The simplest and truest answer to the question of how to become a writer is this: write.
Writers write. It’s the defining characteristic of the breed. It’s the advice that you will hear from almost every writing workshop, every published author, every coach and guru. Nothing more is required and nothing less is necessary for anyone who feels the impulse to become a writer.
Yet writers are in constant search of shortcuts. Everyone wants to know the secrets of great authors. People who feel pulled to writing want to understand what it takes, and what it means, to be a real writer.
Still, professional writers consistently offer the same answer:
The good news is that there are no secrets to becoming a writer, or even a creative writer. You’ll be committing to those same two disciplines to become a writer, no different from King, the Brontë sisters, Shakespeare, and every other writer you’ve ever respected or heard of.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Learn How to Become a Creative Writer in Your State
The Formula for Becoming a Writer Is a Simple One… Which Only Leads to More Questions
Becoming a writer is a surprisingly popular ambition, though it’s hard to put exact numbers on it. In 2021, Yale University reported a record number of enrollments in their creative writing programs. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs has grown from 12 member schools in 1967 to over 500 today. Those programs regularly fill up.
A lot of people want to become writers. If it were easy, of course, more of those people would be collecting royalties on bestsellers, and fewer would be asking Google how to become a writer.
The real obstacle may be a lack of clarity in the question.
In Douglas Adams’ science-fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he writes of a vast supercomputer designed specifically to calculate the ultimate answer to “life, the universe, and everything.” After millions of years of calculation, it arrives at an answer: 42.
If learning that the answer to becoming a writer is just to read and write seems unsatisfactory, it’s time to take a closer look at the question itself.
Like the scientists in Hitchhiker’s, it turns out that you first need to ask a different question:
How Do You Define What a Writer Is?
Nearly everyone can write. But that doesn’t make everyone a writer. Nobel-prize winning author and playwright Thomas Mann might have put it best:
It’s harder for writers to write because writers are people who take writing more seriously. While the average person might think nothing of dashing off a text message or jotting a quick note, a writer will agonize, analyze, and revise even the most trivial bits of writing. Writers are people who understand the gravity of the written word.
It’s a hazardous business to try to sort out people who write from people who are writers. Almost everyone draws that line a little differently, basing it on factors such as:
But most writers themselves don’t care much about how other people define what it takes to be a writer. You know what your writing goal is; you just want to know how to achieve it.
That common point is what we’ll use here as the definition of a writer: being a writer means being someone who is serious about their writing goals.
Are Writers Born or Made?
It’s a constant debate in the literary community. Are writers born or made? Do you need to emerge from the womb with the seeds of talent planted in you, or is skill in writing acquired through preparation and study? Nature versus nurture.
There’s no scientific answer to the question, but you can take a scientific perspective based on many other fields of expertise that have been extensively studied. And that tells us that it’s probably both. Everyone comes to the table with a certain genetic talent toward storytelling and composition, large or small.
But as the prime directive of becoming a writer suggests, whatever that talent is, it must be nurtured to full bloom through training and practice. The most gifted long-distance runners in the world have many fixed traits that enable them to be great. But the ones who genuinely become great are those that work the hardest, train the longest, push themselves the most.
Writers are born and made. You can’t control the first part of that equation. But the second is entirely up to you.
The Many Different Kinds of Writing Make For Many Paths To Becoming a Writer
Your writing goals may be very different depending on what kind of writer you hope to become. A stellar investigative journalist has different techniques to master, different tools to use, and different venues for their writing than an aspiring poet laureate.
One of the amazing things about writing, and particularly creative writing, is that it’s impossible to definitively categorize. New forms, outlets, styles, and genres are invented constantly. That’s what creativity means!
In the broadest strokes, however, it’s possible to divide the kingdom of writing into three classes of writer:
There are no hard and fast dividing lines even among those categories, however. Professional writers may also use creative writing extensively in their work; academic writers may be producing their work professionally as well.
But becoming a writer in any of those categories may involve a very different path from either of the others.
How To Become a Professional Writer
For every type of writing profession, there’s a number of paths that can lead to the same destination. Professional writers can be:
…or experts in many other specialized niches.
It’s most common to earn degrees in English or the specialist role itself, such as journalism. But many of these writers also get started without a formal degree, or with an education in areas like business or technology, developing their writing chops along the way.
