On college, being an author, and backup careers

Posted By on Nov 7, 2012 | 5 comments


I know a lot of other authors have done posts or videos or tweets or speeches about this, and yet it’s still something I see in my inbox almost every week:

Do I need to go to college if I want to be an author?
or, sometimes
I don’t want to go to college. I want to be an author!”

First up– do you need to go to college in order to become an author?
The short answer is no. No college degree will guarantee you publication. I have friends with masters degrees, working toward their doctorates who haven’t published anything beyond short stories in academic journals. I have other friends who dropped out of high school and have multiple books out by major publishers.

Forgive my soapbox for a moment, but I feel we– the US in particular– have started to see college as a means to an end. The idea that if you get a specific degree, you’ll get a specific job. That’s not what college is really supposed to be about. Don’t go to get a degree– go to get an education. A degree is a piece of paper that can be crumpled up and thrown away. An education is something no one can ever take from you.

The education you receive at college will likely help you become a better writer, which will help you on your path to becoming a author. And even if it doesn’t, having an education is pretty awesome. Have you ever heard someone say “DAMN IT. I just know TOO MUCH. If only my knowledge wasn’t so VAST AND WELL-ROUNDED”?

(No. At least, I hope not.)

I’ve known since I was about twelve that I wanted to be an author. I wrote my first book in high school, read voraciously, and began researching publication before I turned eighteen. I went to college and got a degree in English. I decided to pick up a minor in Philosophy while there.

I can say that without doubt, college itself did not make me an author. I became an author because I worked my butt off, wrote constantly, carefully researched agents and publishers, immersed myself in the industry, and wrote the right book at the right time.

I can also say, however, that had I not taken an adolescent literature course my sophomore year, I would not have recognized and embraced YA as my genre. Had I not read a ridiculous amount of Shakespeare, I would not have been inspired to write AS YOU WISH. Had I not taken a random elective and discovered Philosophy, I wouldn’t have written SISTERS RED. Had I not had five years of learning without the pressure of a full time job, I would not have had the time to participate in Nanowrimo.

So will going to college turn you into an author? No. But it’ll give you experiences, freedoms, and an education that will likely make you a better writer and definitely make you a more well-rounded human being.

And so, in short: Go to college, or in the very least don’t use “I want to be an author” as an excuse not to go. Not attending college won’t make you an author anymore than attending college will make you one. So the whole “I don’t want to go to college, I want to be an author!” argument always sounds a little silly to me. You want to be an author? Work toward being an author. You can do that from a dorm room just as easily as you can do it from your parents’ basement; but the first one comes with a BONUS EDUCATION, whereas the second one only comes with irritated looks from your father and Sunday laundry duty.

And now, a note on “backup careers.”
Many of the people who email me asking about college say their parents are pressuring them to get a degree so they have a “backup career” in case the whole author thing doesn’t work out. Typically these emails come with disdain and the scent of crushed dreams (which, for those wondering, smells faintly of vanilla and raisins). How dare parents not BELIEVE in their children? How dare they not have TOTAL FAITH that their child will become a bestseller, if only he/she were allowed to sit at home and write books all day?

Look. Odds are your parents DO have faith you as a writer. But they also are keenly aware of the cost of rent/food/power/lattes. And writing, while absolutely a valid career path, can be a rocky one. I had a day job when I graduated college because my first book didn’t sell enough to support me. Even now, with six books under my belt, I have very very lean times. My bank account has been in the single digits several times this year. (Single. Digits.) I can tell you from experience that it is very difficult to be creative while you are worried about the power company shutting your lights off. It’s hard to write a synopsis when you’re thinking about which flavor of Ramen you’ll have for dinner. Stress and creativity are enemies, and being broke is ridiculously stressful.

So there is NOTHING WRONG with a backup career, something to pay the bills until you make it as an author. You have not failed if you emerge from college or high school and take a day job; you’re merely biding your time until your books hit it big.

Relax. Get a degree. Try to find a day job you love, just in case. And if you want to be an author? Keep writing.

5 Comments

  1. Love this post. Some really good advice. :)

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  2. Thank you, this has helped me and I’m glad some people are on the same page as I am. I also would love to be an author though at the same time I’m rather fond of the idea of university. The thing that gives me doubt is merely cost. I understand that a degree is not essential for being a writer and due to that I’m not sure if university would be for me unless I study something that will not only interest me but will give me a degree for my ‘back-up career’. With this in mind, my problem still stands. I have no idea what else I could do that I would be capable of and love.
    I simple cannot think of a backup career plan. :(

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  3. This is great advice. I think it needs to be pointed out to students more that college = opportunities not a one way street where the decision you make now is the decision you must stick with forever. There is always so much pressure where it’s stressed that you need to decide now what you want to do 4 or more years from now. When really it should be stated that you can change your mind. Realized that you may like History but you don’t want a career in it? Change your major. Realized business classes have more math than you care for and that you rather try something in science? Change your major or take an elective. Just try all the the different paths you can, go to seminars and conventions, join clubs and fraternities/sororities, volunteer. Study abroad for a semester in a country across the world. Gain all the knowledge and experience you can before you start that full time job whether it’s writing or a 9-5 office job with writing following after.

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  4. That was really great advice! Reading your post makes it much more easier to understand and it helps me figure out my future plans for when I go to college after high school. Thank you so much .

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  5. I love this post! But, a question: do you think it’s a good idea to have two different careers going on at once? For example, becoming a teacher and an author? I want to do both of these, and have wanted to for as long as I can remember.

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