You certainly don’t have to an English major to be a writer, or go to college for that matter. Furthermore, with the rising cost of a college education and the lack of jobs offered for humanities degrees I can certainly understand if many people question the need for an English degree unless they plan to teach. However, I am the writer I am because of my path in education. The classes I took as an English major, my interaction with professors, even the papers I wrote, all made me the writer I am today. So, in humble defense of the English degree and also as a demonstration of the necessary skills a good writer should have, here are a few things I learned as an English major that made me a better writer.
Oh boy, psychoanalysis and racial othering in the 19th century American novel. That’s what I call steamy reading. Source: Hannah Garrison
Learning From Reading Other Writers’ Works
I’ve mentioned this idea before on my blog: to become a better writer we should read the works of others. I do think it’s worth saying again. When we read the work of others, many good things happen. We naturally pick up on sentence and story structure. We can see how others have experimented with different forms of narrative, and decide if that’s interesting. Also, another author’s book is a great place to turn to if you need fresh ideas for accomplishing certain things in your book. Maybe you want to write about characters of a different race than yourself. A good place to start doing research would be to read the works of writers of different races than yourself. Perhaps you want to write a story in first person perspective, but have no idea how to go about this. You can turn to a book that offers that perspective, and ferret out what you like and dislike about that point of view. The great thing about books is there are so many, and chances are good someone has done before what you are attempting.
Thinking Critically About What You and Others Write
Critical thinking skills are necessities for any college student. Without them, all those essays would be regurgitation of fact instead of an original display of knowledge. A common task in literature class is to identify and discuss prevalent themes in works of fiction (and sometimes non-fiction). When writing essays, English majors must also be aware of what they’re writing, making sure they follow through with their thesis and address any holes in their own logic (i.e., think critically about what you’re saying). The same is true for writing books; authors must think critically about what they put down on the page. For instance, a prominent theme in The Great Gatsby is greed. Obviously F. Scott Fitzgerald put a lot of thought into his book and how he wanted to discuss this theme. Similarly, any writer, whether she be an English major pulling together a paper on The Great Gatsby or a writer working on a novel, needs to think carefully about the themes in her writing.
Crafting an Argument
While many authors might say they don’t want to craft an argument in their work, all good writing comes down to the author putting out a point of view. Often, this point of view can be taken from how they address a major theme in their book. Obviously, the same is true for any writing. If I fill my book with natural imagery, obviously nature is a key theme in my book. How I treat nature, whether I show it as dangerous and unpredictable or a victim of humanity’s machinations, demonstrates an argument, intentional or not. A writer can get into trouble if they aren’t fully aware of how they treat themes in their book. For instance, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the antagonist Fagin is described as a Jew in very stereotypical and antisemitic terms.
Fagin played by Alec Guinness and Timothy Spall
Dickens’ first defended this characterization, feeling that it seemed to reflect what he saw as the truth. However, after hearing from others that the characterization of Fagin offended many Jewish people, Dickens began removing stereotypical caricatures of the character in public readings and later editions. So, as studying literature shows, it’s important for writers to carefully consider the arguments they’re making in their text, even if they’re unintentional.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on writing and whether a degree is useful or not. Do any of you writers have a BS degree, and if so, what do you think that brings to your writing?