Creative writing degrees also offer benefits in many of these roles. Creativity allows professional writers new options and new tools for getting the attention of their audience and for communicating important concepts and ideas through their work. Some of the most successful professional writers use creative techniques to engage and inform their audience.
How To Become an Academic Writer
Most academic writers emerge from the academy itself. They are scholars and students first, professional researchers and experts within their own fields who learn to put pen to paper and transfer their knowledge to others.
This means academic writing itself rarely delivers a paying career path. Most academic writers are educators first. The limited audience for specialized academic writing means that even work sold for publication rarely sells widely.
That doesn’t mean it is unimportant, however. The craft of taking the most advanced ideas in science, history, social studies, or any other scholastic discipline is among the most critical in our society. New theories are advanced by academic writers; new technologies and science are advanced by their efforts.
Becoming an academic writer usually first means advancing in the field of knowledge you wish to write in. But academic writers benefit from writing degrees as well, even creative writing degrees. The concepts of structure, tone, and clarity can all be used effectively in academic writing as well as creative writing.
How To Become a Creative Writer
Creative writing has the lowest barriers to entry because of its broad definition. Anyone can be a creative writer; in fact, any writer who doesn’t fall into any other category and exercises their imagination and inspiration to write is by definition a creative writer.
Creative writers don’t have to be published, employed, or widely read to be writers. As long as they find ways to express themselves through writing, they can proudly wear the title.
But most creative writers do write in order to be read. They may use their skills in other categories of writing, working as copywriters or journalists even as they develop their own work independently.
Making the Jump Between Writing Categories Requires Commitment
Jim Lynch got his paychecks reporting the political beat for the Seattle Times. But every morning, before working his sources and chasing down leads at the state capitol, he would rise early and work on his passion project: a novel about a boy who discovers an array of exotic sea life washed ashore on his local beach and the media storm and natural wonder that consume him.
The Highest Tide became a bestseller in the United States and United Kingdom and won the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Award. The novel was translated into ten different languages and sold worldwide. Lynch dropped his job as a reporter and went on to exercise his imagination in other works such as Truth Like the Sun and Before the Wind.
But his work in journalism was still an important part of his success as a novelist. In addition to putting food on the table, his political reporting influenced the story of Truth Like the Sun and book reviews have noted that he “…observes like a journalist and writes like a poet.”
Combining creative writing ambitions with other kinds of writing careers pays dividends of this sort for many people who want to be writers.
Creative writers may self-publish, seek traditional publishing deals, or even deliver their work for free on the internet. The nature of creative writing doesn’t place boundaries on how it can or should be experienced. It’s entirely up to the writer how to make their vision available.
Although the flexibility of creative writing makes it the most accessible path to becoming a writer, the challenge of doing it well can also make it the hardest. No credentials are needed to become a creative writer. But a serious education is the surest way to become one.
The Many Skills to Master in Becoming a Writer Makes the Need to Earn a Degree Nearly Non-Negotiable
No matter what kind of writer you want to be, there are some basic skills you will need to develop to get there.
For many reasons, most of the advice you get about becoming a writer is going to be good. It may or may not work for you personally, but it has likely worked for many people at many times—otherwise they wouldn’t be talking about it.
It’s better to look at the skills you’ll need to become a writer first. There may be many ways to acquire them, but these are all things you will have to be able to accomplish in order to be a serious writer.
Writers Must Communicate Clearly
One absolute requirement is that you must be able to write so that you are understood.
The basic ability to create sentences, paragraphs, and pages in an orderly way that gets ideas across is a non-negotiable skill for writers.
For some people, this comes naturally. For others, it can be a struggle. Basic English writing skills are some of those that are best learned in a classroom, with professional instructors. It’s almost impossible to improve without feedback.
Writers Have To Read Widely
Writers all stand on the shoulders of giants. Developing a sense of style and an ear for what appeals to the audience is only possible through an intensive study of other written works. Equally important is a love of the written word.
Reading at once equips the writer with a catalog of the finest examples of the art, informs them on an ocean of different subjects, and serves as a barometer of their own dedication to the craft.
Reading widely and intently is an almost universal introduction to the love of language that informs most writing careers. While some authors avoid reading other works while they are actively working on one of their own, you won’t find good writers who haven’t immersed themselves in other texts over the years.
What most writing advice leaves out is often the most important part: having interesting things to write about.
