Tuesday, 5 January 2016


Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! I hope everyone had a decent festive/midwinter experience and a pleasant new year? Today's post is in answer to a reader question, but before I get started I want to share links for a couple of guest posts that I did over the Christmas period in case you're interested in checking those out.

Firstly, my regular gig on Author Allsorts, in which I talk about books you absolutely should read to get into the seasonal wintery spirit (it's still winter, so these are still good recommendations!).

Second, my 5-4-3-2-1 post over on the lovely Jim's Teens on Moon Lane blog. This is a great, unique interview format and I really enjoyed doing it.

Now onto the question from Kai, which was received via my website. An apology to Kai is due here - I addressed you by the wrong name in my hasty email reply to you, and I'm very sorry to have done that. I hope you'll forgive me.

Kai asks:

"...do you need a creative writing degree or English literature degree to write stories well? I mean I love story writing because its a great hobby to have but I want to improve my writing obviously so I don't have to cringe as much when I read over my notes.
The problem is I don't know how much it would help. I mean the cost of degrees have gone up again and I tend to think just practice is the best way to improve anyone's story writing but now I'm just not so sure. So um if you're not too busy can you answer the question whether its necessary or not to need a creative writing or English literature degree to be able to write stories that you don't cringe at."
Kai, I firmly believe that education is a wonderful thing, a mind-altering, world-broadening thing. One of my big regrets in life is that I didn't pursue higher education. I was held back from doing so - despite promising exam results at GCSE - because I had no idea of the possibilities that it could offer up for me.

You see, I come from a very poor, working-class background in one of the most deprived areas in Great Britain. My parents grew up after the second world war, but in many ways their early lives were still practically Victorian. As kids, they lived in two-up-two-down houses where ten children slept crammed into two beds in one room, where there was no indoor plumbing (the toilet was in an outhouse in the back yard, and the family bathed in a tin hip bath in front of a coal fire in the living room) and it was quite normal for kids to go to school with no shoes.

The boys went on the trawler boats when they grew up - or later, into the fish factories - and the women worked in the factories too, until they got married. My dad was considered to be very posh because he became a type-writer service engineer, and then a photocopier engineer and office manager. No one in my immediate family had ever gone to university. Only one person had even gone to college and I don't think she finished.

Given all this, it's not entirely surprising that while my parents were proud of my results at school, they were clueless as to what to do about them. They had no expectations for me at all. And perhaps it's not surprising that my school didn't have any particular expectations, either. 'Clever' girls like me (ones who tested well and didn't act up too much) were told in school that we had two options open to us to 'make something of ourselves'. We could either skip uni and fix our hopes on finding work in an office (as a receptionist, a filing clerk, a secretary, maybe a PA if we were lucky) or we could go to university and become a teacher or a nurse.

That was it. Those were the options, the only set of possible futures which was presented to me. Now, you might wonder why I didn't think for myself, do research, find out about other possibilities. But it never occurred to me that I could, let alone that I should. This was in the years before the internet was widely available (by the age of sixteen I'd been on the internet a grand total of once, and that was to check out this wondrous new thing called a 'chatroom' with a bunch of classmates under a teacher's strict supervision) and before most homes had a computer anyway, so the only way I could access information about how university and the wider world worked was through my teachers and the occasional visits of a school career advisor. And that's what they told me: receptionist/secretary or teacher/nurse. This was the best I could possibly hope for.

Once, my drama teacher asked me what I intended to do after leaving school. I told him, rather resignedly, that I'd probably be a teacher. He stared at me, sighed, and then said: 'What a waste'. Then he walked off. Presumably that was his idea of encouragement? But since I had no idea what else I could be or why it would be a waste - he was a teacher wasn't he? And I knew my parents would probably die of pride if I became a teacher, since it was a 'profession' and a highly respectable job - it fell rather short.

Honestly, I wasn't all that thrilled at the idea myself. My family was convinced that I wouldn't be eligible for any educational grants or financial help (looking back I'm fairly sure I would have been, but again - no easy way to check, and no one offering any advice or encouragement on how to find out) and the thought of trudging off to the glamour of Hull university (the closest and therefore cheapest option) in order to spend a chunk of years training to do a job I didn't really want to do, and ending up with a heap of debt at the end of it, did not exactly set my heart afire, you know?

