As a soon-to-be-graduate from an English program, I feel moderately qualified to give some advice to youngsters about embark on or early in their college career. More and more I'm meeting freshmen and students recently accepted to the English department who tell me, "I'm going to be a writer." Kudos, I'm on the same page, but sometimes it feels like they haven't really thought this career decision through. They seem to think it's an obvious, easy decision. To be honest, saying that you're going to be a writer is the wrong attitude to begin with. Either you are a writer or you aren't-- being published or paid doesn't determine that.
Here's some candid advice from someone who is about to face the big scary world with the degree you're going for.
1. Taking English classes alone do not prepare you to be a novelist: Taking creative writing classes and workshops are a great way to hone your skills. You can get great feedback from your professors and fellow students which can be incredibly valuable. In class you learn techniques and theory that are important foundations for good writing. However, if you never do any writing outside of class, there's little hope of you achieving much professionally. It's hard to make a living writing five short stories or ten poems a semester. It's when you're not writing for an assignment, but harnessing the skills you developed in class, that you can take the time to experiment creatively.
2. Writing a novel is not part of an English BA program: Very few English programs actually have writing a novel as part of the curriculum. Most undergrads don't write novels while in college. It is a time-consuming process that few students can make room for in their busy schedules. NaNoWriMo is great fun, but most of what you end up writing probably won't be usable, not without heavy editing. I organized my own independent study to allow myself the time to really focus on drafting a novel while still a student and got academic credit for all my work.
3. Writing is hard: I feel like I don't need to say this, but apparently I do. Writing a novel is a lot of long hours of thankless work and frustration. A first draft is not a finished novel either. You must toil through edits and revisions for more thankless hours. No one's first draft is publishable. Not really.
4. Selling your writing is even harder, so educate yourself: Hooray! You've completed something that you are proud of and that others have given you strong feedback on. Now you have to begin the brutal task of writing queries and summaries, sending out to agents and/or publishers. Yes, self-publishing is an option, but not an easier option. If you want to be a self-publishing success you have to be willing to put a lot of time and effort into it; basically you have to be your own marketing and sales team. Whatever route you choose, you have to understand social networking, the publishing industry, and what market you're entering. Do your research. You should be as well versed in your chosen profession as a surgeon is in theirs.
5. You don't have to be a writer: If you think you must be a writer simply because you love reading and language and aren't sure what else to do with yourself and your English degree; you're wrong. There are so many other options out there for you. Yes, there is always teaching. There's also library sciences, copy editing, marketing, technical writing. You can go on to a complimentary Masters program, English is a great starter degree if you want to move on to study law, another humanities field, or social sciences.
After all that, if you still do want to be a writer, if in fact you can't help yourself, here are a few tips that have been helpful to me:
Read everything: I mean, within reason. So you want to be a fantasy writer, that doesn't mean you can't learn about characterization, thematic arcs, and strong writing from historical fiction, commercial fiction, or 18th century satire. Don't pigeon-hole yourself. You might be struck with inspiration for a story in a genre you've never even considered before. It might be your masterpiece.
Explore things beyond the English department: I like to say that writers should know a little bit about everything. People don't want to just read novels about other people reading novels. If that's all you know of life, you won't have much material. Go to an art gallery, a rock concert, read a psychology journal, talk to a stranger in a bar (but be safe guys), go hiking, do something that scares you.
Travel: One of the best things that happened to me was getting out of my home community. Along with the above tip, travelling is a great way to gather material and get outside your sphere of understanding. Travel in the country, out of the country, anywhere. Again, unless you're going to set every story in the town you grew up, you need to see what else is out there. Even if you are going to write about the area you're from, sometimes it's easier to put it in perspective when you're away from home.
Have a social life: It's really easy to think that if you spend all of your off-hours in front of your laptop (or in true vintage style, typewriter) that it will be the most effective way to be successful. Those work hours are very important, but it's okay to have a social life. In fact, though many hours are spent in solitary confinement when you're working on a project, writing is still a surprisingly social profession, or at least it can be. Meeting with other writers and discussing your work can be really useful. Meeting with other people and discussing almost anything can help relieve some of your work anxiety.
Carry a notebook always: Always be prepared to write down any sudden ideas. Inspiration can strike anywhere-- on the subway, in the grocery store, while having lunch with friends. Don't be afraid of looking neurotic. Scribbling furiously in public can only help in giving people the impression you're a serious writer, after all.
Write something: Even if it's not up to scratch yet, write. Have a brilliant idea? Take the time to work on it. Don't wait until you're graduated to finally put pen to paper. Use your college years to make a start at finding your voice. Take random prompts, go to local writing groups. Just do it. Don't wait until you're "good enough" or else you will never get the practice you need to be good. You will write some crap. Everyone does, but you'll get better and you might even find that in a bad story, there's a good character or a great bit of dialogue that can be salvaged for something else later.
Best wishes fellow writers. I'll see you on the other side.