Whether it’s driving an ambulance near the front line in the First World War, like Hemingway, or spending time as a tramp, a sailor, and joining in on the Klondike Gold Rush like Jack London, you’ll find that some of the greatest writers have had the most interesting lives. Even writers who haven’t spent time in such classical adventures have often had fascinating experiences within the spheres they wrote most vividly about. Jane Austen was immersed in the 19th century domestic dramas that informed her novels.
Even writers of the fantastic draw on real-life experiences to bring their work alive. Anne Rice’s stories would have suffered had she not been raised in New Orleans or hadn’t experienced Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco during the birth of the hippie movement.
Writers who can write within the realm of their experience find fuel there for the imagination. So on top of the technical mastery you must earn, find the time to live a life that you will want to write about.
Writers Learn To Handle Rejection
Writers must learn to handle rejection. There will be a lot of it in any kind of serious writing career.
Emily Dickinson proved it’s not utterly impossible to become a great writer without seriously seeking publication, but even she sent off a few works to face the harsh judgement of editors from time to time.
The continuous process of developing ideas and improving writing means that you will produce plenty of bad text alongside your occasional gems over the years. It’s important to surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to point this out. That’s the only way to improve it.
Equally important is developing the instinctive knack of incorporating good feedback while discarding the bad. In matters of taste and vision, a writer must remain true to themselves.
Writers Need to Hold the Attention of Readers
Writers must be able to turn a phrase. Putting words together into sentences that inform and entertain the reader is an age-old problem. Writers mainly write to be read, and few have the luxury of a captive audience.
Even the most obscure passages penned by James Joyce incorporate a kind of poetic reverberation that resounds in the mind’s ear despite his exotic and ungrammatical prose style.
Fortunately, creative writing programs offer an age-old solution: the study and use of literary devices and structure to surprise and delight. Students pick apart both the standard tropes and structures that may be used as shortcuts to the reader’s comprehension, and look at conventions particular to different genres and how they can either subvert or enhance story.
Writers Must Edit Viciously
No writer gets it right on the first try. Although it’s important to get professional editing from someone else, every writer must master the brutal trade of slashing their own work down to the bone first. It is painful and unbearable to craft a perfect sentence or scene only to realize that it doesn’t serve the overall story. Real writers must learn to wield the knife quickly and capably against even their finest text when it is not a necessary part of the larger work.
The kind of regular workshopping and revisions that are part of a creative writing degree help turn this painful process into a vital skill.
Writers Understand the Business of Writing and Publishing
You don’t need to be driven by visions of publication and being widely read in order to be a writer. But many writers are. Even those with less concern for popularity generally have other concerns or motivations that require being attuned to the business of writing:
This is the part of being a writer that takes most prospective writers by surprise. It’s also one of the hardest aspects to learn about without some sort of formal introduction. Many writers find out the hard way that the world of law and business doesn’t always play nicely with creativity and imagination. But creative writing degrees put you together with published authors and industry professionals who can show you the ropes.
A Creative Writing Degree Offers the Comprehensive Education Needed To Become a Writer
A proven path to developing all those different skills needed to become a serious writer is through degree programs in creative writing. The list of best-selling and critically acclaimed writers who have come out of such programs is long and constantly growing:
This may not seem to make much sense, considering the low barriers to entry for becoming a writer. For many writers, no one will ever ask to see a diploma. Book jackets don’t prominently list the degree credentials of their authors, and book reviews don’t mention them. Would those writers have achieved acclaim even without a degree?
Many successful authors credit their success to the discipline and resilience they developed through college degree programs in writing.
But like any profession, a systematic approach to learning the skills and mastering them under the guidance of expert educators brings many benefits to the process of becoming a writer.
Writing degree programs offer another benefit that is sometimes overlooked: community. As a trade that is solitary by nature, writing doesn’t come with the built-in social circles and network that are part and parcel of many careers. But writers, like any other professional, benefit from friends, feedback, and trade contacts.
Earning a creative writing degree puts you together with other students on the same path, and helps you build writing community contacts that may last you a lifetime.
A formal degree is far from the only path to becoming a writer. But it’s one that has high standards, proven results, and offers concrete steps to improvement.
Why a Creative Writing Degree Offers the Best All-purpose Education for Becoming a Writer
There are many different majors available today that are available to writers pursuing their craft:
Creative writing is both on that list of generally related English degrees, but also an area of study that can help any writer improve their style and technical skills in any field.
