What My English Degree Taught Me About Writing

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.

English Essay
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?


4 responses to “What My English Degree Taught Me About Writing”

  1. I have a B.Sc. in Computer Science. I took a few lit courses at the A.A. level. To be honest, I think all of the items you’ve listed are things that can be learned just by doing lots and lots and lots of reading. I would say that an English degree probably helps with that in that it forces you to do lots and lots of reading, and gives you deadlines and whatnot to keep you accountable.

    For me, the things I feel like an English degree would have been great for are: 1) a supportive environment and time to explore reading and writing and 2) a way to network and meet lots of other people who are passionate about reading and writing, maybe collaborate on some things. That would have been fun.


    • You make a very good point. The key thing about the English major, what separates it form other majors, is that you read a lot of fiction. And I agree that it offers lots of support for writing and networking with other writers/readers.


  2. From my short experience (so far) in a scientific graduate program, writing is a huge deal. The faculty members are in a very “publish or perish” sort of environment. Needless to say, we are expected to write a lot. While we don’t have to worry so much about themes (such as nature or jewishness), we very much have to learn how to express a story and think critically about our research. Science is most definitely a creative process, and publishing your work requires you to succinctly describe why you ran the experiment you ran, how you ran it, what the results were, and what those results mean in respect to your initial problem (this is usually in about 12 pages). Your tips on learning from other writer’s works and thinking critically about your own writing are definitely things scientific writers can learn about. Unfortunately, we don’t have specific classes for learning this. We just have to read a ton of scientific papers and practice writing until we get it somewhat right
    Someone who double majored in a scientific field and English would probably be a pretty big step ahead if they went on to a scientific graduate program.


    • It’s interesting because it seems like most professions involving degrees actively require writing skills. Even the engineers at my job are more prepared for the work if they come in having a solid writing background. I’m also interested that you say science is a creative process. I mean, of course it is, but when I think of science I think of logical analysis, not creativity. I think that’s just a stereotype I (and probably others) have held on to for too long.


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