Was a writing degree really worth it?

Writer's Life / Sunday, February 24th, 2019

I think one of the questions I see and hear most often for writers is whether it’s necessary to formally study writing in order to be a writer. Some people seem afraid that they’re unqualified, or that no one will take their book query seriously if their educational background isn’t tied to the craft of writing. Others scoff at the idea of a writing degree. “Reading and writing is all you need to study the craft,” they say.

As if you wouldn’t do any of that in a classroom setting.

When it came time for me to start filling out college applications, I wondered the same thing. Back then, the only writing I had under my belt was a few articles in my high school newspaper, some cringe-worthy poetry published in the high school literary arts magazine, the godawful novel I wrote in middle school, and the marginally less awful novel I wrote in high school. None of my short stories made it into the lit mag because, well, they were garbage. And there was no chance of them getting any better because — even though I was on the magazine’s editorial staff — there was no critique discussion.

In hindsight, that was probably one of the biggest reasons I chose to study writing in college. I wrote plenty on my own, but only one other person read any of it. While he gave me a lot of valuable feedback, I knew my creative writing was still a dumpster fire. And in my mind, if you want to get better at something, you find someone to teach you.

So why get a degree instead of joining a club or a local writers group?

Prior to leaving Williamsburg, Virginia, I had no inkling of the writing community there. I was very late to the social media game. While my friends left their lovingly created MySpace pages in favor of Facebook, and then rushed over to Twitter, my family finally went from dial-up to ethernet. Even if I had gotten to Facebook before senior year of high school, social media then wasn’t what it is now. I still might not have known about RavenCon, the James River Writers Association, or Agile Writers.

After landing in Savannah, Georgia, for college, I did stumble upon some of the local writing community via Seersucker Live. I mostly found people older than me with stable careers and completed manuscripts. There was still a deep chasm between where I was and where everyone else seemed to be, and no hints as to how to cross it.

I think I knew my problem back then. Sure I had loads of ideas and characters rolling around in my brain, but my writing was crap. I needed structure. More importantly, I needed feedback to have any hope of improving my writing.

More than that, I hoped to get that all-important day job in the writing industry. The curriculum for the writing undergraduate degree at Savannah College of Art and Design focuses on building a writing portfolio that will, in theory, help you get employed as a writer, as well as pitching pieces for publication. I wanted that, so becoming a writing student and earning a writing degree made sense for me.

What were the classes like?

The curriculum has changed some since I graduated in 2015, but the breakdown of SCAD’s writing bachelor of fine arts degree is available online for interested parties. Since it is an art school, and I attended partly because I am a visual artist, I enjoyed the foundation arts studies. I learned the elements of design and color theory. I made everything from still lifes to sculptures, digital drawings to videos. And loads of paintings.

I was fortunate to barely pass the test to exempt me from taking any math classes at all during college. Instead, I took astronomy. It was great. Took photos of the moon, nebulae, planets and stars with a telescope in the Canary Islands. We also ended each class with a video describing new and horrific ways reality could collapse on itself or any minute astronomical phenomenon could end life as we know it. And I took more art history classes than I know what to do with.

All that’s well and good, but probably not what you’re here for. But that experience as my general education is part of what sets SCAD apart from the many liberal arts schools people often ask why I didn’t attend (particularly in conversations about my alma mater’s price tag). It’s also worth noting that my college has smaller class sizes than I think most people are familiar with. My largest class had 30 people, and my smallest had seven.

This writing curriculum was exactly what I needed. True, my dream was to have a career based on writing fiction and novels. But with that hefty price tag I mentioned came a lot of student loans; I needed a reliable career to pay them off. And if I could still do that with writing, fantastic!

These are some of the classes I took as part of my major curriculum:

  • Writing for the Arts – a course on how to write nonfiction analyses of artistic experiences, including music and visual art
  • Business and Professional Writing – projects included resumes, cover letters, professional correspondence on behalf of a company, white papers, and presentations
  • News Writing and Editing – a course on journalism; each piece we wrote for class was recommended to be sent to the online student newspaper
  • Writing for New Media – a course on writing for the web, including online magazines and blogs; a course-long project was to maintain a blog that would be subject to peer critiques
  • Nonfiction Writing I and II – courses on writing memoir, personal essays, and creative nonfiction pieces
  • Fiction Writing I, II, and III – courses on the elements of fiction, conflict, character, setting; in each class, we wrote three short stories and participated in massive peer-led verbal critiques
  • Writing Portfolio – the final writing course, centered on curating a professional portfolio, familiarizing yourself with your resources and network, refining pieces with the goal of seeking publication for them, writing queries, and culminating in a mock job interview; students had to find a real job posting, send it to the professor, then submit the required resume and cover letter to the professor and do the job interview in front of the rest of the class

When I took News Writing and Editing, a classmate was on the staff of the student news site. She convinced me to write a review of a play performed by students in the Performing Arts department. That article led to me becoming a regular staff writer, then the Student Life section editor (for a brief time), and finally Chief Copy Editor. And I got to be on the editorial staff of Port City Review, the college literary arts magazine. So far, that remains the one place I have a piece of fiction published.

Great, but was it worth it?

Sometimes I’m not so sure. I’ve got $15,000 in student loan debt. My college’s obsession with having a branded image before you get into the working world led to a lot of creative burnout. The pressure to do well and get a job within a year of graduation gave me severe depression and anxiety; there’s a reason students say SCAD stands for “Sleep Comes After Death.”

But I did get a job offer to work as a public relations writer within days of my commencement ceremony. I made some great friends during the nearly two years I was there, and I got to meet and interview various red carpet celebrities and industry leaders all before the age of 25. And the toxic environment affected my physical and mental health. Those two years remain the darkest parts of my life.

But then I got to work for a small magazine. I manage business social media pages. And thanks to one of my freelance writers, I even got to write a couple pieces for South magazine. So I get to write for a living, and I can sometimes afford to travel back to Virginia to attend RavenCon and AWCon.

As for my fiction, it’s no longer garbage. I haven’t written a short story in ages, but I’ve been preoccupied with revising the novel I wrote in college. And in that novel, I can recognize where my writing needs work. Usually I can tell what the problem is, too. And I know which parts are absolute dynamite. So when my book is ready to seek representation and publication, I’m comfortable writing a query. I have publishing credentials. And I’ve got a hell of network of supportive writers to help when I inevitably face rejection.

I can’t say for sure whether I’d have any of that if it wasn’t for my writing degree. Sure, it came with debt, psychological turmoil, and mental illness. I also hid it in my closet for the past year because, for a while, it reminded me too much of that really dark time in my life. But my writing wouldn’t be what it is today if I hadn’t studied. Neither would my confidence in my craft. So, for me, my writing degree was worth it.

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