So You Want to be a Writer - Education

Becoming a writer, in one regard, is fairly easy; on the other hand, it takes work and dedication. To change Boromir's quote: "One does not simply wander into writing."

Normally beginning around kindergarten, we are taught the A,B,Cs which become at, bat, and cat. From there we can learn simple sentences, The cat batted, and develop the sentences into simple stories, The cat batted at the bat.

Throughout elementary school we learn grammar; some of us learn about diagrams (one of my favorite parts of grammar), whereas others never did. We learn how to organize thoughts to inform, amuse or persuade, and there we stop for the vast majority of the people in the world. Most of us retain our writing abilities through e-mails, blog entries, letters or other communique in business or education, but very few actually pursue a career in writing.


Some of those who pursue writing actually pursue another primary career be it in criminal investigations, education, or politics. Often these individuals become novelists later in life with their stories centered on their fields of expertise. A former cop might write police procedurals; a former politician might enter the genre of international espionage; a teacher might focus on her small town, or life in the big city.

Then there are those who pursue a degree in writing, and it is to those individuals I direct my attention today. Specifically, those looking into a degree in writing, and wondering what to do.

College Degrees & Programs

There are several types of degrees available to people now: associates, bachelors, masters, and doctorate in a variety of fields. Added to the spectrum are non-degree options, often offered through writers guilds. The secondary option can be a training program, or it can be a series of conferences where a writer develops the craft.

Certain fields of writing almost always require a degree: journalism is the best example. Yes, you can go to the local newspaper and work, but for many journalists, a degree in journalism is necessary. There are other ways to write for a newspaper, but I'll focus on those at a later time.

Journalism

Journalism currently is shifting. When I was in college, we had print and broadcast journalism, both under the same department, but the broadcast journalism focused on radio and television whereas print focused on newspapers and magazines. All that has changed with social media and the internet.

Currently, entering into the journalism field requires you to understand audio and visual components as well. Many news websites now include video and audio as part of their normal information stream. In print, photography has been around since the end of the nineteenth century, so a writer for print should look into photography as well.

If you are considering entering into journalism, I would recommend pursuing one of two courses: first, focus on a communications degree that offers a variety of communication skills. A good communications degree should provide you with a well-rounded ability in film/television, radio/audio and written communications. By the end of the four years of college, you should be able to enter into any field of journalism with enough understanding of the field to do well. The second course would be to purse a journalism degree at a respected journalism school. Typically, each state has at least one in its state college system. Not always, but many do.

For those of you serious about pursuing journalism, and want to attend a Christian college, I will give you this caveat: few Christian colleges provide the necessary classes to provide a well-rounded news-centered degree. They exist, but carefully study the course catalog and requirements; if it seems to be equally distributed between Bible classes and communications classes, I would choose another college. At the end of four years you should be able to create and edit a podcast and video as well as write the copy for both those items. Also, you need to understand the concepts of writing for newspapers, magazines and online.

Writing/Creative Writing

Some colleges offer a degree in writing or creative writing. This degree is often similar to the humanities degree in that a variety of classes can be taken outside the actual department. If you know you want to write, but don't know exactly what to write, this might be a good degree. Creative writing/writing degrees offer the student a variety of fields, or should offer a variety of fields. The actual mix varies from college to college, but I believe in any writing/creative writing degree certain subjects should be covered.
  • Basic Skills: These courses are usually in the 200 level, and are attainable after freshman English classes. They include classes as Creative Writing, Introduction to Journalism, and Business Writing.
  • Literary Skills: A good well-rounded literary set would include classes on playwriting, screenplays, novels, short stories, and poetry.
  • Non-Fiction Skills: These courses sometimes coincide with the communications/journalism degree, but will include topics such as articles, news, interviews and memoirs. Some might include elements such as devotional or religious writing.
  • Personal Development Skills: Classes here should cover ethics within writing, social consciousness, faith in writing and business of writing (covering how to earn an income in writing).  

Other Writing Majors

Some universities offer degrees in fields related to writing such as technical writing or publishing, though some of these are now offered as minors. One example is Technical Writing. This field requires you to know two very important aspects: writing and whatever field you enter. Individuals in this field often have degrees in science or mathematics. The technical writer condenses the raw data into understandable information sometimes within their field (technical journals) and sometimes into the general public (user manuals). If you enjoy writing, but don't want to do the journalism or creative path, technical writing might work, especially if you have an interest in science and technology.

Non-College Programs

As I said before, some writers groups/conferences offer programs to help aspiring writers develop their craft. In this regard, the students work with a mentor, and exclude the extraneous topics of history, science, literature and religion found in a college.

This path is often cheaper than a college degree, but can not be substituted for a degree. It is best utilized by one of two individuals. The first individual, would be the high school student who wants to pursue writing, and cannot find the information she needs in her English classes. Some of the programs offer an apprenticeship program targeted to high school students; others offer classes for every stage. The second individual has a degree in another field who want to develop his writing skills, but does not want to earn a degree in writing.

With these programs, I would suggest the following as evaluations:
  • Do the mentor/teachers know their subject? In other words, are they published or established writers who may or may not be well-known?
  • Can the teacher/mentor teach? In this aspect can they instruct the student to develop the craft, or does teacher/mentor leave much of it up to the student?
  • Does the a program have built-in checks and balances? Writing is a subjective field in that we lean to certain styles of writing. A good teacher will push personal bias to the side, but a good system will enable students to have a variety of teachers.
  • Does the program offer classes in building a writer's business or only in writing?
The programs I looked at seem to be the equivalent of freshman and sophomore years of college. Personally, if I'm spending the money for the program, I would prefer to have a degree to go with it. Classes offered at local colleges are sometimes more cost-effective, and many colleges offer online courses now.

Conclusion

If you are serious about pursuing a career in writing, and are currently looking at colleges, I suggest you focus on colleges offering a variety of degrees within the writing/communications field. Part of the reason I suggest this is from my own experience: I entered college focused on journalism, but I ended up with a degree in creative writing. Because I remained at the same college, and same department at the college, I was able to collect my classes as I needed them. A few classes I did miss, and there are things I wish my teachers had taught, but for the most part, I had a well-rounded academic career.

If the college you want to attend only offers writing as a minor, with a possible communications major, reconsider your options, especially if the college informs you that an English degree is just as good. If you want to pursue a livelihood in writing, you need a variety of abilities within the field. I had an upperclassman English major try to convince me I needed to study English and minor in writing; my journalism advisor pointed out two facts, (1) English majors study other individuals' writing, and (2) to be a writer, you must learn how to write.

To be a writer means finding a dream and pursuing it no matter what. It means evaluating opportunities to see if they fit into your overall future. People will tell you to pursue a job that earns a better income; they will tell you to pick up a job for the money even if it means ignoring your writing; they will tell you to chuck it all in, if after a couple years you still aren't published. Learn to filter out those voices.

You know what works for you, and only God knows your future. Your choices and path for writing may not make sense to those around you, but as long as you pursue God, and follow what works for you, that is all that matters.

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