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Advice for English Majors

Jennifer loves writing short stories and hopes to beat Ray Bradbury's count. She's only got 580 left to go.

Here is some advice for English majors.

Here is some advice for English majors.

The Cool College Degree

What do Matt Damon, Mitt Romney, Christopher Nolan, and Sting have in common? They were all English majors.

Poetry slams, artsy coffee shops, late-night philosophy, and critique groups, all make the mysterious life of an English major seem glamorous. While others are stuck flunking out of round three of organic chemistry, the English major is drinking exotic tea and thinking about thirty ways to kill off a character with a paper clip.

Should You Become An English Major?

Writing is in your blood and you have hopes of writing bestsellers, seaside writing retreats, book signing events, and film options, but it is important to look at the whole picture.

Studying the art of writing is extremely pleasurable and personally rewarding, but there are some drawbacks when it comes time to graduate. Accounting, Biology, and Economics transfer smoothly into straightforward careers. One of the biggest challenges English majors face is transferring their skills into real-world applications. It can be done, but it takes an ounce of creativity.

Common Jobs for English Majors

  • Copywriter
  • Journalist
  • Archivist
  • Internet marketing/ SEO Writer
  • Advertising
  • Teaching
  • Screen Writing
  • Fiction Writing
  • Editor
  • Writing Agent or Publisher
  • Technical Writer

All of the jobs above require more than just a piece of paper stating you passed 120 units. Most of those careers require samples, additional training, or specialization. Just walking out the door as an "English major" is going to make it difficult to find profitable employment after graduation.

Welcome to the glamorous life of a writer.

Welcome to the glamorous life of a writer.

You Need a Game Plan!

Just because you love to write, and you have aspirations of becoming a writer, doesn't mean you have to study writing to be successful. The average bachelor's degree requires 120 units. The average semester course is three units. That means before you graduate, you will take approximately 40 classes. Not all of those courses need to be English classes.

Before you check the English major box and hand it to the registrar, it is important to have a game plan.

Do you want to be a technical writer? Majoring in technical writing and minoring in one of the sciences will give you an edge over the competition.

Do you want to be a film review columnist? Majoring in journalism and minoring in film studies will give you the tools you need.

Do you want to launch an online writing empire, with blogs, niche sites, and affiliate links? A degree in Marketing or Graphic Design, with a minor in journalism, might be the ticket.

Do you want to be a Novelist? If you plan to write mysteries, a degree in Criminology, with a minor in Creative Writing would give you the creative and technical knowledge needed to write the next Sherlock series. Majoring or minoring in something outside of writing will give you a day job while you shop your novel to publishers.

This is what a career as a young writer feels like.

This is what a career as a young writer feels like.

The Cold Hard Truth

Writing is hard. Becoming a full-time writer is way out of the park difficult. It's like participating in an Iron Man competition. Very few people will ever qualify for an Iron-Man, and of those who make it, not everyone will finish. What it takes is almost non-stop dedicated training and the perseverance of a gladiator. However, it is possible to make a career out of writing if you stick to your guns.

The truth is, one sold screenplay, book in Barnes & Noble, or article in National Geographic won't pay your bills, not for long anyway. Unless your first and only novel is turned into a billion-dollar box office sensation, you'd better keep your day job.

I read somewhere that what it takes to become a successful writer is one million words, which sounds about right. That's about ten 100,000 word novels or 1000, 1000-word articles. Not only will you learn the craft of writing somewhere near word #456,817, but you will have created a body of work that will, odds in your favor, start paying some bills.

The writers that are making a living off of writing have several books published, have written hundreds, if not thousands of articles, or are staff writers for a television show.

I know authors with books on the shelf at all major retailers, a screenwriter who sold her script to Disney for $100,000, and writers who have worked on some of the shows you are probably going to watch after dinner tonight. All of the above writers have had to either keep writing almost obsessively or have had to supplement their income with jobs outside of the writing world.

That's the cold hard truth. There is no 'retire on a beach with fancy royalty checks' reality. If you are lucky you will earn enough off of one book in order to have the time to write the next, which is extremely rare.

Write Your Heart Out!

If I haven't scared you off yet, and you know that you can't leave this planet without the world reading your words, then welcome aboard! Yes, study English, attend the poetry slams, and accept the life of probable poverty. If it's in your soul, don't make the mistake of waiting until later in life to let it all come out. If you are twenty years old and choosing to become a writer, my goodness, you probably have at least forty years to produce volumes of work and study your craft. I'll bet Stephen King is jealous of you and all of the time you have.

Walk Out of College Halfway There

Try to exit college 500,000 words into your writing career. In today's world of e-book publishing, you could be earning money off of your homework assignments for your short story, poetry, or novel writing courses, long before you graduate.

If you plan on being a journalist, having a portfolio of clippings from town newsletters, college journals, and trade magazines, will serve as a resume for loftier assignments. It will give you loads of experience and might create a foot in the door for opportunities with larger publications.

