Writing is a nuanced subject. Some argue that areas of it require an inherent flair that can’t be taught, while others say it is a skill you can hone. So, do you need an English degree to be a writer? The short answer is no, but it might give you a head start. If you’re seriously considering taking up writing as a job then you need a wealth of skills in research, language and phrasing – but these can also be learned outside the classroom.
What’s covered in an English degree?
An English degree considers the complexity and beauty of the English language. If you enjoy reading and analysing novels, plays and poems, then an English Literature degree might suit you. If you are curious about the evolution of language as a communication construct and how children acquire language skills, then English Language could be a better match.
Although an English degree gives you a strong understanding of the development of the language and works written in that tongue, it doesn't necessarily imbue you with commercial writing ability. You will learn to write academic papers and debate ideas, but you may need to take specific modules to learn how to write creatively or for a medium such as advertising.
Writing jobs associated with an English degree
There are many directions a writer can take after completing an English degree but not all of them focus on the use of language. If you're looking to utilise your English degree to produce written content, then these jobs include:
- content writing for websites and blogs
- editorial assistant in a magazine
- publishing house proofreader
- digital content manager
- advertising copywriter
An English degree also helps get you on the road to jobs such as an information officer, school teacher or social media manager. There are dozens of English courses available across the country if you're interested in studying this subject.
Famous writers with no degree
An English degree is not a prerequisite for becoming a writer as many famous writers attest to. J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, says her parents never thought an English degree would get her anywhere so she studied French instead. She earned a B.A. in French and Classical studies from the University of Exeter.
Other famous and respected writers without degrees include Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells and Charles Dickens.
An English degree is no automatic path to success as a writer as even after your degree ends you'll need to apply yourself and hone your skills to a range of different types of writing.
Other relevant subjects which might prove useful to working as a writer include drama, music, performing arts, history, languages or media studies. Regardless of your background, it’s more important to be able to develop your own voice to create compelling content as evidence of your skillset.
How to work as a writer with no degree
As much as an English degree can give you a passion for the English language, there are some things you'll need to acquire yourself to become a writer regardless of your education. Here are some tips to teach yourself writing:
1. Understand your goal
The first step to becoming a writer is to understand what your writing goal is. What do you want to achieve with your writing? Perhaps it's to educate a certain group, to share your story or to create a wild flight of fancy that takes readers along for an enjoyable ride and thrills you at the same time.
To work out your goal, ask yourself questions such as: who is my audience, what do I want them to take away from my writing, what do I want to learn from my craft of writing, and where do I hope my writing career will take me? Once you have identified your intended audience and understood what success will look like, it will be easier to determine the kind of writing goal you need to set for yourself. Once you have a clear idea of your goal, you can begin to develop a plan for how to achieve it.
2. Brush up on your writing skillset
Of course, an excellent grasp of grammar is a key component of writing, but there's more to the craft than that. There's a need for outstanding story-writing skills and creativity to name just a couple.
Beyond that, there are more practical skills. Such as the ability to meet deadlines. You’ll also need to have good business management skills to market yourself as a career writer and grab the experience you need to build your reputation.
3. Refine your style
Professional writers produce a wide range of materials. While some work on novels or short stories which they submit to publishing houses, others focus on information products like leaflets and websites.
One of the early challenges to crafting the art of writing is to work out your own preferences. What kind of writing do you want to do? Journalism, factual, creative are just a few. Once you know that, what is your unique voice and does it need adapting to your medium? For instance, are you a descriptive writer that uses flowery language to build up a sensory experience? That might be good for some styles of publishing, or maybe a book author – but not so good for online content.
There are also many technically gifted yet boring and unsuccessful writers. The most important thing to develop is how to move people through your language. You must be entertaining, educating and inspiring. Your reader is the most important consideration.
4. Develop a portfolio
A portfolio is evidence of your skillset and is particularly important in a career like writing where you may have to struggle alone before you land your first job, project or commission. Here you can display the pieces of content you are proudest of.
It’s worth looking at the breadth of materials that writers and copywriters include in their portfolios to either pitch for work or just develop your ability to produce them. Even if you want to become a creative writer like a short story writer or poet, having your own portfolio is key to proving to yourself how your craft has developed and can even help you apply for funding in future.
5. Practise and experiment often
The only way to craft your art, whatever degree or training you undertake, is to practise. You’ll need to work on your ability to come up with ideas that will sell, research things well and be able to change the way you express ideas according to your audience. You’ll also need to have confidence in your writing, be able to accept criticism and remain positive.
On a day-to-day basis that can mean joining a local writers’ group, entering writing competitions or blogging. Some good advice is to write even when you don't feel like it to learn how to get past blocks in your flow. Doing timed writing sessions and exercises can also help you get over your own perfectionism.
You could think about taking creative writing courses available at local colleges or online, but prolific author Stephen King says the most important thing to do is actually read and write daily. One of the biggest obstacles writers face when trying to write daily is their motivation. Often, they haven't quite figured out what inspires them and what their end goal is. If that's you, go back to step 1 and answer those questions as honestly as you can. Even if you aren't 100% sure of your goal right now, give yourself some space to just experiment. Often our goals manifest themselves over time.
What to expect as a writer
Once you’ve perfected (or started to develop) your ability to write, the next step is to look for opportunities to have your work published or to join an editorial team. While the majority of writers are self-employed freelancers, they may be taken on for short-term contracts in television, radio, screen or theatre. You can also pitch stories as a freelancer to try and build your experience and expertise.
There are also some opportunities to be employed as writers in residence in particular communities or organisations. However, these gigs will rely on an impressive portfolio of your abilities, so work on your collection of writing samples. It may be useful in the beginning to look for jobs that may not offer great compensation but bring the opportunities to build your skills. However, don’t undervalue yourself as you start to build your reputation and look for better rates and opportunities.
Writers work in locations all over the world and new technology means remote ways of working, like our community of freelance writers, are becoming more popular. The highest concentration of writers in the UK is currently in London and the South of England but thanks to the fact most writers are freelance the work may often be solitary. It’s also difficult to achieve job security. On the other hand, most writers are home-based and can fit their work around other commitments. There are some opportunities for travel – particularly to conferences, events and festivals.
There's no clear-cut path to becoming a writer with or without an English degree (or any other degree for that matter). To get started in the writing industry, you’ll need to actively look at publishing houses, publications or outlets that might suit your style of writing and interests – and then pitch to them. Present a story that plays to their interests and shows your special talents and angle. And practise, practise, practise. It’s a joy to write for a living but getting there can be hard work. Good luck!
✏️Get more insights on becoming a writer from the Copify blog.
Main image credit: Jessica Da Rosa