All writing can be creative.
The types of skills that are taught in creative writing degrees can be applied to almost any kind of writing. Whether journalism or technical writing, the basics of building clear, memorable sentences and paragraphs into larger and more coherent pieces of writing remain the same. An imaginative turn of phrase, a clear understanding of voice and tone, good grammatical and vocabulary skills, and other essential abilities of the writing trades are developed in creative writing studies.
Just as important is the emphasis that creative writing degree programs place on reading and analysis of many different kinds of works. Unlike other English or specialized writing programs, creative writing studies open up broad vistas of exploration for students. No matter your destination in the field of writing, you’ll find new ideas sparked when exploring forms like memoirs, poetry, flash fiction, travel writing, journalism, novels, and screenplays.
Understanding what makes each different form and genre compelling will aid you in building your own monuments to the glory of the written word.
Finally, creative writing programs are well-known for the intensive volumes of writing that students complete. As you now know, writers write. And you will have plenty of writing to do in your degree program, polishing your style and technique with every revision.
The feedback you’ll get from professors and fellow students helps hone every assignment. So not only do you get a lot of writing practice, but you accelerate how quickly you build the habits and techniques you need to improve.
Concentrations in Creative Writing Tailor Your Studies to Your Needs
Creative writing may be offered as a concentration within an English degree program. You may also find concentrations within creative writing programs that align them more closely with your personal writing goals.
As a major steeped in the arts, most creative writing programs offer a great deal of customization or uniquely creative approaches to a writing education.
Creative writing programs also offer unique approaches to teaching, and some programs even earn a reputation for a particular style or subject. A program might have a strong focus in areas such as:
This is particularly true at the master’s degree level, where small program sizes and strong influence by a handful of faculty shape unique kinds of creative writing education.
Different Degree Levels in Creative Writing Offer Options to Writers From Any Background
Just as there are no one-size-fits-all paths to becoming a writer, there is no single level of degree that everyone requires to achieve that goal. Colleges offer creative writing programs at every level of education. Any prospective writer can find an education option to fit their availability, budget, and depth of experience.
Certificates in Creative Writing
Short certificate programs in creative writing are available at both the general and the post-baccalaureate levels. These programs set aside the kind of general education requirements that degrees include to focus exclusively on the art of writing. They may also have a specific focus, such as in fiction, non-fiction, or teaching writing. While the coursework tends to be more set in stone than in degree programs, the variety of different types of certificates makes it easy to find one meeting your specific writing goals.
Associate Degrees in Creative Writing
Two years of study at a university or community college are enough to earn you an associate degree in the field. Split roughly half between general education requirements and English and writing courses, these credits allow these two-year programs to serve as a transfer degree toward a full bachelor’s degree. They offer good coverage of the basic elements of grammar and story-telling, with some elective options in professional communications.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Creative Writing
A four-year BA or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in creative writing is where creative writing studies really start to get exciting. Although they also have significant requirements in liberal arts and the humanities, those kinds of classes complement your writing education by expanding your knowledge of the arts and sciences. You will have far more elective options in writing, and often the option of picking a concentration. At higher levels, small seminar-style courses will offer a preview of master’s-level studies in creative writing.
Master’s Degrees in Creative Writing
The MFA, or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, is the most significant degree program offered in the field. Other school offer Master’s in Writing or Master’s in English that may deliver a creative writing focus as well. Master’s-level studies offer the deepest exploration of creative writing concepts and the most individual attention from instructors. They are conducted almost exclusively in workshop or seminar style classes. They have a strong emphasis on your own writing and developing highly polished and publishable works over the course of the two years these degrees take to complete.
The Rise of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
The MFA in Creative Writing has become massively influential in the world of both amateur and professional writing. As the terminal degree in the field, it is as high as you can advance in education with an exclusive focus on the craft of writing. The MFA focuses on the artistic aspects of writing rather than the academic or critical analysis of it—it’s designed to make writers.
The Creative Writing MFA is a relatively new development, however. The first in the nation was established in 1936 in Iowa, but by 1994, only 64 American colleges offered the degree.
Today that number is well over 300. More than 20,000 applicants compete to study under some of the top professors and visiting professional writers.
The competition has sparked a great deal of debate.
