pay, etc. Normally they would not have encouragement from highly knowledgeable faculty to pursue a craft that is not considered practical in the ‘real world.’

  2. allena says:

    I agree with this. I started a masters in professional writing and took a class on nonfiction essays (creative essays) and I tell you what, I have NEVER produced so much writing, and so much good writing. In this class, we just BOUNCED off one another SO WELL. I left each class on fire with ideas and feedback. Best class I EVER took.

    I have a BA in English and it’s helped me get paid to write. I freelance for companies, websites and magazines, and many of them love to see the degree. So, I stand out from the crowd a bit. It’s been helpful.

    • It’s amazing how being surrounded by other creative writers promotes our own creativity. I had the same experience when I was taking classes – I was constantly writing and coming up with ideas. I also feel that having a BA boosts my credibility as a self-employed writer. While I don’t think the BA is necessary, I also know some clients and employers consider it a requirement.

  3. I have to agree with Allena. I have a BA in English and I think it really helps in the freelancing career. Many clients want to hire a professional qualified in English literature, journalism or another field related to writing.

  4. Becs says:

    I have pondered the idea of going back to uni and getting a degree in the Arts but I am not sure if it is entirely worth my time and money. I have, however, invested time in some short courses in writing, in order to learn about structure, pace and all those tools which you really need to understand to be able to write well.

    There was also the added benefit of spending time with like-minded people who understood my passion and encouraged me to fulfill my potential. I may not have earned a piece of paper at the end of them but they were definitely worth my time.

    • It’s one of those decisions each person has to make for herself. I think it depends a lot on your personal goals, lifestyle, and available resources. I am a huge advocate for higher education. My general advice is always this: if you can go to school and want to, then do it. On the other hand, if you want to be a novelist and already have the skills and self-discipline, your time is probably better spent writing the novel ;)

  5. Shyxter says:

    I agree that a creative writing degree is not necessary but certainly very helpful. I believe getting proper education will always be good for anyone; whatever career you are in. As for me, I did not major in writing or in a course related to it because I was still undecided back then. I was passionate about writing but I just did not pursue it because I was afraid that I will not succeed as a writer.

    Now, I really want to enroll myself in a writing course. While waiting for that opportunity, I try my best to self-educate through reading and learning from other writers.

  6. Michael K. Reynolds says:

    A great topic for discussion! I have a Creative Writing degree but augmented it with writer’s conferences and online research. So much helpful information out there these days. I posted this on the Writing Platform Facebook page. Well done.

  7. Ekaterina says:

    Hi, Melissa!
    I studied psychology for 4 years in university. I had to quit, so I didn’t get the degree, but studying there gave me lots of knowledge and I also met really awesome people – students and teachers, and I made great friends. You can’t have such things if you learn only by yourself at home. Meeting other writers while getting creative writing degree is probably one of most important reasons for doing it. Unless you don’t like humans at all :D

    • Yes, and I would add that for many people, simply taking a few classes can make a world of difference. For example, one could take a creative writing class at a local community college. If a writer is working on his/her own and struggling with grammar, a single, basic course in English or writing may be just the solution. Taking a class here and there may or may not lead to pursuing a full degree, but it will definitely impart many benefits to any writer.

  8. Katie says:

    Great article! Very encouraging. Most of what I’ve read online has been much the opposite.

    What would you say about majoring in an education degree not specific to English, while also pursuing a master’s in creative writing?…with the intent to eventually teach writing and social studies at a college level. I know that’s incredibly specific and probably abnormal, but I honesty do not want to major in English. I love literature and all forms of composition (even the dreaded academic essay) but my true interest lies in the intricacy of the human psyche and how the past has shaped our contemporary world..

    • Katie, it doesn’t really matter what I think because the choice you make will shape your life, not mine. Having said that, I think you’ve got a good, solid plan. Also, I think social studies and creative writing go together quite nicely :)

  9. Tanvir says:

    I am in India. I just passed 10th grade. The thing is i want to become a writer/novelist/author. 3 reasons-

    1. Writing is my passion
    2. I have started writing( 1st novel almost complete).
    3. I love literature. I mean that’s the only thing that gets inside my brain and i always excel in English.

    So my question are–
    1. Do i need to take up arts/humanities? ( because i want an environment with political views and literature and wont only be writing novels and stuff, i would also like to write for magazines etc. Doing arts will help me write and improve whereas in non-med i have study science which i have started hating though its easy but because of this realization that my writings will take years to reach the people ) Is it really that important?

    2. Is a college degree in creative writing required? Will it help me?

    3.

    • Tanvir, plenty of writers carve out a career for themselves without a college degree at all, so you can go forth and study whatever you want in school. Certainly, a degree in creative writing will do a lot to make you a better writer, but you can also accomplish that on your own through work and study. If you are absolutely positive that all you want to do is become a writer, then I say study creative writing. I earned a BA in creative writing and I wasn’t even sure that’s what I wanted to do with my life. What I learned in college has served me well. However, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it is by no means a prerequisite or requirement. Having said all that, I am an advocate for higher education and will always recommend pursuing a degree of some sort, especially in a subject about which you are passionate. Good luck to you :)

  10. Jessica says:

    Hi I am a young women who has always been told that being a writer is not a very good feild to work in because you must move to the city, it is hard to support a family on the income,and it is hard to get a book published, or maintain relationships, if you are successful. I have always wanted to be a writer and now i am considering college but the thing is that i am not sure if i should become a nurse or writer or both? or neither and just try my luck with writing with out an education in the feild since i feal as though i am good enough at creative thinking.

