4 answers

What are some steps in becoming a successful writer? What should I major in?

Asked Lakeland, Florida

I would like to be a writer some day and I would like to know how to get my writing out there, how to be noticed. I will be going to college next year in the fall and I was thinking or majoring in English literature. Would that be a good major? #writing #college #author #college-major #books #literarture #english

4 answers

Thomas’s Answer

Updated Pleasanton, California

In addition to what others above have recommended, I would start a writing group. It took me a while to get a solid group of people together, but once our group was formed, I found it incredibly rewarding. You'll learn how to apply other people's critiques, apply feedback, and essentially develop a thick skin, which is needed as a writer. Once trust is built, you'll know you when praise is genuine and also where your weaknesses are. But you will also provide a great deal of feedback, and assessing other writers' work will improve your own skills. It will also force you to meet deadlines as you'll be required to get work in to be reviewed on time. Lastly, the group will become the beginning of a network to learn about other opportunities as you all find successes in different areas.

As for college, I think you should focus on what you want to write about in addition to the mechanics of writing itself. I have a degree in history which has provided good background for fiction writing (although I don't recommend getting a degree in history for that alone, as it's expensive and there are cheaper ways to learn about ancient Rome or medieval England).

I also recommend starting small--if you're into fiction, don't jump write to an epic novel. Start with short stories and see what sort of success you have there.

Thomas recommends the following next steps:

  • Start a writing group.
  • Work on specific goals, like participating in writing contests or submitting to specific publications

Alice Foster’s Answer

Hello, Paola. So glad that you are considering this question early on! It takes a while to find your voice as a writer and to compile a strong body of work, so you are a step ahead in considering how best to do that as you enter college.

I agree with the previous advice to identify what type of writing you would like to do. That will help you determine whether your major should be journalism, communications, creative writing, etc. Many great writers would also echo the advice about reading. Every great writer I know also reads voraciously. Reading the work of others not only helps you identify the markers of engaging writing, it helps you build your own vocabulary and general command of language.

Beyond that, I say: Write! You also need to allow others to read what you write. I know that that sounds basic, but because writing is a very personal process, many novice writers can be very protective of their work. If you are going to make a living as a writer, you have to be willing to put what you do “out there” and be open to feedback on it. Authors have editors, screenwriters must accommodate script change requests, TV writers work as teams…and your writing classes in college will include group critiques. When I worked as a copywriter, every pitch included multiple ideas, so hearing what did not work was as much of the process of developing the project as accepting praise on what did.

You have to develop a bit of a thick skin about what you produce and be willing to accept criticism. To what extent you allow it to actually change your work is something you will work out over time. When I managed editorial for my college and was contributing stories, my proofreader—also a fabulous writer on the side, by the way—often pointed out where she would make phrasing changes (as well as just catching errors), and I knew when the suggestions were spot on and when they were simply style preferences.

Even if you decide at some point to make writing a part of your career but not the main focus of it, strong writers are in demand in every field. Best of luck to you in developing your skill and your style. Have fun with it!

Alice Foster recommends the following next steps:

  • Find ways to make your writing available to others: Start a blog, join the staff of your college newspaper or magazine, or post fan lit. Read the comments but don’t take them personally. Some will be helpful and some will just be negative people who do not have as much talent as you do.
  • Set aside writing samples of which you are particularly proud. You will need to provide samples when you start looking for internships or a job, and sorting through everything you have written at that point could be overwhelming. Building your portfolio as you go ensures that you are presenting work that represents you well.

Elizabeth’s Answer

Updated Boise, Idaho

Hello, Paola!

This is a great question. I think the first thing you'll want to decide is what kind of writer you want to be. Are you interested in literary works like poetry, fiction, prose, etc.? If so, you'll want to major in something like English with a Writing Emphasis (that's what it was called at my school). This program will encompass lots of classes in literature and specific writing workshops.

If you're more interested in the journalism route like broadcasting, newspapers, magazines, etc., I would look at the Communications department. They often have a Journalism emphasis. These courses will be focused on formatting your articles for a different kind of reader. Additionally, you'll learn about mass communications and writing for broadcasting.

Either way you go, my advice is to always read as much as you can. The more you read, the better you'll write. Studying the greats will help you improve your craft.

Good luck!

  • Elizabeth

G. Mark’s Answer

Updated

Here's my experience as well as what others have told me. First, a famous author was once asked, "How do I become a writer," and the author essentially said, "You don't become a writer. You're born a writer and you can't help but write." The idea is that the mechanics and refinement are all honing an inner desire. A lot of work, to be sure, but if you really are a writer, you'll have a hard time resisting the compulsion to do that. Another teacher of mine answered the same question from me by telling me to look over the various writers' guides that give long lists of agencies and agents to send manuscripts to. Of all the submissions I've sent out, only a few provided rejections with concrete points for me to improve. These were far more valuable than kind words or even acceptances. Another thing I've learned is that if an instructor is making a living being an instructor for writing but not publishing themselves, they're not likely to be much use in advising students how to publish. They're probably much better at instructing students to be writing instructors. No slam on writing instructors -- they're absolutely necessary. It's just that no matter how great your plumber is, you don't go to your plumber for electrical advice.

First, take classes in writing. In the mechanics and the creative aspects. In college you may find advanced courses in various types of writing. Second, read a lot. Read classics and topical material. Study what you want to write about. Think of some of the great writers and see how much knowledge they bring to the table. Nothing ruins a story faster than factual BS that the author imagined much be true. People who know the material will throw it in the trash or use it as parody material. Third, listen to lots of people speak. My best instructors said, "Show -- don't tell." Massive exposition is clunky and not emotionally investing. Have your characters say what they mean and think and feel. The best stories I've read have had great dialogue. The characters themselves may not even know what they're talking about. But they mean what they say, and you know what they believe. Make people real. A story with a "bad guy" who is simply "the evil person" and a "good guy" is boring. Make characters have true motivations for doing whatever it is they do, whether good or stupid. Figure out why someone would feel a need to do something cruel or evil, no matter how screwed-up their reasoning might be.

And here's a kick. Read stories about people doing dumb and bad stuff and spend time figuring out why they may have done it. It makes for delicious conflicts in stories. And then think of people doing great stuff and try to figure out how much doubt or flaws or impure motives they may have had along the way. Perfect heroes are borrrrrrrrrrring.

So there's the thing. First, compulsion -- you have it or you don't. Second, the grunt work of learning the mechanics of writing. Third, the grunt work of looking for criticism and rejection. Fourth, understand who your characters are. Write a "bible" -- their history and motivation. Get to know them. They will automatically speak through you and tell their story, because it's their responsibility, not yours. Sound weird? You'll see it happening as your characters take on a life.


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