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 creative writing degree 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 and writing are self-publishing, freelance writing, and offering copywriting services.
It’s an oft-asked question: 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 although I did earn a degree in creative writing, I don’t 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 and formal training 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.
If you possess strong writing skills and are somewhat of an autodidact (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’re 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, and 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’re 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!