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A Reader Asks for Some Advice

I recently received the following letter from a reader of this blog. With their permission, I’ve scrubbed some of the specifics and am posting it to solicit some broader advice.

* * *

I mentor a young man who wants to pursue a writing career. He shows promise in his writing but is reluctant to market his work.

He is a bright young man from a socioeconomically depressed situation. His potential definitely outstrips his circumstances. He is a home-schooled young adult in an overly controlling home. As the oldest of a large family, he is viewed as the family member who will become successful and change the course of his younger siblings.

We live in a rural area of the U.S. and the matriarchal hierarchy in this kid’s life is alive and well. Mama wants him to become a famous writer and see his name on the NYT best seller list. Grandma wants him to be a preacher. He is almost an adult and has not been allowed to pursue a driver’s license, a job ( other than mowing lawns) to have a cell phone, or to date. He is also not allowed to blog, unless mama can read everything he writes before he posts.

He is trying to make college plans and is determined to pursue an English degree, but is unwilling to consider anything beyond a bachelor’s degree. He is terrified of failing, and believes that because he loves reading and writing, English is the only route for him to take.

I am in a quandary. His reading background is primarily Stephen King and pop horror. His writing is mediocre…it has poignant, sweet, emotional moments but his lack of experience in general makes it stilted and forced.

I am writing this strange, rambling note to ask for your opinion. When does one encourage someone to pursue an English degree? When does one encourage someone to pursue a writing career? How realistic is it for a writing career to support a family in this day and age?


* * *

Definitely a complex situation! So what advice would you give this reader?

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{ 38 comments… add one }
  • Greg Mitchell October 18, 2013, 5:04 AM

    My first response would be: Don’t be a writer.

    Obviously, in his situation, “failure” is not an option and the only way he’s deemed a success is by hitting the NYT Bestseller list. Which is, frankly, just not going to happen. Writing, especially in the beginning, is nothing BUT failure. Your first book almost always sucks and agents turns you down, publishers reject you, etc. Even if you find a publisher, even if you get in stores, or even if you just decide to self-publish, there’s the stark realization that no one will buy your book. Oh sure, *some* people will buy your book, but not enough to make you feel like a “success”. I sold, like, 2,000 copies of my first novel immediately when it was first released and thought that was pretty good. I was just excited that more than my mother and wife read it! I ran into another author shortly thereafter who sold ten times as many copies and he felt like a complete failure.

    It’s all in perspective. If you’re getting into writing to make a fortune and become a celebrity then don’t do it. Find something else. Anything else. If you’re getting into writing simply because you HAVE to write–because you can’t shake that “feeling” that you’ve got a story to tell and you won’t be able to sleep that night unless you sneak a few more hours on the computer to write it all down–then go for it. But realize that “success” comes in telling your story and fulfilling that inner fire, NOT in selling millions of copies and being the next Stephen King.

    • J.S. Clark October 21, 2013, 2:19 PM

      Not sure if I should feel good that I keep writing because I “have to”, or if I should be depressed that your numbers are higher than mine.

      Otherwise, well said =)

  • Kevin Lucia October 18, 2013, 5:33 AM

    “The things that you do must be the things that you love. And the things that you love must be the things that you do.” – Ray Bradbury

    If he loves English and reading and writing and that’s why he wants to pursue an English degree, then absolutely, that’s what he should do. College is stressful and time consuming and expensive and a huge chunk of your life. Why pursue something you don’t LOVE?

    A former student of mine was highly skilled in all areas, but she excelled in writing fiction, dance, theater, and music. She, however, was the daughter of a doctor. Because of this, she was always encouraged – IE, coerced – into pursing a medical degree, which she initially did. I always teased her: “Duh. You’re not going to be a doctor. You’re going to be an actor, or a writer, or a screenwriter, because that’s what you LOVE.”

    Her sophomore year, she switched into a Creative Writing/Theater major. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of writing her recommendation letter for Miami University’s graduate screenwriting program.

    Now, if the person in question thinks they must pursue an English degree for a writing career, that’s not necessarily the case. It can only help, to be sure. But writing is something anyone can do regardless of their degree.

    But twenty years ago, I pursued a BA in English simply because I loved reading and writing. I’ve been teaching high school English for 12 years and really, that’s simply because I love reading and writing.