If only someone had told me that I could set my sights higher than that! If only someone had told me I might be able to go to a university somewhere amazing, that there were options for financial assistance, that I could look for a place in any one of hundreds of possible careers! That I could train to be a graphic designer, or an actor, or an archival librarian, or an archeologist, an academic professor focusing on the Classics, or a public relations manager for a charity! If only someone had explained that heading to university was about more than choosing a single door to a single, dreary future and then plodding wearily forwards without looking left or right...

But you do know all that, Kai. You have these options open to you. It's a joyous thing.

So am I saying that the answer to your question is 'Yes, you should go to university in order to become a good writer'?


There are certainly careers for which a university degree in the correct subject is an absolute must. If you want to become an engineer, a designer, a teacher, a medical professional, a physicist... you are going to need a university education. But being a writer is not one of those careers.

You absolutely do not need to have a degree - in an English related subject, or in any subject at all - to write well. And no one expects it, either, despite the rise of courses which specialise in creative or even children's/YA writing. I can say with absolute honesty that no publishing professional - editor, publisher, agent, writer - has ever asked me about my educational background except as a matter of idle interest. Which is a good thing, because eventually I decided to skip university, and became first a dental nurse and then a civil servant, two jobs which widened my world immensely by way of forcing me to deal firmly, competently and compassionately with every possible kind of person in every kind of difficult situation imaginable. 

A lot of writers have degrees in English or journalism, yes - but even more have degrees in history, chemistry or Medieval paper-binding techniques; still more have no degree at all. I know two people whose theses focused on children's literature. One's a teacher and the other is in public relations.

There are many people out there with advanced degrees who can't write worth a jot even on a basic, technical level. I would know. The number of high level managers - with degrees proudly framed on their office walls - in the civil service who couldn't compose the simplest coherent sentence for an important inter-office memo was staggering (and embarrassing) for all involved. I used to print these emails out, correct their spelling, grammar and punctuation in red, and leave them lying around in the break room for my over-worked, bullied colleagues to laugh at. People only get out of university what they're willing to work for - and if all they want is a shiny piece of paperwork which will allow them to slither into a plush executive job and then coast for life... that's what they end up with.

It's a narrow, sad kind of way to make use of the opportunities life gives you, though.

Anyway, if you decide that it's worthwhile for you to undertake that financial burden and dedicate years of your life to getting a degree, Kai - and it's a big decision, so it's good to consider it carefully - then you should make that decision for the right reasons and with realistic expectations of what a university education can offer you.

Do it because there's a subject you're fascinated with and simply must learn more about. Because you want to broaden your mind and horizons with the experience. Because you want to live in and explore a different place than the one where you grew up. Because you want to meet fascinating new people. Because you have specific goals for your life - perhaps a career that you can pursue alongside writing - which a degree will help you to achieve.

Do not go to university because you think getting a degree will teach you how to be a writer. It won't.

Only you can teach yourself how to be a writer, and clearly you already have a pretty good leg up on that process. You know that re-reading what you've written with a critical eye (yes, that's the bit that makes you cringe) and practicing are vital. So are reading widely and enthusiastically. And so is experiencing life itself, whether that life includes a stint at uni or not.

If you do chose English based subjects at uni, it's possible that might be a really good experience for you. If you get a passionate, engaged teacher or professor who mentors young writers well, they could offer a lot of encouragement and support. Or, it could suck the joy right out of reading and writing for you (which was my experience when studying for GCSE English and when taking a creative writing course at night afterwards) and be no use at all. There's no way of knowing in advance - which is why you should only study English related subjects if you're passionate about them quite aside from your hope of being a writer one day.

No matter what else you do, keep teaching yourself to write, and don't rely on anyone else to get you through that process. You might write your first publishable manuscript at twenty, or thirty, or forty. In the meantime, take advantage of whatever opportunities seem the best fit for you, and live your life fully and well. And if possible, pick a job that you can enjoy and believe in, which will adequately support you unless and until your writing does (whether that job requires a degree or not). That way you'll always be a winner.

