On degrees and writing and the evils of Twitter

A couple of nights ago, this tweet got retweeted into my stream:


Yeah. Yeahhhhh.

So I wanted to talk about a couple of things that this tweet brought to mind. The first is what sort of degree a prospective writer should pursue (if any) and the second is using Twitter as a communications media, and things you need to consider.

By degrees

One of the reasons this tweet made me see red is that I have a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Ottawa. The generalization Ms. Gabaldon makes is stereotypical and just…honestly, just rude. It implies that an English degree is useless, and that’s not the case.

What did I learn from my degree?

  • How to think and read critically.
  • How to look for meaning in works of literature beyond the words on the page.
  • The understanding that even if we do mean only the words we’ve written on the page, there are a multitude of layers that a reader can bring to a reading of any work that we can never anticipate.
  • How to structure and support arguments.

So, a little background. I always wanted to be an author, but coming out of high school I knew success in that field was about as likely as someone getting drafted by the NHL, or a singer making a big name for herself as a rock star. Possible, but probably not going to happen to the average person. I decided that instead of pursuing writing fiction, I would be an editor. While I was still in school, I sought out a freelance contract for proofreading and got a part-time job as a technical editor for a local tech firm. I had a goal and I took steps to get experience to bolster my education.

Honestly, that’s the key.

Most degrees, in and of themselves, are neither useless nor a sure means of securing The Best Job Ever™. There are very, very few jobs out there that you’ll be 100% prepared for with a university degree. This tweet thread pretty much sums up why. You need to work to get the job you want; then you need to figure out what you need to do to succeed at that job. None of that stuff is just going to open up magically once you have a degree in your hand.

My career ended up taking an interesting path. I started out proofreading for a local tech company in their marketing department, and ended up getting into web communications. I’ve worked in that field since 2000, specializing in web writing, usability, and analysis of web usage.

So, in my experience, my degree was not useless. I might not have ended up doing exactly what I planned, but I’ve enjoyed an 18-year career that grew out of both my interests (editing) and opportunities I hadn’t previously considered.

Money over passion is shitty advice

But let’s get back to the second half of what Ms. Gabaldon said: “Pick something to give you enough money to write what you want.”

I don’t care who you are, this is shitty advice.

Let’s break it down a little.

Is it difficult to make a living as an author?

Yes. That’s not in question. I have 6 books to my credit, and I made less than $3000 last year from royalties.

Is it impossible?

No. Hell no. Especially in today’s environment, with self-publishing a possibility. You might not get rich, but you could make a decent living, if you’re willing to put the effort into it. I have a day job and I’m not a self-publisher; I’m also not putting out 5 books a year, or writing in a very lucrative genre.

So should you work in a different field while you try to make it as a writer?

A lot of writers do, myself included. For me, having my sole income as freelance or contract work or royalties doesn’t appeal; I like having a regular paycheque, benefits, etc. BUT…and this is a HUGE but: I didn’t choose my degree with the idea that I would only do that until I could make it as a writer.

If you really want to write—and I mean, really, really want to write, because it is a shitload of work and requires an enormous amount of effort, dedication and commitment—then DO THAT. Don’t study something solely to get a job in a field where you can make a ton of money and then at some point in your life, try out this writing thing. Maybe. You might never get there.

I’m not saying not to be practical—we all need to consider how we’re going to make a living with enough money to feed and shelter ourselves. But you need to take a long, hard, objective look at what you want and what you’re willing to do, and not just rule out a particular degree because it won’t get you money in and of itself.

But do you really need a degree?

To be a writer? No.

My degree didn’t teach me how to structure a novel or create believable characters or ensure the pacing of my book kept readers engaged. This is all stuff I learned from writing, and reading, and reading books on how to write (speaking of, if you’re writing romance, I HIGHLY recommend Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat).

My degree did teach me how to think critically and analytically, which are a couple of skills I’ve learned to treasure.

My point, though, is that if you want to write, don’t think you can’t just because you don’t have a BA in English Lit, or a Masters in creative writing, or any university degree. There’s no true requirement to being a writer, and don’t let anyone tell you there is. They’re wrong.

So, about Twitter

About a day after Ms. Gabaldon posted the tweet above, she tweeted a follow-up (using a service that allows for longer tweets) to explain that she didn’t actually mean that an English major was useless, and that Twitter itself was to blame because saying anything in 140 characters is too hard and she was in a rush because she was traveling and answering on a break at a rest stop and everyone in her life has degrees, some of them are English degrees, and….


Okay, look. Twitter is a medium that can be a challenge to master. You are limited in the length of your message, so you need to analyze what you’re saying and select your words carefully. But that’s no excuse to sacrifice empathy or accuracy for the sake of fitting your words into the character limit, particularly when a follower has reached out to you for advice.

I’m not a big fish on Twitter. I don’t have the little blue check beside my name because no one knows who I am. But I can tell you that the whole point of social media is to be SOCIAL. To interact with people. To be a person and not just a collection of binary ones and zeroes, and to embrace other avatars and names as people and not just a collection of binary ones and zeroes.

To be fair, Ms. Gabaldon did explain in her follow-up tweet that she meant that an English degree was not necessary in order to be a writer. As I detailed above, I agree with that. However, a rushed, ill-considered tweet obscured that message—and that’s a lesson for all of us.

To sum up

Being a writer isn’t about education, but passion and experience. Study what you want—or study nothing at all and teach yourself how to write. There’s no wrong way to go about it.

And when it comes to Twitter—in the immortal words of Wil Wheaton, don’t be a dick.

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