  • Margaret October 18, 2013, 5:38 AM

    I think this young man has two challenges facing him: 1. discovering who he is as a person/man outside of son and sibling; and 2. discovering what gifts and talents the Lord has blessed him with that can be used in meaningful, financially-supportive vocation. He needs to respectfully and gratefully leave his hampering home environment to embark on these voyages of discovery. College is a good place to begin, if that is his desire and it is an affordable option. There he can begin to emerge from his previous tightly-wound and tightly-controlled cocoon and gain some insight into what he wants from his life and for his life.

    Any mentoring of this fellow should begin with whole life guidance, not just college major or career guidance. Befriend him, encourage him, counsel him, but don’t be surprised if, once he has the freedom to discover a wider world of opportunities and choices, he begins to excitedly arrange the puzzle pieces of these two challenges together for himself.

  • Kevin Lucia October 18, 2013, 5:38 AM

    And also, at his age, my reading background consisted primarily of Stephen King, pop horror and Dean Koontz. His reading tastes will most likely develop and mature as he does (and an English degree CAN help with that), and as he matures and gains more life experience, his writing will gain more depth. I’d hate to even THINK what I wrote at that age…

  • Kat Heckenbach October 18, 2013, 5:50 AM

    The fact that the kid is a teenager and is having the future of his entire family put upon his shoulders is the problem. The fact that he’s not given any freedom as well. How is he supposed to make a living off creativity if he’s not allowed to think creatively? How is he supposed to draw on life experience in his writing if he’s not allowed experience?

    Analyzing his actual writing skill at this point makes no sense. He’s simply too young. Most adults, as Greg pointed out, aren’t going to be amazing writers immediately either. It takes time, practice–sometimes years and years of practice. He may get much better, may become a brilliant writer, but he may not. How is there any way of knowing at this age??

    So, taking that all into consideration, I’d say encourage him in the English degree. I was set to be an art teacher when I went to college, and ended up with a degree in biology. Had nothing to do with failure–I just discovered a new passion. He may also. Being exposed to other classes, to other students, to other possibilities and opportunities–that is what he needs. And he may continue his passion with writing–if it truly is his own–and develop the life experience and skills needed to become successful at it. He may also discover other ways of using those passions (like becoming an English teacher). The point is–getting into college and getting out from under controlling hands is what is needed for him to discover what he wants. So, yes, encourage him to do it because it is the first step to *somewhere*.

    And as a homeschooling mom I must say: this is NOT the norm for us. Most of the homeschool moms I know have fiercely independent kids because we encourage independence. My heart goes out to this boy, and I dearly hope he finds his passion, whether it’s writing or something else, and becomes successful because he wants it and deserves it, not to just fulfill the wishes of his mother and grandmother.

  • Adam Graham October 18, 2013, 6:02 AM

    There’s a lot here. I’m just going to assume that other aspects of mentoring him are being cared for and I’ll stick to writing and career.

    He’s going to have a hard time even doing what the family wants under this situation in terms of succeeding economically to lift their circumstances. And certainly unless you’re Stephen King or Rick Warren, neither occupation is going to lead to the type of success they’re looking for either as a writer or a pastor.

    I also don’t think you take a look at someone’s writing in their pre-college days and say, “This here is a terrible writer.” I think a lot of people had awful mediocre stuff written before college, during college, and even after college but improved over time.

    You may try seeing if you can have him take a career aptitude test. This could give him some ideas areas in which he could strong. It shouldn’t be determinate but it sounds like he has a confidence issue and is limiting his options. It could open his mind to see other opportunities.

    I don’t think that an English Major has a lot to do with a good writing career as a preparation. An English Degree could prepare you to work at Barnes and Noble but is not going to guarantee you writing success. One thing you might want to ask is what type of books do you want to write? If you’re interested in horror or mystery, something in Forensics or Criminal Justice could be good with an English Minor. A Communications Degree would also work and give him more options. Maybe the best thing to do is if he has a community college nearby, have him take his first couple of years there and fill out all of his prerequisites and then decide what he wants to do with his life. He may find something to get passionate about to pursue for a 4-year degree. He could do the same thing at a regular college. It’s just more expensive.

    Finally, if there’s a local chapter of a Christian Writers’ group, see if you can get him involved. They’re some very good godly, nurturing people in these groups who can be a great influence and encouragement to him. And that’s probably more valuable than a declared major.

