Many young authors and aspiring novelists wonder if they should get a college degree in creative writing or English.
- Robert Ludlum studied drama.
- Harper Lee dropped out of law school.
- Michael Crichton studied biological anthropology.
- John Grisham studied accounting.
- Danielle Steel studied fashion design but never received a degree.
- J.K. Rowling studied French.
- Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine.
Is a college degree a good investment for young novelists? And if not, what is the best path to publishing success?
To help us debate the issue, I interviewed Brett Harris. He’s the bestselling author of Do Hard Things and the co-founder of The Young Writer’s Workshop and The Author Conservatory. He’s helped hundreds of young writers publish their work.
Do novelists need a writing degree?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Do novelists need a degree in fine arts, creative writing, or literature in order to pursue a career as an author?
Brett Harris: The short answer is no. They don’t need one. But I think that question can be a distraction. When I say a student doesn’t need a creative writing degree to be an author, people assume I mean a degree is not good.
That’s not the case.
Some writers earned a degree and thought it was helpful in one way or another. Some English majors found it helpful to have received feedback from their peers and professors. Others were helped by reading great literature.
Is a college creative writing degree helpful for novelists?
Brett: It quickly becomes a debate about whether an English or creative writing degree is helpful.
So, if you ask, “Is a university degree in English or creative writing or literature helpful?” then the answer is, “Yes. It’s absolutely helpful.”
The better question is, “Are college writing programs coming anywhere close to adequately preparing a student for a career as a novelist?”
That is the question we need to be asking.
How to Evaluate Comparative Advantage in Education
Thomas: I like to address questions like this with the mindset of comparative advantage.
Ask yourself, “What’s my next best alternative?”
When you have limited time and money, and you’re trying to decide what to do, you must determine the comparative advantage of your options.
If you spend a day standing on the street corner with a cardboard sign selling your book, you will probably sell some copies.
But is that the best use of your time and money? It probably won’t waste money because cardboard signs are cheap, but it will probably be a waste of time. You’ll get a better return on your time if you do something else.
When evaluating your return on a writing degree, the question is not about whether you’ll learn something. You’ll certainly learn grammar and read many books. But what is your next best alternative?
You can read those books on your own. You can host your own group of professional writers and discuss those books for much less than $20,000 per semester.
Science and technology degrees require more hands-on guidance from professors, but much of what you’d learn in a creative writing program can be learned on your own.
What is the alternative to a creative writing degree?
Brett: We need to start asking what is the alternative, and is there an alternative? People get stuck because they don’t know of a good alternative.
People believe they need a university degree so that they have a backup plan if writing doesn’t work out. Students understand that going to college may not be the best way to pursue their writing dreams or get prepared for a writing career, but they figure they might as well go to college for something they enjoy, like writing.
Many students are asking, “Don’t writers still need college, so they have a backup plan?”
A Payment Parable
Thomas: There’s a story about a guy who calls a plumber to fix his toilet.
The plumber works for 30 minutes and gives the man an invoice for $250. The guy says, “What? $250! You were only here for 30 minutes. That’s $500 per hour! I’m a lawyer, and I don’t even charge that.”
The plumber replies, “Yeah, I know. I used to be a lawyer too.”
The Increasing Cost and Decreasing Value of College Education
The story illustrates the fact that if your goal is to make money, college degrees, especially for novelists, aren’t as valuable as they used to be because of supply and demand. The demand for workers with college degrees has increased a bit, but the supply of college-educated workers has increased exponentially.
Decades ago, only 3% of the population had any college education. Today, 30% of the population has some college education, so a degree no longer guarantees you a good job.
At the same time, the cost of college education has increased exponentially while it has decreased in value.
When my grandmother went to college, one semester at the University of Texas cost $25.00. When my dad went to college, one semester at the same school was $500. By the time I went to college over a decade ago, I was spending $300 for one textbook, and the degree was far less valuable in making me hirable than it was for my dad.