    • Why would a writer have to move to the city? Writing is one of the few jobs that you can do from just about anywhere, as long as you have a computer (journalism being the exception). I also don’t see why it would be hard to maintain relationships if you are a successful writer (at least not any more than with any other career). I’m not sure where you’re getting this advice, but I think it’s a little inaccurate. It’s true that most writers don’t make a living from their work at first, which means they need a day job. It is hard to get a book published through a traditional publishing house, but it’s also possible. Self-publishing is another option.

      If you truly want to be a writer, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pursue it. Will you make it? That’s entirely up to you.

      I also think studying nursing and writing sounds like a good idea. You can double major in both or you could minor in creative writing. That will give you a solid nursing career for your day job and you can write on the side.

  11. Meg says:

    Hey there Melissa,

    I’m planning to do a course in Creative Writing, and I’ve been looking everywhere for the perfect one. Which university did you do your Masters at? Were you completely satisfied? Was it everything you were expecting?
    I was looking out for a one year Masters course, most are for two.

  12. opsimath says:

    Surely, it is important to define what you mean by ‘writing’. If you want to have any chance of breaking into published work, tthen I would say a writing degree is a prerequisite. If you are writing for a small group — or just for yourself — it doesn’t matter a hoot. Many of the examples you gave us aren’t really relevant as so few people in the past went to university to do anything at all.

    I went to a school decided upon by a selective examination and we were told when we started that only about 2% of us should have any thoughts of going to university, and that techincal qualifivcations, such as National Certificates, were the best we could aspire to for the remaining 98%.

    Essentially, the whole thing comes back to the old, and quite impossible to answer question of talent vs skill. If you have the talent, an arts degree will help; if you don’t, all you can expect to be is an amateur (and usually not very good) scribbler. The ability to write a grammatically correct sentence does not make you a story-teller — and it never will.

    • I have to respectfully disagree with you, opsimath. Most of the authors I know who are currently building successful careers did not go to college at all, and few of those who did attend university studied writing. You can (and many have) become expert writers and storytellers without learning how to do it in school. In fact, I would say that I learned very little about grammar and storytelling in college, and I was a creative writing major. Also, the very fact that historically, authors did not study the craft in formal settings is proof that formal study is not a necessity. History has produced hundreds of eloquent authors who managed to master the craft without formal schooling, and writing hasn’t changed so much that we’re living in times where a degree has become mandatory.

      Having said that, we all have to put in the time and work in order to succeed. The point is that whatever you might learn in school, you can also learn outside of school if you know how to find the right mentors and resources. A degree gives anyone an advantage, but in the field of writing, it is not a prerequisite for success or expertise. And I say that as someone who is a firm advocate for higher education. Obviously, there are some exceptions; for example, you probably do need a journalism degree or a computer science degree if you want to be a journalist or technical writer, but for storytellers and other creative nonfiction writers, it is an option, not a requirement. There are other ways to acquire the skills and expertise you need to succeed as a storyteller.

  13. Katie says:

    A good idea, I think, would be to take a few courses at the local community college, or online if there isn’t a school nearby, to get an idea on how effective a class environment will be for you. I need a structured peer group to thrive at anything in life, yet my husband was miserable at a liberal arts college. I have to sign up for a class at the gym to lose weight – I can’t just get up in the morning to jog or do laps at the pool alone, even with a partner I’m not as motivated as when I’m in a group lead by an experienced mentor. The same goes for writing. I have to join writing groups to find inspiration to work on my novel, otherwise I don’t have enough self-discipline to finish it. Yeah, maybe that makes those of us like me kind of lame, but if we know how to fix it we can get motivated greatness (:

    Also, look into financial aid, grants, and scholarships if it’s not something you can afford. You’d be surprised at what is available to those from all walks of life.

  14. George McNeese says:

    I graduated with a Creative Writing degree. In some ways, it’s been beneficial for the reasons you mentioned. I feel like I’ve earned the right to call myself a writer. But if you’re boy putting those skills into practice, then what was the point of slaving for four years? On the flip side, I feel like I really didn’t understand the skills and techniques of other writers. Part of it was due to a lack of reading other works. Some of it was I was busy comparing myself to others that I didn’t pay attention to nuances in their work.

    Sometimes, I feel like I entered the wrong field because I haven’t done anything with my degree. I haven’t published anything, nor am I working on something grand like a novel. But then I remember why I pursued the major in the first place: I have a passion for writing. The validation is nice and I can claim the fact that I graduated from college. At the heart if it all is the passion to create stories. Recently, after some soul searching, I decided to take up the pen again. But because I’ve been out of practice for so long, I feel like I beef to go back to school and brush up on my craft. Maybe take an online course or two or get involved in a writing group.

    Degree or not, I love writing, and my desire is to get better at what I love.

    • For me, the greatest benefit of going to college and earning a degree in creative writing was that it broadened my worldview, which has little to do with a career or even writing. I gained a better understanding of the world on various levels. Much of the knowledge I gained isn’t practical as far as making money, but I feel like it made me a better person.

      I think we in the western world are programmed to think that any kind of learning must translate directly to dollars. This leads someone to ask a question like what’s the use of my degree if I’m not working in the field?. But I think it’s safe to say that most of us gained something intellectual or emotional that can’t be measured in financial earnings or career development.

      It’s never too late to get back into writing! If you’re feeling called to it, I say go for it, and have fun! Good luck to you.