  • Shari October 18, 2013, 6:06 AM

    Encourage him to go to college and major in English. In college, he will see if that is truly where he wants to go and he will be exposed to great literature, which will improve his writing. Also, tell him that he will need to get a job until he can support himself as a writer. There is no either, or in this situation. You have to work to eat. And it is up to his siblings to follow their own dreams to change their own lives. He is not responsible for them, no matter what his mother wants.

    He needs to go away to college, so he can think clearly.

  • Jessica Thomas October 18, 2013, 6:08 AM

    There’s definitely something troubling about this family dynamic. That aside, I have a BS in English. I entered into it planning on continuing for a MFA in Creative Writing. The MFA never happened, and I don’t regret it. IMO, an MFA is for a person who plans on having a spouse that will pay the bills.

    The English degree was a good choice for me, however. I didn’t think so at first (when I was a temp making $7 an hour in HR after busting my butt to graduate summa cum laude) but it was a good base education and it helped me find my way to IT. It *has not* been an easy journey, though. (Are there any “easy” paths to making a living?)

    If he wants a guarantee of income, he should choose a degree that points directly to a career path. Computer science is ironically a decent path for creative types because there is a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving, which can be fun.

    The writing can always continue on the side. I still view my writing as a job I may transition to in retirement. It takes a writer that long (if they have a full time job on the side) to amass enough polished fiction to make any sort of living from it.

  • billgncs October 18, 2013, 6:12 AM

    I would tell him with candor that while his writing needs to improve, he is young enough to follow his dream, go for it.

  • Jay DiNitto October 18, 2013, 6:55 AM

    Going to college for a degree in English is a bad idea by itself. He’s going to put him/his family into debt (assuming they are not well off and he doesn’t have much grant money) and dedicate four years of his life to uncertain results. That time could be better spent actually learning writing via libraries, Internet, mentorship, instead of sort of learning writing and wasting time with other classes. Even if he had to spend money for that to happen it would cost him a fraction of what the college tuition would probably be.

    So in terms of the college attendance: big no-no from me. But the larger issue is his mother’s domination over his life. If that’s what’s really controlling the decision-making then any advice we give him wouldn’t matter, right?

    • D.M. Dutcher October 18, 2013, 7:28 AM

      Jay, if he stays chances are his mom will dominate him even more. He should go, but just be more realistic about his major and be aware of the hills he’ll need to overcome to succeed. These days it’s not easy to have no degree and get a good enough job to live on your own.

      • Jessica Thomas October 18, 2013, 12:49 PM

        Without the college degree, I wouldn’t have landed where I am in IT. I’m sure it’s true for other professions. They just want you to have a degree in something. (Literally, where I work, they hire on a point system. I got 20 “points” or something just for my degree, and it didn’t matter what the degree was in.)

        English is a good ‘generic’ degree because it means you can form coherent sentences on paper, which oddly enough, many people can’t. Good writing skills impress bosses, which assists in upward mobility. And while I wouldn’t recommend post-graduate work (because it definitely seems like a waste of money in the current job market, unless it’s a requirement to do the job), the creative writing classes I took in undergraduate were helpful, as well as all the paper-writing I had to do to finish the degree. So, I’m with D.M. on this one.

        • Jill October 18, 2013, 3:04 PM

          English degrees are highly useful. I agree with that. At the same time, I’m not too keen on the idea of the next generation continuing to bloat the education bubble. It’s going to pop at some point, and many degrees are going to be worthless because everybody has one. When you got a job, Jessica, any degree was still meaningful. I doubt that will continue to be the case.

  • D.M. Dutcher October 18, 2013, 7:19 AM

    I’d say don’t major in English unless you want to teach. These days. even state colleges will saddle you with an impressive level of debt, so you need to be honest about yourself and pick a major you like to do, are good at, and can lead to jobs which support your writing sideline. Nothing about a four year degree will teach you how to write any better than if you learned yourself by cracking open books. Most four year degrees will have maybe three or four actual writing courses, and a ton of literature ones that won’t help you in that. If you want to edit or publish though, I think there’s more value in such.