When my dad graduated, a degree guaranteed him a job. When I graduated in 2008, nobody was looking to hire anybody.
What does the research say about the correlation between hiring and college degrees?
Brett: I’m passionate about this topic. I like to dive into the research and stay current on the latest news. It’s interesting to see the movement toward questioning the college degree as a baseline requirement for hiring.
We see companies like Google, Ernst and Young, Penguin Random House, Costco, Whole Foods, Hilton, Apple, Starbucks, Nordstroms, Home Depot, and IBM waving any sort of degree requirement for employment. And they’re waving the requirement for entry-level and mid-level jobs as well as for employees seeking opportunities for advancement.
We’re moving into a new era where people are discovering that actual marketable skills, ability to do the work, and experience in the field are often more valuable than a piece of paper saying you have a degree.
I’ve worked with hundreds of young writers and seen many of them go to college for writing. When they report back, we learn that college is not delivering for writers.
Is a college degree a golden ticket to higher wages?
Brett: You mentioned the history of college. After World War II, the GI Bill allowed the government to pay for college for our veterans. It led to a huge economic boom for our country. We also won the war, and that helped, of course.
But our parents and grandparents came to see the college experience as a golden ticket into the middle or upper-middle class. A degree was the way to a stable career and a good job. That assumption still colors the advice given to young people today.
In reality, those outcomes for upward mobility are no longer predictable. They aren’t even the majority outcome for someone who’s investing all that time and money.
Hiring College Graduates: One Business Owner’s Experience
Thomas: As an employer, I can confirm that.
I’ve helped run several different companies, and I’ve hired a lot of people. When I interview college graduates, I’m often stunned at how little useful knowledge they have, especially those with a liberal arts degree.
The one exception I’ve encountered is Texas State University’s graphic design program. We hired a bunch of their top students, and they were legitimately good.
But most young people don’t have much useful knowledge, and they have a ton of debt.
Those candidates were no more appealing to me as an employer than someone without a degree. In fact, the two best software developers I hired didn’t go to college. One started a college program but got frustrated that it was moving so slowly, so he dropped out. He spent his time writing code and working, which was far better preparation for his career. The other software developer never went to college, and he was incredibly good at what he did.
We hired other people who had gone to school, and they weren’t as good. Obviously, that’s a small sample size, but there was a negative correlation.
It was frustrating for me as an employer because the degree didn’t signal anything useful. A degree used to mean the candidate was in the top 5% in intelligence, but that’s no longer the case.
Today, many grades are given to a group. You don’t have to be smart or hard-working to cruise through group projects and get passing grades. It’s easier to get an A with group projects than it was when assignments were given to individuals who had to pull their own weight.
Does a college writing degree adequately prepare you for a career as a novelist?
Brett: The question to ask is, “Does a college writing degree adequately prepare you for a career as a novelist?”
When you ask whether it’s helpful, you get all sorts of perspectives.
But when you ask whether a creative writing degree adequately prepares a student for a career as a novelist, there’s almost universal agreement that it does not. That agreement is unanimous among published authors who have successful careers as novelists.
That’s a shocking reality when we consider about 120,000 students per year begin an expensive English/creative writing degree, and many of them are hoping to be published authors someday.
What programs can adequately prepare a writer for a career as a novelist?
Thomas: There’s a big difference between being published and having a career as an author.
I don’t know anyone who went straight from a college degree to a career as a novelist. But I can think of people who’ve begun their author careers through various online professional training programs.
You have The Author Conservatory, and Susan May Warren has The Novel Academy. When people complete those programs, they can have a career as an author. We have our Five-Year Plan to Become a Bestselling Author. People who complete that program are better prepared because it’s targeted toward people who want to make a career of writing novels.
University writing programs may prepare you to work in publishing as an editor for other people’s novels, but they don’t promise to set you up for a career as a published author.
Still, many young people think that that’s the promise.
Income Disparity: Correlation is Not Causation
Brett: I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that a person who earns a bachelor’s degree earns, on average, about $17,000 more per year than someone with a high school diploma.
