Advice for English Majors
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, Economics, all of these majors transfer smoothly into straight forward 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
- Internet marketing/ SEO Writer
- Screen Writing
- Fiction Writing
- 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 specializing. Just walking out the door as an "English Major" is going to make it difficult to find profitable employment after graduation.
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 into 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.
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 and Nobel, 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 a staff writer 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, 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 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 time I see new writers pointing at Steven King, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, John Grisham or Clive Cussler as examples of author's 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, deal? 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.
Writers: Have you formally studied writing?
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Jennifer Arnett