Top five tips from college writing days

Abandoned the math degree for writing in college? The lessons learned may add up to a fulfilling career.
By Megan Kaplan, editorial assistant | Published: September 27, 2013


educatorWe’ve all heard the discussions about the value of a formal writing education. After all, the economy’s not booming, print media no long reigns supreme, and some successful writers and editors argue that the characteristics that make a great writer can’t be taught. Yet students flock to creative writing and English programs, and you’re here visiting The Writer magazine’s website, all because we recognize the value that writing brings to our lives and the lives of our readers.

Halfway through college, I dropped my plan to pursue a career in mathematics and transferred into a creative writing program. I won’t consider here whether I’ll ever make back the cost of tuition, or if I could have been just as successful pursuing this career without that piece of paper indicating my completion of the writing, literature and publishing program at Emerson College (although I certainly wonder these things often). But I will acknowledge that the lessons I learned color the way I tackle my professional and personal life every day. Here are some of the big ones:

1. To create a work of significance, you must first experience life and discover your passions.

My professors said majoring in writing was not a thing “in their day.” People found a career, and then wrote on the side, allowing their expertise or interests to take their work where it would. Only if their writing ended up being very successful would they quit their original job and make writing a career.

The point they were trying to make was this: Writing about writing or writing about yourself will only get you so far. If you haven’t already committed to majoring in writing or English, maybe consider studying something that allows you to explore something you’re interested. Alternatively, if you’re set on majoring in writing, or you’ve already graduated, expand your frame of reference by traveling, volunteering, or honing another talent or activity, like playing in a band or hiking. Don’t expect your work of genius to happen in your early 20s either. Allow yourself time to mature and gather wisdom. Without these components, your work will only ever be half-formed.

2. The books you learn the most from are those you wouldn’t normally read.

You can only read so many crime novels before you’ve gleaned pretty much all the craft strategies you’re going to get from the genre. Make sure your reading list varies widely. Even if you only write and only enjoy reading nonfiction, the techniques and styles of fiction writers and poets will enrich your writing much more than just rereading similar nonfiction works over and over.

My writing and literature courses allowed me to experience a very broad spectrum of writing. While I had always considered myself fairly well-read, I always avoided poetry and plays. When I was forced to read them, I found there was much to be learned from each. From poetry, my sense of rhythm improved and from plays I learned to create believable and substantial dialogue. My comfortable favorites, novels and long-form creative nonfiction, had constructed my natural writing style, but the only way to improve beyond that was to reach outside my standard reading list, a practice I try to continue now even though no one is assigning these works to me.

3. Always have a community of writers or readers you can rely on to be your workshop.

Every major piece of writing I created in college was read by at least 15 of my peers and a professor, so I always had an abundance of feedback flowing in. But when I graduated and began working, only my editor ever saw my work before it went public. Even though she was excellent, my editor was only one person, and I missed the variety of voices and opinions my workshops had provided. I missed classmates who would be sure to call me out for my clichés and extravagance in language and make outrageous suggestions I never would have otherwise considered.

I will probably never have a panel of 15 editors again, but even just two or three additional eyes can help see past your own biases and shortcomings to create a better final draft, so find writers or readers you trust and are comfortable sharing your work with and listen to them when they make serious suggestions.

4. There’s no need to write about only what you have experienced.

You’ve heard the saying: Write what you know. Yes, don’t be ignorant, don’t make things up (unless you’re writing fantasy, then by all means), but always be willing to write something that didn’t stem directly from your life experience.

In college creative writing workshops, you dread the angsty memoir disguised as fiction, but there’s never a shortage of such works. As a mature writer, resign yourself to the fact that your childhood is not always the answer, even when you’re at a loss for writing ideas. Try doing some research on a topic or place you find interesting. Keep an open mind and see if anything provides you with a spark of inspiration.

5. Don’t let one person’s disapproval discourage you from pursuing a project.

At least one person in every workshop hates the piece that’s being discussed. Malcolm Gladwell could hand in a nonfiction essay to workshop, and someone would surely rip him to shreds. And that’s ok, because Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t have to please everyone, and neither do you.

In real life, also known as the world of a professional writer, people will reject your writing. They will criticize, and they will block your attempts to be heard, to be published. But you’ve heard the stories of how many times J.K. Rowling had to submit Harry Potter to publishers before someone finally said yes. Learning from criticism is key, but most importantly remember that to balance out the one kid in class who hated your work, there was another who thought you were the next big thing. The best writers can bounce back from rejection and continue to fight for their big opportunity.