Writing jobs, or income from writing, won't just show up on your doorstep. You are going to have to write a thousand words a day for almost four years to hit your million work mark, so get busy! If you exit college with even two self-published novels, a handful of short stories, and a few hundred connections with other writers, you will be way ahead of the curve.

Start Good Habits

If you are serious about making a living from your writing, get in the habit of writing every day. Learn the discipline of writing consistently, of pushing through writer's block, of turning the mumble-jumble in your head, to articulate words on a page.

Here's a metaphor that might suit you: The Golden Gate Bridge is so big that in order to keep it from corroding, it needs to be continually painted. Just when the painting team gets from one side of the bridge to the other, they start again at the beginning.

That's how your writing career will be. You will finish writing one novel and then go through dozens of passes of rewrites. Just when you hit submit to your publisher or the Kindle store, you will need to begin another. As you are writing fade out on your screenplay, another fade in will need to be written.

Many times I see new writers pointing at Steven King, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, or Clive Cussler as examples of authors who have made a pretty penny off of their work. They say, "See it is possible to become a millionaire writing what you love." To that, I say, yes it is but don't ever discount the undocumented hours these authors have put into their business. Here's the tally:

Stephen King: 120 books published, including short stories, novels, and novellas.

Clive Cussler: Around 50 books published, including those he co-authored.

Robert Ludlum: 21 books.

Tom Clancy: Over 100 works published; however, a few were ghost written with his name attached.

John Grisham: 31 novels, 2 non-fiction books, and one short story.

You don't even have the right to have dollar signs in your eyes until you've published in the double digits. Starting now, at age 20, aim for two novels a year for thirty years, and after your sixtieth book, if you're still not making enough money to feed the cat, then yes, you should have gone to law school.

Don't Just Write

Wait what? You just said to write until the day you die, producing millions upon millions of words.

Yes, write your little heart out, but don't lock yourself in a little writing room and forget that life is passing you by.

I am convinced that the best writers have extremely interesting lives. While we can do extensive research on subjects we have little familiarity with, actual experience helps create a sense of authenticity way above and beyond a Google Search.

Writers Need To Be Method Actors

Method acting is one technique actors use to portray authenticity in their work. They literally try to become the character they are playing. If a method actor is playing a cop, he would go through firearms training, do ride-alongs, study protocols, and participate in a cadet academies. Seeing what the character sees, feeling what they feel, that is when writing becomes something tangible and real to the reader.

Write What You Know

As writers, you need an arsenal of experiences in order to write authentically. Every place you go, person you meet, and emotion you experience builds up that arsenal. I'm sure you've been told to "write what you know," so get out there and become familiar with everything.

In college, go ahead join the surf team, go to professor-sponsored lectures on interesting topics, join a club, take a class you don't actually need, study abroad, volunteer, get out, meet people, take chances, sit in coffee shops and listen to how people talk, join a movement, and run a 5K for charity. Just get out of your dorm room and experience the world.

From personal experience, I learned more knowledge and gained more experience outside of the classroom, than in it. Go ahead, book a cruise to Bora Bora, it might just give you the setting for your next book.

I studied abroad in Ireland. The character in my spy thriller series is from Dublin.  Having spent time there, I feel that I can authentically build an Irish character.

I studied abroad in Ireland. The character in my spy thriller series is from Dublin. Having spent time there, I feel that I can authentically build an Irish character.

© 2014 Jennifer Arnett


Hontai Wangshu on August 26, 2020:

Thank you. This article is really inspiring. I've been doubting my decision to pursue writing career and almost regretted being an English Major but finding this gem of advice helped put things into perspective.

Jennifer Arnett (author) from California on December 05, 2014:


Right on! You have to trudge your own path, and it looks like you have done just that. Being a legal editor is tough stuff!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on December 04, 2014:

This is a very good overview of professional writers. Don't expect to get rich off a degree in any kind of communications unless you are born under a lucky star or go into political writing for a major candidate. I'm lucky that I've had steady work since the 1970s, but I left broadcast journalism to become a legal editor. I've had the same job for 26 years. Very few people want to put up with that kind of work. Voted up++

Jennifer Arnett (author) from California on June 28, 2014:

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. These are things I wished someone had told me a decade ago.

Bernadyn from Jacksonville, Florida on June 23, 2014:

I love how honest this was and lots of good points for English majors to think about. I almost wish I had read this before I became an English major all those years ago! I like your last three points and think that's wonderful you were able to study abroad. Ireland's one of the places I hope to visit, too.

Jennifer Arnett (author) from California on June 14, 2014:

Thanks Bill. I look forward to reading all of your articles. There was no Friday morning Billybuc article. It's the first thing I do every morning is log onto HP and read your article. I greatly look forward to it. I hope you and your family are doing well. I look forward to Monday.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 12, 2014:

What a wonderful reality slap in the face. I particularly loved your second paragraph, but the entire article is a pearl of wisdom. Love the truths you speak here my friend. Well done!