I have delved into the research and read the studies. I’ve read quotes from the researchers and not just the journalists reporting on it. The statistics journalists quote are baloney. It’s one of the greatest marketing ploys that has ever been pulled off by colleges.
Colleges are reporting this data, and in many cases, they’re the ones who are funding it. But when you look at what the researchers are saying, you get a different story.
Here are some quotes from the researchers:
We really do not know how much of the higher pay college grads earn is due to the fact that they are already more able, they have families with more resources, and they have other advantages that help them in the job market as compared to those who do not go to college.
-Peter Cappelli, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, as quoted by PolitiFact.
New York Branch of the Federal Reserve
Brett: The New York branch of the Federal Reserve reports on some caveats that journalists and colleges don’t mention. NewYorkFed.org says:
The wage differentials we estimate provide only a rough guide to the economic benefits of a college degree, and come with a few important caveats. First, as a group, those pursuing a college degree may well have aptitudes, skills, and other characteristics that make them different from those who do not go on to college. This implies that part of what we estimate as a benefit to a college degree may reflect the different abilities of those who earn a college degree, and not the added value of a college education itself.
Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz “Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs?” Volume 20, Number 3 ❖ 2014 ❖ www.newyorkfed.org/research/current_issues (Accessed 10/19/2022)
These quotes are pretty damning in that the researchers essentially say they don’t actually know if college is responsible for any sort of higher earnings capacity in a direct way.
Higher earning capacity could simply be a symptom of a supportive family, supportive parents, a good upbringing, ambition, or a hard work ethic.
Thomas: It’s like trying to judge a college football coach. Is he a good coach, or is he good at recruiting the best players?
Brett: AnnualReviews.org looked at research on all of the studies related to college increasing your lifetime earnings, and their conclusion says:
Overall, the scarcity of credible evidence regarding the causal effect of college on earnings is striking given the voluminous literature on the returns to schooling more generally.”
www.annualreviews.org “Is College a Worthwhile Investment?” Annu. Rev. Econ. 2015.7:519-555. Downloaded from www.annualreviews.org Access provided by University of Chicago Libraries on 10/16/15.
In other words, we are not finding credible evidence that there’s a causal relationship.
I like to point this out to parents and students who’ve bought into the belief that even if a college degree is not a good option for aspiring novelists and it won’t prepare them for a career, it’s still a good idea because it will help them earn more money.
The researchers and the people reviewing the research do not say that.
I think the final nail in the coffin comes from Jeffrey Selingo, the Editor at Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He wrote a book called Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students.
Selingo shared this statistic, which was unrelated to any discussion of college leading to increased earnings but is still pretty damning. He says:
In the last decade, the percentage of students from families at the highest income levels who got a bachelor’s degree has grown to 82%. While for those at the bottom, it has fallen to just 8%.
Jeffrey Selingo. “Baby boomers and the end of higher education?” The Washington Post Published 11/12/2015. (Accessed 10/19/2022)
He’s saying that 8 out of 10 students from the highest income families get bachelor’s degrees, whereas 9 out of 10 students from the lowest income families never get a bachelor’s degree.
When we’re comparing college graduates, who make all this extra money, with non-college graduates, who don’t make as much, we’re actually comparing students from wealthy families to students from poor families.
The argument is basically the same as if we just said that students from wealthy homes earn more money on average over their lifetime than students, on average, from poor families.
Thomas: Correlation is not causation. People who go to college make more money, but that doesn’t mean their degree causes them to make more money.
The value of a good employee is a combination of their natural abilities, work ethic, and how much they’ve honed the craft and practiced marketing.
A career as an author requires more than just writing a good book.
The path to publication requires specific skills:
- Getting an agent
- Writing a book proposal
- Working with a publishing company
- Negotiating a contract
- Managing rights
- Building a platform
- Growing your reputation with readers
- Marketing your business
Very few of those skills are taught in creative writing programs. You won’t graduate with an understanding of marketing fundamentals, which is one factor that separates successful career authors from non-career authors.