    The writing being mediocre isn’t an issue. Honestly, he needs to deepen his life experiences and grow up before he can write well, and most eighteen year olds are going to write a lot of bad fiction before good. To be honest, I’m cynical that you even need to be good these days. I’ve read some absolutely horrible CBA and mass market fiction. You’ll have more chance at getting struck by lightning than making the NYT best seller list, though.

    The homeschooling is going to be rough. Forgive me, Kat, but I’m going to have to say some strong things here.

    The first thing is he needs to go and get someone to give an independent, honest assessment of his current educational level. Controlling mom + economically disadvantaged + rural area makes me think he’s going to have some tremendous gaps in his education, and homeschooling is used to control and babysit him. Even the best parents have trouble teaching math or science to kids who don’t have talent or desire to learn in those areas, and college is the worst time for them because they suddenly find out what their parents didn’t teach them.

    He’s also going to need to realize that he’s got some serious socialization issues. College is going to be hell for him at the start because he’s going to have to rely only on himself without Mom there, and with professors and classmates that don’t think he’s a special snowflake. Hes not going to have the experiences to help him to deal well with others, nor the ability to work to a deadline and it’s another problem that contributes to the risk of flaming out of college.

    The embrace of homeschooling is one of the worst things Christians have done recently. A lot of the successes of it are due to the kid’s natural talent and the socioeconomic class of the family; upper-middle class kids with two parents will do well no matter what, lower-class with just mom and grandmother won’t at all. But when it goes bad, it goes BAD, creating isolated kids unable to interact with others or with tremendous gaps in their education that they have to make up later. Too often it’s used as a means of control, or sheltering, and I think we’ve created a sizable cohort of this generation’s kids unable to function. I wish we’d at least go back to championing Christian private schools.

    So, the kid’s got some challenges. I guess I’d say to sum up that he needs to assess himself honestly and not listen to mom. The letter writer should try and take him out sometime and evaluate him. It sounds like he’s going to have a high risk of flaming out of college due to the fear of failure, and once you drop out, it’s really, really hard to go back.

    • Kat Heckenbach October 18, 2013, 7:42 AM

      DM–I agree that in THIS situation there is going to be more challenge because he is homeschooled. Not because of homeschooling as a practice, but because of the way his mother is homeschooling.

      We’ve had this out before, so I won’t jump in and argue you again, other than to say you don’t know any homeschoolers personally, and I am a member of a very large community of them. I also attended public school and worked at a tutoring center after college, and gobs and gobs and gobs of public schooled kids have MASSIVE gaps in their education. And I know public school kids who are horribly sheltered as well.

      • D.M. Dutcher October 18, 2013, 2:04 PM

        I don’t feel the need to rehash old arguments either, but I say my peace on this. A lot of people assume that all Christians are default homeschoolers. Not all of us are, and some are very critical of it.

        • C.L. Dyck October 19, 2013, 12:46 PM

          …And some of us who homeschool are also pretty critical of the culture. Ah, peer pressure. 🙂

          It’s a side-trail to the main question, but maybe not entirely:


          “Trust in formulas is really dependence upon ourselves to carry out a procedure correctly.” (from linked article) That, I think, may be an issue with the young man’s present and possibly his future.

          Also this: “The problem wasn’t one that could be solved by extended sheltering – he could have been sheltered until he was 30 and he still would have been vulnerable. The problem was that we had sent our son into the world insecure in who he was. He went into the world with a hole in his heart…”

          Unfortunately, the things the article describes are often pushed via conventions and the home education business culture, because they offer a false sense of certainty. It’s like a well-crafted but ultimately unhealthy brand promise that helps sell conference registrations and parenting books and curricula.

          And some buy it. It doesn’t make it representative of the real daily-life views of all Christian homeschoolers, but it does make it prominently visible to outside observers. And it may be something the mentor will want to consider and discuss with the young man.

    • Jessica Thomas October 18, 2013, 12:52 PM

      Oops, I hadn’t read this comment, yet before I wrote the above one. I disagree that an English major is only for those who want to teach, but I agree that kids need to go to college if at all possible. It’s hard enough out there with a degree. Not having one just shuffles you further to the bottom of the pile.

      • xdpaul October 18, 2013, 2:09 PM

        If you’ve got your heart set on a cubicle, that’s probably true. Skilled labor doesn’t have this problem, and they are hiring like mad, and you don’t have to spend $100,000 up front just to get an interview.

