Twenty-five years ago when I headed off to my first year of college at Indiana University, I had no doubt in my mind that my major would be journalism. From the time I had taken a journalism class in high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer and work for a newspaper or magazine.
Getting a degree in journalism to write articles for a newspaper or magazine was a plus to me. I would earn a degree from one of the top journalism schools in the United States and go to class in a building named after Ernie Pyle.
Degree versus no degree
The great debate nowadays is do you need a college degree to be a professional writer?
Some people would argue that you need a degree while others say a degree is a waste of time and money. Yet others advise getting a degree in another academic subject.
Which degree to earn
The next question is if you need a degree, which one should you get? That is a tough decision that depends upon what you plan to do with the rest of your life.
Some people would argue that you need a degree in English. An English degree can be used in other jobs, not just in writing. It helps you be a better critic because you are reading all different kinds of literature and analyzing for various things.
It teaches you to be a better editor. Writing and editing are like peanut butter and jelly. They go together. You can’t have one without the other. It helps you write better in terms of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
After I earned my bachelor’s, I ended up starting summer school right away and worked toward earning my teaching license. I took many English classes, and now that I think about it, I ended up with another major.
I have the added bonus of knowing what this degree looks like as well, and, yes, it does help you be a better writer. But if I hadn’t wanted to be a teacher, I probably wouldn’t have taken many English classes at all.
2. Creative writing
A degree in creative writing helps you be a better writer period. You are going to learn how to write a variety of genres.
I took an introduction to creative writing as a sophomore at IU and learned so much about poetry and short stories. Of course, I know we didn’t even begin to touch on all aspects of writing, but it was then that I knew someday I wanted to be a writer.
My professor had published a book, which I bought and read that semester, and I wrote five poems and a short story, which I still have all of the years later.
Then there’s the journalism degree, which I hold proudly and haven’t used much in the years since I graduated college. Journalism gives you the research skills and helps you be a better writer for nonfiction kinds of writing.
I did work at a local newspaper for a few months a couple of years after I graduated. But I will say one thing. Working for a small town newspaper is much different than I thought it would be.
Needless to say, I didn’t last very long. It wasn’t my thing.
4. No degree
Others argue that you don’t need a degree to be a writer. After all, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger all became famous authors, and none of them have a college degree.
Why spend all of that money on college when you can take classes online through Udemy, American Writers & Artists, Inc., or something similar? You can read books like Stephen King’s On Writing or William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. You can join writing groups like 10 Minute Novelists. All of these ways can help you teach yourself to be a writer. Who needs that piece of paper, right?
Another academic area
But if you must have a college degree, then think long and hard about what you plan to do with the rest of your life. Think about the different ways you will use your degree.
My degree is actually a double major. At the time I was at IU, the journalism school required that we have 25 credit hours in another subject. Twenty-seven credits was a major so I thought long and hard and decided to add criminal justice to my degree.
I could do so much with this — become a lawyer, write about crime for magazines, become a probation officer. I had many doors I could open and see where they would take me, and I did that so I wasn’t left without a backup plan.
Even if you are hesitant to get an English or creative writing degree, think about a major in another area that interests you, like sociology, history, or even criminal justice. You could either have a second major in English or creative writing or earn it as a minor. Use that knowledge to help you write books, like dramas, crime thrillers, or historical fiction.
Getting a college degree is a tough decision, not only from the standpoint that it can cost a lot of money and time, but the decision of what kind of degree to work on. I sometimes wish I had a different degree instead of my journalism one, because other than those few months I worked the newspaper, I have never used it.
The writing I’ve done could have been done without that piece of paper. In fact, I wrote short stories without it.
One piece of advise from someone who is 25 years past earning that piece of paper — think long and hard before you decide and make sure before you put the money and time into it. Think about the backup plan in case your original plan doesn’t happen.
Take it from me. Having a degree that I’m not using is useless.