But many graduates have found success on their own terms. And many MFA programs offer fully-funded positions, creating a kind of stipend to give writers that most precious gift: time to write.
Doctoral Degrees in Creative Writing
PhD studies in creative writing are designed to prepare graduates for academic and research roles. They frequently combine an in-depth study of literature and a systematic examination of creative writing techniques, rather than the development of personal writing skills. They offer a great deal of customization around individual writing and study goals, however. Including the time required to write a doctoral dissertation, it can take six or more years to complete a PhD in Creative Writing.
Online Creative Writing Degree Options Put a Writing Education on the Table for Any Student
Although creative writing degrees are important for plugging aspiring writers into a writing community, they also work well in online formats. Because so much of the work in writing programs is individual, it’s easy to adapt coursework to remote formats. In fact, even many on-campus programs have a fairly limited number of meetings.
Online degrees will shift many of those meetings to a video conferencing format, while packaging workshops and other face-to-face encounters into time-limited on-campus or off-campus residencies. These low-residency format programs are a boon for anyone who has found the perfect program but doesn’t have the option to relocate to attend.
Creative Writing Degrees Offer Unique Benefits on the Path To Becoming a Writer
Any English degree will offer the ground-level basics of grammar, serious reading assignments, and literary analysis that help build writing skills. But creative writing programs embrace imagination and innovation in order to build inspiration. They come with a number of unique features in the college world that make them a preferred choice for serious writers.
Meaningful Mentorship From Published Authors
One-to-one interaction with faculty and advisors is a key piece of many creative writing programs. Writing is a subject that benefits from talking. The kind of direct feedback and advice you can get in these degree programs is invaluable in honing your writing skills and professional goals.
Influential professors and guest writers give students a chance to ask the real questions about inspiration, work ethic, publishing industry trends, and technique that solo writers may never find the answers to.
Significant Publication Opportunities
Particularly at the graduate level, creative writing programs often publish their own periodical literary magazines and develop affiliations with certain publishers who may work with students to polish and publish their work.
Although publication isn’t required to be a writer, it’s a key goal for many aspiring authors. For others, who plan to make a living by their words, developing a portfolio of published works offers a major advantage over trying to break into the industry on their own. Learning how to query, submit, and work within the publication process is a valuable education in the professional environment many writers aspire to join.
Big-name Guest Lecturers and Visiting Writers
Since creative writing programs are big on promoting reading, it’s no surprise that they also work to give students direct exposure to some of the accomplished writers of those works. Most creative writing degrees have occasional guest lectures from big-name authors who address some of the most burning questions students have about the writing process.
Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Orhan Pamuk, and George Saunders are among the critically-acclaimed authors who have taught or lectured at various creative writing degree programs.
Some degree programs come with even more involvement from outside authors via visiting writer or writer-in-residency schemes. These put active, critically-acclaimed writers on the faculty for a period of time. They serve as mentors, instructors, and exemplars of the kind of writing careers that students hope to build.
Remote Residency Programs and Workshops
As creative professionals, writers find inspiration in environments and situations that don’t resemble the typical office experience. To spark the imagination and liberate the soul, many creative writing programs send students off on unique residency experiences.
Residencies serve to immerse students in the craft and discipline of writing in peaceful or natural settings where they can focus and absorb. In some cases, the residencies are topical, with writers expected to explore themes related to wilderness, ecology, or community.
A Career-boosting Final Project to Get Your Portfolio Started
No writer walks away from a creative writing degree empty-handed. A strong portfolio follows graduates out the door, with the capstone placed by their culminating project.
This represents a highly polished, heavily workshopped, repeatedly revised piece of writing that is the peak of your ability in that moment. Many graduates have taken the heart of their final project and turned it into a publishable novel.
Elizabeth Kostova received a $2 million advance for her novel The Historian only a year after graduating with her MFA in Creative Writing.
Whether or not your final project becomes a great work of literature, it’s a ticket to getting query letters and literary agents to take your call.
What Matters Most in Becoming a Writer Is Your Determination
None of the features of a creative writing degree at any level are absolutely required in order to become a writer. But they all offer some advantages to smooth the path and help you reach your goals more quickly.
The real answer of how to become a writer involves finding a path to writing that works for you.
That’s not a question that anyone can answer for you. But it’s one that creative writing faculty, and even your fellow students, can help you find the answer to.