I hope this is helpful, Kai! Any other questions about this or any other writing or reading related topic can be left in the comments. Next week I'm sharing my recipe for spiced caramel apple cake - look forward to it :)


Emma Pass said...

Fantastic post, Zoe. I *did* go to university, but to study Fine Art, not English or writing (in fact, I didn't even take English A Level). I wasn't confident enough in my writing ability to study it at degree level – I needed to work out how to do it in my own time, and make all my mistakes in private. However, going to uni did expand my horizons massively and teach me how to work for myself, all of which helped me with my writing in ways I could never have imagined.

Zoë Marriott said...

Such a valuable perspective, Emma! Thank you. I hope Kai reads this.

Hannah Love said...

Am I the Children's Literature person who works in PR?

I like writing too, but my degree didn't teach me that at all. It was more of an 'if you want to dabble, feel free,' scenario. So studying English isn't a means to that end at all really, no. I know several talented writers who used creative writing degrees to hone their already considerable skill though.

But, I actually think that studying English is a great idea if you don't know what you want to do. I started studying Law and then felt utterly miserable and nearly dropped out, because I felt like I had been trapped into being a lawyer. Then I changed to English and it felt like my options opened up VASTLY. Not having an obvious next step can be very freeing. My friends from my course do PhDs, work in television, work in marketing, work in recruitment, work in book conservation, work in journalism and many more things.

And I'd agree that Uni is great if you love to study. Go for the thrill of studying something, not because you feel you have to. If you want to write, you don't need to go to university. But if you want to write you could still have an amazing time learning something totally different, alongside practicing what you love.


Zoë Marriott said...

You are, Hannah - well spotted :) I agree with you completely - and this is the reason I really wish I'd been to uni myself, to have that opportunity to study and learn and have my mind opened up at a much younger age. I sometimes wonder if my rightful place in life was supposed to be as a scatty English professor, thundering Beowulf at hungover students, swearing in Anglo-Saxon and chucking evilly. But if I was that person, I probably would never have written The Swan Kingdom and might still be working on my first book in my spare time, so... it all works out in the end. I hope.

Saya said...

Thanks for such an interesting post, Zoe! It's incredible (and shocking, and I blame the stupid government) how sometimes south and north seem like different countries. But I hear you on the limited career choices (especially if you're brown as well) - my artistically brilliant brother was told to be a gardener. He's a graphic designer now.

About technical writing ability, I found exactly the same, both at university and later, that as a rule, people *don't* know how to write. But that doesn't mean you can't learn to! Some people are naturally skilled at it, but others learn it.

I actually credit my master's for really bringing my writing up to scratch, but primarily because it taught me how to *think*, and then organise my thoughts so they had substance as well as form. But I'm the type that needs schooling. I remember when I was at school, there were girls whose writing was just effortless and consistently brilliant, much to my envy. I knew I had a latent ability/feel for it, but I needed it to be trained and brought out. I went to uni for science, though! So it's not the subject that makes the writer, and there are tons of popular and good writers who don't have literature degree backgrounds. Of course, uni was much cheaper back then. (I actually went for free, thanks to the now-abolished government subsidies for kids from working class/underprivileged backgrounds. Stupid Tory government.)

Narrative writing is a slightly different animal to technical writing, though. At uni I had learned how to pack the most substance into the fewest words, but that makes very dense reading. I learned over again how to write for readers when I started recapping at Dramabeans. Keep the substance, but put air between your words! It's been such a fascinating learning experience, and I got to watch my writing change under my editors' tutelage. In conclusion, practice is pretty much everything. And direction. Knowing what you want your writing to do.

I found out you can take some really excellent courses online these days, and they're taught by universities. The best part is that they're absolutely free. I'm a huge fan of Future Learn, and you can browse the media courses here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/categories/creative-arts-and-media

Kai and other readers can try Start Writing Fiction -- just in time for the 18th Jan start!

I'm signed up for the Transmedia Storytelling course! Such good stuff!

Zoë Marriott said...

Man, I really hope Kai's checking out these responses - there's so much useful information and important stuff to think about. Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a brilliant comment, Saya. I appreciate it! xx

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...