        Look, if you can get through college without debt, it is probably on balance a win. If you have to hobble yourself with more than $5,000 in debt before you can legally drink in order to do it, it is a horrible choice. Those student loans buy you the illusion of options while indenturing you for decades.

        • Jessica E. Thomas October 18, 2013, 4:53 PM

          Nobody has their heart set on a cubicle. Nevertheless I’m not cut out for skilled trades. You do what you gotta do. There are way worse thing to do than what I do for a living, that’s for sure. I have relative autonomy and I average 1 phone call a month which is pretty awesome.

  • Jamie Chavez October 18, 2013, 8:35 AM

    The short answer is this: there’s nothing wrong with an English degree. I’ve read a couple of great articles recently (naturally, I cannot find them just now) about the importance of humanities studies. If nothing else (and there is, of course, much, much more), a degree in English will teach a student clear thinking, clear writing, and gift him with a lifelong engagement with literature. The first two will be of service in ANY job he seeks post-college and the last will be a comfort (and a source of learning) for the rest of his life.

    I agree with an earlier commenter that there is something very troubling about this family dynamic (best I not comment further about that; my teeth are already clenched). My guess is this boy can do nothing until he is able to get out from under the maternal thumb. College is a solution for that; it is a new world that will probably give him the courage live his own life.

    If he believes English is the degree for him, that’s a fabulous place to start. By the time he has to declare a major, he may have more than one idea about it. And that’s a good thing.

    But if he DOES want to write, this would be my advice (which I am deriving from an old blog post of mine):
    1. Start writing.
    Sit down, start typing. Or start journaling. The ten thousand hours needed to attain the ability to write a for-real book must start now. I know he’s been denied a blog but when he’s at college using someone else’s wi-fi, a blog would be a fantastic way to start learning to write. (The mother displays her ignorance in this matter: doesn’t she know that lots of books currently in print started as or are derived from blogs? Two great examples: Molly Wizenberg’s lovely “A Homemade Life” and Mike Hyatt’s “Platform.”)
    2. Work on writing skills.
    He can find low-cost writing courses at community colleges or at the county extension education office, creative writing classes at the university level, specialized workshops at writers’ conferences, and even online (caveat emptor, of course).
    3. Read, read, read.
    Good readers make good writers — Stephen King says so too. 🙂 The boy should read everything he can get his hands on, across all genres.
    4. Make an outline.
    I know there are many successful authors who are seat-of-the-pantsers, but I personally believe beginning writers should gather their thoughts first. I don’t mean an elaborate outline, necessarily; just jot down the main points.

    I’ve reread the letter above one last time. I would worry less about unwillingness to consider anything beyond a bachelor’s degree. One step at a time. Those years between 18 and 22 are times of great growth and change. He will meet new, interesting people, including professors, who will influence him, guide him, excite him. Getting him away from home is the thing. Encourage THAT. The rest will fall into place.

  • Margaret Mills October 18, 2013, 8:52 AM

    Don’t want to derail the main subject, but I do have to support Kat on the homeschooling. I have five grown kids and we did a lot of homeschooling, although they were also in public and private schools as well. I, too, would say this kind of situation is the exception among homeschoolers rather than the norm. We are/were also in a rural area, I was eventually divorced, struggled financially, and my mom (grandmother) helped with the homeschooling at times. So…The children are amazing, leaving the nest at 18, finishing college with honors, marrying well and getting good jobs. I too, have tutored/taught and seen up close what gaps the public schools can leave. On advice for the young man: as an English major and freelance writer (40 years) it might be good to steer him toward a community college, a job, his own car before or instead of jumping into the full-on college experience. Some of my kids did better that way (I have 5). Much depends on his personality and aptitude. Also, why is a “writing career” freelance fiction? He could major in communications or journalism and train to be a newspaper – or better – media writer. The PAY in writing is in advertizing, technical writing, copywriting, etc. and other practical careers. I was a member of our state Christian writer’s group and knew technical writers who wrote Christian fiction. And I agree that college – even community college – will open up new possibilities of which he isn’t even aware now. And a JOB, which is an education in itself. There are a lot of options and more than one way to skin a cat – he should not narrow his options to freelance creative fiction or an English degree from a four-year-college. This family sounds like they are struggling to overcome poverty and lack of education and went too far to one side. They probably could use our prayers.

