Does an English Degree Make You a Better Writer?

A couple of years ago, I was doing a reading at the Imagine Festival in Waterford, and I was sharing the bill with a former lecturer of mine, which was a slightly dizzying experience. Afterwards, the audience asked us questions, and then he decided to pelt one at me. How had my English degree helped me become a writer?

It was quite a challenge for me to come up with a diplomatic answer to that question, given that this was one of my former English lecturers. Because although my English degree was very interesting and the lecturers were good, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it helped me become a better writer.

The whole point of an English degree is to learn to analyse text. During my English degree at University College Cork, we poked and prodded at texts ranging from the ancient Beowulf to early Banville novels. We learned to read with greater depth and gained an insight into the techniques used by the greatest writers.

Analysis Kills Writing

But it is that very ability to analyse that can get in the way of the urge to write, because writing is all about hunger and instinct, and sometimes when we try to analyse what creates that urge and how that urge is acted upon, we kill that urge. We kill that passion that drove us towards the written word, both reading and writing.

An English degree won’t manufacture that hunger to write. It can help you master technique, but if you don’t have the passion, you’re not going to put pen to paper. An English degree shows you how writing works, but to become a writer, you need to actually write, and you don’t need a degree for that.

Attributes of Writers

What you need is the desire to write, an ability to trust in your instincts and life experience. You could become a writer just as easily grape picking in Australia or punching tickets at a bus station as you can sitting in a stuffy lecture theatre at four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

This doesn’t mean I think my English degree was a waste of time. It helps you to organise your thoughts, so the thought of writing an essay doesn’t seem so overwhelming. This was useful for a career in journalism, which I was aiming for at that time.

Creative Writing Course

It also just so happened that in my third year, UCC was doing an exchange with an American college and that college sent over a creative writing professor for a year. I put my name down for his elective course and it was extremely useful, giving me some basic writing principles which I still use to this day.

The moral of the story is, if you want to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of English literature, by all means do an English degree. But you do not need an English degree to be a writer. Just grab a pen and paper and open your mind.

Did you do an English degree? Did you find it helped you in your quest to become a writer? If you didn’t do one, do you feel you suffered as a result?


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