If you want to edit other people’s books, a creative writing program helps. By the same token, some of the top editors who’ve written books on editing never even went to college.
You don’t have to go to college to become a good editor, but you do have to go to college if you want to teach English at college.
There is some money in sticking around the academy and continuing to teach other people as they try to fight for limited seats at universities.
Brett: The number of available university seats is extremely limited, and the number of qualified people to fill them is increasing exponentially.
Did you go to college?
Thomas: I went to university. Did you?
Brett: Yes. I went to college after I published my books.
College was a good experience for personal growth. I made some great friends. A lot of good came from it, and I’ll reiterate that college can be helpful.
However, it did not help me as a writer at all. It was an enormous detour on my path to writing as a career. All the skills I use today as an author and entrepreneur were skills I practiced in high school before I went to college.
Thomas: To be fair, you were a bestselling author before you went to college. You wrote your first bestselling book while you were still in high school.
Brett: That’s right. It has sold over 700,000 copies. Our family has four bestselling authors in it, which is rare. We’ve sold millions of books collectively, and all those books were written before any of us (novelists included) had a college degree.
College was certainly not part of the strategy for becoming a successful author.
We each pursued our college educations for other reasons. My twin brother went to Harvard Law School. If you want to be a lawyer, you must go to school. I’m not anti-college for every reason, but I do discourage young writers who want a writing career from attending college because I think there are better options.
Thomas: Neither of us is saying education isn’t important. We are saying you can get a better writing education through alternate means.
What are the alternate ways to learn about the publishing and writing industry?
Practice the Right Skills
Brett: You need to put in the reps of writing and completing projects. If you want to be a novelist, you need to be completing novels, not completing short stories in a creative writing class where you get feedback from students and professors who may not even write in your genre.
Practice the real thing. Write novels and book-length projects. Writing short stories is great for honing your craft but completing a novel by your publisher’s deadline is a different skill altogether.
It might have taken you 12 years to write your first book, but when you’re published with a traditional publisher, your contract may dictate that you write your second book within the next eight months. Good luck with that if you haven’t practiced.
Many authors run into what’s called the “sophomore slump.” They spend their whole lives writing the first book, and then they have eight months to write the second, and they just don’t have the practice.
It’s difficult to complete full-length projects while you’re in college. However, it’s possible if you have a plan, a writing community, mentorship, and a guide to help you avoid common mistakes.
Most authors complete four to six full-length novels before they write one that’s publishable. There are always exceptions to every rule, but that’s a pretty standard number.
Novelists who spend four years writing four novels will be farther ahead than novelists who spend ten years writing their first novel.
Find the Right Programs
Thomas: That’s the method we teach in our course, The Five-Year Plan. We have students write a short story every month, but by the end of the course, they will also have written five novels.
Brett: Our Author Conservatory is a three-year program. Students write anywhere from two to four novels. They receive developmental feedback from multi-published authors and professional editors. Every step of the way, students get feedback on all aspects of the novel writing process:
- original story idea
- reverse outline
- manuscript assessments
Our goal is to speed up the learning process by offering valuable feedback, so it only takes two to four completed novels before you can show your manuscript to an agent or acquisitions editor.
Thomas: You’re teaching students to write commercial fiction such as fantasy, romance, or thriller. You’re not teaching them how to write literary fiction, which is what most creative writing programs teach.
Brett: We are focused on commercial fiction. Young people today want to write speculative sci-fi fantasy, which is the most popular genre in our program. But we also have students writing historical, biblical, and contemporary fiction.
Acquire Business Skills
It’s also important to spend time learning and practicing business skills so that you have experience with marketing, sales, and branding. Those skills are such an important part of preparing for a career as an author.
Writers often focus on improving their writing so that they can write a book that’s publishable. But they’re not asking, “Am I ready to publish?”