  • Jim Hamlett October 18, 2013, 9:10 AM

    First: Is the mentor male or female? Nothing against the ladies, but the young man needs some good, godly male influence in his life.

    Second: The mentor (male or female) should guide the young man in his selection of a college. It should be far enough away from home to hinder his mother from regular visits and to make it difficult/financially painful for him to make regular trips home.

    Third: He should be encouraged to participate in some kind of sports at college. Avoid football, but basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis (court or table), heck even badminton. The competitive experience (as well as losing) will do him good if he’s going to be a writer.

    Fourth: Don’t declare a major right away. Experiment in other areas via electives. He can always minor in English.

    Fifth: Join the campus newspaper (if they have one–start one if they don’t) and write for it.

    There’s lots more that could be said, but the first one is, in my opinion, of utmost importance for his future as a husband and father (assuming he marries).

  • Linda October 18, 2013, 10:14 AM

    Adam–great advice. Regarding career aptitude tests, the Myers-Briggs Indicator is excellent for assessing interests. Regarding college, he might make a better transition from homeschooling if he started at a local community college, which are known to have very supportive staff and faculty.They could assess him there, using tools such as the Myers-Briggs. He could receive his foundational courses at a cc and then transfer the credits to a university. At some point, this young man needs to explore the myriad ways he could utilize his writing skills, beyond writing novels, for a career. Those options include writing fiction and non-fiction magazine articles, advertising and public relations, reporting, and corporate communications. I started out in life wanting to write fiction, but I was able to enjoy a very satisfying career as a corporate and higher education communications professional. So I could earn a decent living, and still pursue writing for pleasure on the side. I would advise him to take several journalism classes where he can practice disciplined writing. Why put pressure on him right now to consider masters-level courses down the road? Finally, I can’t help but comment on all the judgment being passed on his family. There is absolutely nothing wrong with refusing to give a teen a cell phone. This young man’s age is not stated, but not everyone is mature enough to date in high school. Most parents at some point have high dreams and aspirations for their kids: astronaut, doctor, Harvard graduate and yes, preacher. It would be nice if more parents took an interest in reviewing their kids’ profanity-laced blogs and FB posts–and those of their friends–and discussing the content with them. Some of the criticism of this family seems overly harsh and unjustified.

  • xdpaul October 18, 2013, 10:28 AM

    When does one encourage someone to pursue an English degree?

    Never. Certainly not in his economic circumstance. He should go get a skilled trade, avoid debt, and make some money while he builds up an inventory of books.

    When does one encourage someone to pursue a writing career?

    When he shows a legitimate interest. It is easy to start one, especially once he goes off on his own. While keeping his day job, he should spend his evenings and weekends writing new books and stories, finishing them and then self-publishing them. He’ll begin to make “extra” money in drips and drabs with his finished work, and will begin to get an idea of what his readers want to buy from him.

    He should not waste precious writing time on a debt-fueled college career that will not result in skills that are in demand.

    How realistic is it for a writing career to support a family in this day and age?

    Plenty realistic. People do it all the time. They need to have darn good business sense, and preferably start the career well before they are trying to support a family. It can take five years from start to finish before an independent writer starts to build up inventory to a respectable cashflow. Hopefully it happens sooner for him, but he should be completely prepared to take 5 years of dedicated writing (publishing nothing less than 3 books/year) to figure out the basics

    Get him a copy of the Freelancer’s Survival Guide by Kris Rusch, and wish him a lot of luck. The business is only rough if you don’t treat like a business.

    • Jessica Thomas October 18, 2013, 1:03 PM

      *sigh* ya’ll keep hatin’ on the English degree. Humanities are actually an *awesome* foundation for any career. HR reps and bosses may not realize it, but once you get your foot in the door, they’ll be praising your mad interpersonal, communications, and problem solving skills. But, I suppose I could be the exception to the rule because I preferred linguistics over literature. Literature = boring. I dunno. What kind of writer thinks literature classes are boring? I’m a mess.

      • xdpaul October 18, 2013, 1:27 PM

        I possess an advanced degree in linguistics. If your primary concern is making income – a skilled trade has a higher ceiling and much greater labor demand than any English degree. I have no hate for the English degree – but it sounds like his chief concern is economic and his chief dream is a writing career. Spending $100,000 in order to attain an English degree is not the most direct route to either addressing the concern nor achieving the dream.

