5 Literature Degree Lessons in 5 Paragraphs
by Daniel Parsons
When many unpublished writers first consider penning a book, they believe that they need to be qualified in some way to make it happen. Even before they seek validation from a traditional publishing house, they look for “writing experts” to deem them ready to write like a published author.
Universities make millions from Creative Writing and English Literature courses in which professors dissect students’ work. At the end of it, those students leave having traded a small fortune and several years of their time for a certificate “proving” that they are qualified to write. And then they discover that publishing companies and the wider reading public have other ideas.
As someone who has lived through this harrowing realisation, I can tell you that, like the publishing process, writing a book does not require validation from so-called experts. A Literature degree can help you hone your craft, yes. But if you’re not interested in the student experience (weeknight parties and waking up late), and you only want a degree or an MFA so you can write good books, your money and effort is much better spent writing, followed by paying a professional editor to help you fix your specific issues.
Not convinced? Allow me to outline the five major lessons I learned from a traditional Literature degree that you can just as easily learn on the job.
1. KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE IS CRITICAL
Some of my professors at university didn’t like my writing style. One said it was “too cinematic” and focused too much on plot over characterisation. These are valid critical comments which I took on board and addressed in order to pass their classes. However, having written eight books and sold several thousand, I can tell you that many of my fiction readers would disagree.
Many fantasy readers want fast-paced, swashbuckling plots. Likewise, a tendency to write cinematic fiction makes an author more commercial because it means their work is easier to adapt for screen. Sure, some want deep characters, but it depends on the reader’s preferences. Just as romance readers want a happily ever after and military sci-fi enthusiasts want technical descriptions of weapons, the university in general wanted depth and meaning, even if that meant slowing the plot.
What I learned from this is that my teachers weren’t teaching me to write in a general sense; they were teaching me to write literary fiction. It was fun to learn how to write that style but learning the craft of literary fiction isn’t necessary to be a successful novelist. Not all lecturers are the same but, in my experience, their general preferences leaned towards high literature. Your readers probably won’t. Chances are, if you’re already reading in the genre you want to write, you already know what elements of a story would appeal to your target readership.
2. PRACTICE TRUMPS LEARNING
Despite paying thousands for a degree, Literature students spend far less time in lectures than you would expect. When I studied at university, I was scheduled 12 hours of lectures and seminars a week – and part of those hours included feedback from fellow students, with lecturer supervision. The rest of my week was supposed to be dedicated to honing my craft in my free time.
That’s because the theory of writing is easy. Can you follow story structure guidelines? Sure! What about crafting electric dialogue and giving each character a unique voice? Easy, in theory. And punctuating complex exposition so that the facts are clear while making every scene enjoyable? Umm…
No amount of book learning will expose all of your personal crutches and weaknesses as a writer. That will only happen when you actually write a book, run into problems and revise your work (and then, when you hand it to someone else, find out that you have even more problems you didn’t consider).
Again, this progression can be achieved much faster by hiring an editor than by sitting in a seminar where a tutor’s attention is split between 15 or so students. No, you won’t get the consensus of classmates’ opinions, but you will get more questions answered that apply specifically to your work.
3. YOU NEED A THICK SKIN
According to his book On Writing, Stephen King writes his first drafts with his office door closed. He does this because he doesn’t want premature feedback derailing his ideas and ruining his productivity. Makes sense, right? Absolutely. But once the book has been written, he allows other people to read his work and offer their opinions. And if Stephen King needs feedback, so do you!
One thing you learn quickly while on a Literature degree is that everyone around you has an opinion. Your lecturers will break down everything you write but they will also ask the class for their two cents on what you’ve written. All the while, you resist the urge to defend yourself and try to take their criticism onboard.
Now I’m not saying all opinions are created equally. Your romance-loving grandmother isn’t the best person to go to for feedback on your time-travelling buddy cop adventure. But as a professional writer, you will come up against criticism that is in-part valid. The key is to learn how to identify what to use and what to ignore. In a university setting, it’s generally the class consensus. If two opinions are opposed, the most valid response is the one that most people who read in your genre agree is right.
As a working writer, you will discover this consensus by scouring your reader reviews on bookseller websites. You will get hurtful feedback at some point. They key is to remain calm and look at the person providing it with an objective eye. Often, they are right, and you can get better by listening to what they have to say.
4. CONSISTENCY IS KEY
As students, most people have pulled all-nighters or crammed work the night before a deadline. Not everyone does, though. There are a handful of students at university who work consistently throughout the year. Not only are they more relaxed when it comes to deadline week but they also tend to get higher grades across the board. At least, that’s what I discovered. And when I adopted this approach in my third year, my marks improved by 10% despite working less in the days before a deadline!
Newbie writers are often similarly guilty of procrastination, labouring over a book for years when they could have finished it in weeks, simply because they work in infrequent bursts. Multiple far-reaching studies of high-earning authors indicate that writing success is closely linked to working consistently and maintaining a rigid schedule to build an avid readership. Indeed, just look at National Novel Writing Month and you will see the amazing feats people can achieve when they’re consistent. When motivated to string together back-to-back writing days, thousands write a whole novel in a month every November. You can perform this well every month. You just have to be consistent.
5. YOUR PEERS AREN’T YOUR COMPETITION
One influential factor that separates those who thrive at university from those who flounder is the ability to make friends. Indeed, student life nurtures a strong sense of camaraderie. Sociable students are typically happier, meaning they stick the course. But, more than that, they also tend to perform better. Instead of seeing their classmates as competition, those who collaborate tend to get better grades because they are able to draw upon one another’s strengths, and this truth is mirrored in the writing world.
You don’t have to lurk in the community for long to discover that writers are a collaborative bunch. Those who close off their social circle to “protect” their ideas often find themselves struggling. Likewise, those who network online or in person become community pillars. Being generous with their time and knowledge leads to other writers championing their work: recommending their books in their newsletters, asking them to contribute to anthologies, pooling their marketing resources. Essentially, the success of writers who share doesn’t divide; it multiplies.
The purpose of this post isn’t to deter you from taking a Literature degree. You can learn all of these lessons and more by taking a good one. Its purpose is simply to prove that you can become a successful, published author by seizing matters yourself, learning on the job and pivoting quickly whenever you make a mistake. You don’t need someone else to give you a piece of paper that tells you that you have talent and potential. The talent and potential have been inside you all along.
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