So you’re writing a novel but you don’t have a degree in English literature. Are you out in the cold? What kind of training do you need to get your novel published?
Elizabeth posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi! My name is Elizabeth and I love your blog!
I am a first time writer working on the first book of a trilogy and my question is,
Do I have to take writing classes or be an English major to write a book?
I had an idea that came to me and have been writing it for over a year in between work and science classes. I only recently thought of trying to publish it but I am worried it won’t be good enough because I don’t have “academic” training but I really want to start pitching the book soon. (I almost completed the first draft).
Randy sez: I wasn’t an English major. I double-majored in math and physics and scratched through college in four years. The way I did that was by taking CLEP tests to get out of as many humanities courses as possible. So I wound up taking only one history class and one English class total.
My lack of training in history and English in college has never stopped me from writing historical suspense novels. The reason is simple:
Education is about learning how to learn. My training in math and physics taught me how to think and how to learn what I need.
So the short answer is “No, you don’t need to have a degree in English literature to write a novel.”
There is a longer answer that is not quite so cheerful. No matter what degree you have or don’t have, you need to learn the craft of fiction writing. And these days, because publishers only market the winners, you also need to learn how to market yourself effectively so that your publisher will perceive you as enough of a winner to put some marketing money behind you. And (because we all have limited time, energy, and money), you need a bit of organizational skill to get it all done.
So you do need to learn, somehow or another, quite a lot about craft, marketing, and organization.
Now would be a great time for me to make a self-serving comment about why I created this web site. After publishing several novels, winning a bunch of awards, and teaching at a fair number of conferences, I woke up one day and realized that I knew a lot of stuff that other writers thought was immensely valuable.
OK, that’s a bit of a fib there. I didn’t wake up and realize that. My friend Marcia Ramsland told me that every month for six straight months, until I finally realized she was right. That’s when I decided to create this site — to teach how it’s done, as best I can. I don’t know everything, but I do know quite a lot. I hear all the time from people who say my teaching is helpful.
Now if I can be REALLY self-serving, I’ll add one more thing. Quite a lot of what I know is packed into my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. There is a limit to what you can put in 384 pages, but I did the best I could. The book is the #1 book in the fiction writing reference section on Amazon, and also has the highest customer ratings of any book in that section.
Gack, that’s probably enough self-advertisement for about a year. My main point here is that there is a lot to know about writing fiction, but you typically don’t learn it in school. You learn the craft in three ways:
- Writing fiction
- Getting critiqued
- Studying the theory from excellent books and teachers
I will note that there are plenty of excellent schools with Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees, where you can do all of the above. I know a number of writers who hold MFA degrees, and I think getting an MFA is a fine way to learn the craft. It’s not the cheapest way, but it works perfectly well.
However, most working novelists I know don’t have an MFA and have done just fine. And I gather that MFA programs focus on craft but generally don’t teach you much about marketing and organizational skills. So even if you were to get formal training in the craft, you’d still need to learn some things on your own.
So Elizabeth, there are many roads to publishing nirvana. A formal education is one way to get there. An informal education is another. Pick the road that suits you best.
Remember also that getting published requires talent, training, and time. If you don’t have at least some talent, no amount of training or time will get you there. If you do have the talent, you still MUST get the training and you MUST put in the time.
Every year, hundreds of aspiring authors get published by traditional royalty-paying publishers. You can too, if you have the talent, get the training, and put in the time.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Richard Mabry says
Randy–Yes, I agree. Education is about learning how to learn. And I’d add a corollary (which isn’t original with me–wish it were): It’s the things you’re sure you know that keep you from learning anything. Learning the art and craft of writing is do-able, but it’s also a continuing process. We never really “arrive,” and when we think we have, we’ve reached a dead end.
Thanks so much for the good advice you continue to share here.
Gloria Wendroff says
I love your writing and all the wisdom you give. I also nod vigorously to Richard Mabry’s comment!
Randy, are not some good fiction books still written from inspiration rather than from conscious craft? and the same books published and sell well? I know this must be far and between and not by the odds, and yet…
As a reader, I long to read inspired novels that come from a deep place within the author. Before there were trained fiction writers, there were great writers who were inspired and intuitively knew how to keep their readers turning the pages of their books.
Randy sez: Virtually all books are written from what you’re calling inspiration — what I’d call the intuitive, creative side of the brain. Virtually all books are edited using what you call conscious craft — what I’d call the rational, analytic side of the brain. The question is whether you’re going to educate the editor side of your brain so that you’re competitive in today’s market. We all have some natural degree of editing ability, but we all need to use best practices in editing, and hardly anyone knows these best practices intuitively. Hence the need for training.
Cindy Huff says
I have no college degree,like you Randdy I learned how to write. The things you challenge new writers to do is hard. Writing everyday takes a willingness to give up other things to have time. Being critiqued requires a thick-skin and a willingness to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. And learning the craft requires not only reading about it but attending conferences, listening to webcasts. In the case of novel writing it is so important to start out small with articles and short stories to learn to write tight. Eventually all that hard work will pay off. it’s a fearful thing to strive to be a published author but those who chose the journey have many resources. like you Randy,to encourage them along the way.
Amy Isaman says
Randy – good answer. I’ve got a BA in English and an MA in Lit. and while I can analyze the heck out of a piece of literature and talk about lit. theory with someone all day, those skills don’t necessarily translate to being able to write a good story. My writing journey began not with my degrees but with reading “How to Write” books. I’ve spent a lot of time researching that which you mention – an education teaches you how to learn. Good post!
Thomas Derry says
While I agree for the most part with the main points of the article, I do want to say my brief sojourn in the halls of graduate academia (English Lit) exposed me to a wide variety of both literature and theory. It definitely expanded my idea of what is possible in writing.
You are right that there is a lot more to writing a successful novel than most people realize especially if one is attempting to self publish. Fortunately for writers of this day the opportunity to become widely read is easier than it has even been with the popularity of digital books and Amazon. Yet the knowledge one must now acquire to “make it” in the digital world may be greater than ever before. Not only must one be able to write an engaging story one needs to understand and implement effective marketing and promotion.
I’m a woman about 50 from Iran. I’m looking for a novelist to write in English a true story about my life and the reasons which I left my country last year. It will be very interesting.
Is there anybody to help me?
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God’s Hot Spot
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I appreciate your advise Randy. I’ve finished my matric last year, and because of situation at home, I failed to go to tertiary institutions. As to be a story writer was my second choice, so I decided to go for it.Since I was in grade 9, I used to write little dramas and some of my friends thought that maybe I have copied somewhere. I ended leaving to write because I thought that I was writing for nothing. that was the time I was at grade 10. So now I want to take it from there by writing a novels.
Stuart Murray says
Does one need a literary agent?