        Even if his biggest concern was getting the “green card” that is a college degree (i.e. he didn’t care what job he got – just that he wasn’t disqualified on the basis of no degree) then I would suggest he enter a STEM field: it costs the same as an English degree and provides bonus employer qualifications. In other words, he’ll be “qualified” to be either a cube rat OR a lab jockey, not just the cube rat.

        Because I believe higher education (whether credentialed or not) is something virtually unrelated to job searches, I think it is the wrong answer – fundamentally – to questions of career and income. As college graduates have a much higher unemployment rate and a much higher debt load than high school graduates, the general rational economic choice is to avoid college until it is economically necessary…UNLESS you are going to college for reasons unrelated to your present or future income.

        Of course, we do things completely backwards and assume that the rational economic choice is to attend college until it is economically prohibitive.

        • D.M. Dutcher October 18, 2013, 4:27 PM

          I think people overrate both skilled trades and STEM as solutions. A lot of the brighter people in my tech school wound up going to college anyways because the trades have their own issues. A big one is the risk of injury or mortality in the line of work; I still have the scar on my wrist from a soldering accident in high school, and many of the trades grind your body down into nothing over time.

          STEM stuff you need to be smart with your choice of major, too. You are not going to find work as an astronomer, oceanographer, or in certain fields of biology any more than an English major, but targeting specific fields wisely helps. If the kid’s homeschooled though, unless he has love of math he’s going to be behind the curve on the vital advanced math a STEM career needs.

          • Robert H. Woodman October 19, 2013, 7:51 PM

            STEM is oversupplied with biologists of all types, most types of chemists, and most types of physicists. The professional trade journals like Chemical and Engineering News have had numerous articles on this subject over the last few years.

            Excellent math skills will get you a great job on Wall Street selling esoteric securities designed to bring down the economy in a few years. Same with a physics master or doctorate degree. Engineering degrees are still valued, provided you target the type of engineering you want to do. Computer science degrees are losing value as more programming work heads overseas to Asia.

            The young man who is the subject of this discussion really needs to leave home and live life for awhile away from his smothering mother and grandmother before deciding where to go to college and in what degree to major.

        • Jessica E. Thomas October 18, 2013, 5:06 PM

          “As college graduates have a much higher unemployment rate and a much higher debt load than high school graduates”

          Where are you getting this statistic?

          • xdpaul October 21, 2013, 9:37 AM

            Where are you getting this statistic?

            From reality. 50% of college grads are working jobs that do not require a degree. 9% of recent English majors are unemployed. 8% of high school graduates are. So, with 50% of graduates not needing the “credentialing green card”, they find themselves in $30,000 (if lucky) debt working a job they could have had out of high school… and are counting themselves lucky verses the one-in-ten in their graduating class who is in debt and out of work.

            The discrepancy between “degree-necessary” debt and “degree-unnecessary” debt is critical, and poorly articulated. The point is that you could safely say that current “unemployment out of careers that require the English degree” would be at 59% among recent graduates. Even if you discount the 50% for some reason, they still have a higher rate of unemployment than their non-degreed peers.

            Not going to college with debt is much lower risk, lifetime. Instead of returning to live with your parents after accumulating debt, you can live debt-free until you accumulate a paying job.

            The math is obvious: you secure far less in debt by avoiding the average debt load of a college student and becoming productive out of high school.

            For the employed, add to this that the average high school graduates average income is at $30,000 per year and the average college graduate is $50,000 minus a lifetime student loan payment that now approaches $240,000…it is fairly easy to see how a debt-free employed high school grad is set to make hundreds of thousands of dollars more over their lifetime than the college grad with a lot of debt.

            So again the question is to avoid debt even if that means not going for a while (or at all). That is, if the object is really about “good jobs” and making “good money.”

            English programs are best reserved for those who truly love the field and are willing to indebt themselves without promise of return in order to study it.

            I think if that were the approach of most students (yes, including STEM – which has its own bubbles to contend with), the student loan industry would deflate on its own despite college administration greed, and tuition would drop accordingly, and there certainly would be fewer deeply disappointed, indebted people who thought a college diploma was some sort of lottery ticket to a good, permanent career.