Writers need to know the business side of publishing and how to navigate the publishing industry. They must know how to alert readers that their book exists and then convince them to buy it.
Those skills are often neglected, but you’ve got to fight that battle too. It’s not enough to write a good book.
How to Make the Most of Your Education
Thomas: My business degree experience was very different from other students’ experiences because I was running my own business at the time. During my professors’ office hours, I would ask questions and get free business consulting for my business.
I went to a small university where I had access to professors, and I was one of the only students asking questions during office hours. My professors were contractually obligated to answer student questions during office hours, so I got a lot of free consulting.
I asked questions as a business owner. We would talk until they gave me a book recommendation, and then I would read that book on my own. That’s how I was introduced to the writing and work of Seth Godin, which I discussed with my marketing professors.
I received an incredible education, but much of it was outside of the classroom.
When I started publishing and helping other authors, I realized that much of what I learned in school could have been gleaned from management and marketing books. However, my university classes really helped me with accounting, finance, and math.
You can spend a few hundred dollars on books and be well on your way to understanding how to create a good marketing campaign.
Brett: Absolutely. I learned everything I know about marketing from books and mentorship by people who were doing what I wanted to do.
That’s my biggest recommendation for students. Find people who have done what you want to do and learn from them.
If they’ve written books, read those books. If they have programs, join them. Get mentorship and personal feedback from someone who’s walked the path before you.
My biggest beef with colleges is that few of the people guiding and giving feedback have walked the path you’re trying to pursue. How can they show you the way?
It’s like going to the park to play tennis, but you only find people playing badminton. It seems close enough since you both like hitting things over a net, but you’ll never become a professional tennis player that way.
You must connect with someone who has gone pro themselves or helped others go pro.
Thomas: My wife is a National Merit Scholar. She got a full ride to Texas A&M to study communications, and she will tell you that she did not learn anything useful in that communications program.
When she got her first job after college, which wasn’t right away because few employers were looking to hire communication majors, she basically had to learn from scratch.
Her classes were all theory and postmodern deconstructionism and nothing that would benefit an employer or help them make more money.
She enjoyed her time at university and made a lot of friends, but it didn’t help her advance her career in any way.
We’re both very thankful she got a full ride because it would’ve been terrible if she had spent tens of thousands of dollars on an education that didn’t teach her anything.
I realize that’s a terrible indictment, and Texas A&M is a good school with a great reputation. But even Texas A&M’s communication program didn’t teach anything useful as far as my wife was concerned.
Brett: One important clarification of my story is that I went to college on a full-ride scholarship that I earned because of the books I had written. If I had paid for my education, my feelings about it would be very different.
If your reasons for going to college (or wanting your child to go to college) is the college experience, personal growth, and learning to take responsibility, college does provide that. But those benefits are a luxury, not a necessity.
If you want a career that requires a college degree, then college is important and necessary.
If you want to be a writer and publish novels, college is not necessary. It is also not adequate. You can do many other things to pursue it on your own if you’re self-motivated and willing to find people to learn from.
After working with so many high school writers, we realized there was not a good college alternative we could recommend, so we decided to create The Author Conservatory.
What’s the difference between The Author Conservatory and The Five-Year Plan?
Thomas: Both programs can be used as alternatives for a college writing degree, but the five-year plan was not designed as a college alternative.
The Five-Year Plan shows you the best way to maximize the first five years of your career as an author. It’s targeted at adults. We weren’t considering high schoolers or teenagers when we created it. The assumption was that the typical student in the course was already a professional who wanted to start writing a book.
It’s self-paced without much interactivity. We don’t provide feedback, but we do encourage you to join a critique group.
The Author Conservatory is more like a classroom experience with live interaction with professional authors who are already successful commercial writers. Industry professionals provide feedback to students.
Brett: Our three-year program is intended to prepare young writers for a career writing novels. You can pay for the program by working part-time, or you could save up for it by working part-time during high school. And while it’s much more affordable than college, it’s still a significant investment of time and resources.