      • Robert H. Woodman October 19, 2013, 7:43 PM


        I DON’T hate the English degree. It’s just not a steppingstone to good, future earnings. And employers aren’t that interested in liberal arts majors anymore. They want people with high levels of technical skills. My wife worked for the English Department of a major Midwestern university for many years. She saw far too many English degree graduates (B.A., M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D.) end up in low-paying dead-end jobs with high debt burdens from student loans. One of the sharpest, most energetic Ph.D. graduates she knew ended up making very good money … selling cemetery services and gravestones. It’s just not worth it for most people to major in English.

  • Bob Avey October 18, 2013, 10:44 AM

    There seems to be two prevalent themes here: Choose another path other than writing, or Go for your dreams.

    Having been involved in the writing and publishing world for many years, and being the pragmatic person that I am, I would have to go along with the first theme. Becoming a successful, publishing author — and I realize success is a highly subjective concept — is difficult, even with the recent boom in self pubbing. Yes, in today’s environment one can self-publish and do quite well, but true success is still a rare thing. And if the pressure is on to pull the family out of depression, one would be better off selling real estate. I guess the bottom line for me has always been that one should only go into writing if that is truly what they love and want to do, and not to make money. At any rate, I wish the fellow success.

  • Heather Day Gilbert October 18, 2013, 11:09 AM

    I guess I’d just point out that most people change majors several times in the course of a college experience (let’s see, criminal justice, pre-vet…been there, done that). The key is for him to get out and get his feet under him a bit more. I think he has plenty of time to lock in a career choice, but if his affinity is English, maybe he can go in with that as a major. I imagine it will probably change, and if not, he’ll figure out WHY he wants to follow that path.

  • Donald S Crankshaw October 18, 2013, 4:44 PM

    My wife and I know a number of successful writers. People with multi-book deals with major publishers, who get six figure advances in bidding wars, who win Hugos and Nebula awards seemingly every year. Not one of them supports themselves with their writing. Either they have a day job, or they have a spouse who does. You really cannot support a family writing unless you hit the jackpot. You have as much chance of winning a lottery. It’s not just a matter of skill, it’s also luck and knowing the right people. You cannot plan a writing career s without figuring out how you’re going to earn a living, and accepting that those two will probably never be the same thing.

  • Robert H. Woodman October 18, 2013, 5:06 PM

    I’ve seen similar situations to the one in this note, and it always bothers me that well-meaning parents and grandparents smother their children thinking that they are helping them.

    There’s lots of good advice here. I’m going to agree with the people who advise this young man NOT to major in English unless he wants to teach. There are too many people with very expensive, economically useless degrees. An English degree today is pretty much an economically useless degree. Even in my field (chemistry) we are oversupplied, and jobs that once were pretty much guaranteed are hard to come by and harder to keep.

    This young man needs several things, but depending on the degree of smother-parenting (yes, I made that word up 🙂 ) going on, he may or may not be able to carry all of them out. First, he needs to leave home, move far away, and get some distance — physically and emotionally — from his family. While he’s away, he needs to really seek God’s will for his life, without input from mama, grandma, or siblings. I’m not saying that he should not seek the counsel of others, but he needs to seek UNBIASED counsel. Second, the lady who wrote needs to kindly, but bluntly, tell him that he needs to experience life in order to become a writer. Her critique of his writing, if delivered in a loving and friendly way, is going to help him in the long run, even if he doesn’t want to hear it in the short term. Third, based on my own experience of finding a career in science, I would advise this young man to find the career that burns in him so badly that he can’t do anything else. If it is writing, write. If it is preaching, preach. If it is something else, do that. If you find a career you love, it isn’t work.

    Just my $0.02.

  • C.L. Dyck October 18, 2013, 5:39 PM

    “He is a bright young man from a socioeconomically depressed situation… As the oldest of a large family, he is viewed as the family member who will become successful and change the course of his younger siblings.”

    Then he should not choose writing or pastoring as a *primary* career. Evenings and weekends, sure, but I’m with those who suggest trades. And also those who suggest he move far enough away to cut the apron strings. I don’t get the impression these women have their reality hats on.

    He needs to go out and learn that failing doesn’t hurt as much as he fears it will, first and foremost.

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