Our teachers are multi-published authors, Christy Award winners, Carol Award winners, bestselling authors, professional editors, literary agents, and acquisition editors.
We’ve created an intense and rigorous program that’s focused on writing craft and entrepreneurship. Our students start businesses to practice their business skills in preparation for publishing and selling books.
One student made $20,000 in her first year. She earned $83.00 per hour with a popup business she started with our help. This 20-year-old girl built a business that allows her to support herself at a very high hourly rate, and she still has plenty of time to write her novels.
We tell our students, “The name of the game in publishing is to stay in the game until you win the game.”
Owning and running a highly efficient business that doesn’t swallow your time and mental energy is one way a young person can stay in the game long enough to win the game.
We spend half our time teaching writing craft and giving feedback and the other half teaching entrepreneurship, starting businesses, and earning real money with coaching from successful entrepreneurs.
Thomas: I love that model because it does take time to get the money to start coming in. When you publish your fifth manuscript, the money gets better, but you need the time to get there.
A career as a novelist requires persistence. Many writers give up when they realize how hard it is to get published. They don’t realize what’s involved or how good they have to be to succeed in publishing.
You must be the best one at the conference if you want to succeed in publishing because the top percentage of authors make most of the money in publishing.
Successful Students (and their Parents) Must View Writing as a Career
Brett: That’s where I challenge young writers and their parents to realize that being a novelist is a viable career if you treat it like any other career.
For example, if your daughter is a senior in high school and wants to be a lawyer, you wouldn’t ask her at the end of her first year of college why she wasn’t making money as a lawyer. She has many milestones yet to pass, such as law school and the bar exam, before she starts making money.
A student studying law will invest seven years and at least $180,000 before they start earning an income as a lawyer.
It’s the same with being an author. You must put in the time. You don’t just dabble on the side and hope to be good enough to be a professional. In the same way, you don’t play pick-up basketball in the summers and hope to be a professional basketball player.
I tell young people (and their parents) that if you spend more time and effort on your backup plan (i.e., going to school, having a degree in something you can fall back on if writing doesn’t work out) than you do on your dream, you’ll succeed at your backup plan and fail at your dream. And that’s what happens to most people.
Debt and the College Degree
Thomas: We’ve been skirting around the edges of the issue of debt.
I went to school 15 years ago, and some of the people I graduated with are still trapped in debt they incurred at college. It has negatively affected their lives ever since.
Many students accumulate school debt believing it will result in higher income eventually, but it doesn’t. They get trapped by debt that can’t be absolved in bankruptcy. The cycle creates a form of debt peonage, which was what created the surfs thousands of years ago.
Inescapable debt causes people to lose their freedom. You can’t operate autonomously when you’re saddled with massive debt.
If you’re pressuring your children to go to school but not providing for them to go to school, you’re pushing your children into a situation where they accumulate inescapable debt.
On the flip side, let’s say you have $50,000 set aside to buy an education.
If you invest it in an S&P 500 ETF for the next 40 years, your $50,000 will grow to be a million dollars.
A university degree has to provide more value than just investing that money in a good, safe investment.
Pushing young people into massive debt does them a disservice. We need to start sounding the warning sirens. Students used to be able to go to college and pay for it with a part-time job. But today, college is too expensive. It’s difficult to save up that much money.
Brett: It’s absolutely possible to pursue your writing dreams while still being a responsible adult who can actually pay their bills. Students can accomplish those dreams by doing the hard work, putting in the time, getting the training, and gaining business and writing skills.
That combination has worked for me and the students I have coached. It’s the piece that’s missing in college writing programs.
Pursuing your writing dream is possible. There are paths forward. Find people who can equip you with those skills.
College is not a good option for writers, but that doesn’t mean that this dream has to die.
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L. The Five Year Plan is a step-by-step guide for your writing career. Learn what to do in each quarter of the year to avoid the mistakes that hijack success for most authors. Set yourself up for success. Learn more at NovelMarketing.com/courses.
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