9 Extracurricular Lessons to Get the Most Out of Your English Major

If I had built these skills before graduation, I’d’ve become a much more successful writer

This post was previously published in The Writing Collective.

Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash

Hello, class! It’s me — well, actually, you — from the future.

Yes, it’s true. Time travel’s been invented, college is in the rear view, and you’ve been a hired pen for a few years. You even wrote a book! Congratulations!

But this praise is only half-deserved because you really could’ve been further along than this. If you’d stepped back from your classwork for a moment to consider what you intended to do with your English major, you could’ve been a household name by now.

So why don’t you set down Catcher in the Rye for a moment.

There are a few things you need to do outside of class if you want to change your future.

Read the NYT bestsellers

You read your books for class, of course (and you’d never dream of skipping straight to the SparkNotes when your essay is due in only 36 hours, right?) but there’s a whole world of literature outside the University. And spoiler alert: it’s required reading.

Browse the bestsellers of the day and ask yourself: Why are these titles successful? What reader’s itch do they scratch? Are the stories truly groundbreaking? Or are they all hype with no substance — just fame begetting fame? There’s a lesson either way.

Don’t turn your nose up at James Patterson. JK Rowling, for better or for worse, is an author billionaire. Those cartoon-covered contemporary romance novels you’re always dunking on? Yeah. That’s what sells.

Not that the classics aren’t great reads, but modern tastes lean less Kerouac and more King. It’s up to you to find out what makes bestsellers so appealing.

Build a thicker skin

You work hard, make a great impression, and reap the rewards in your professor’s gradebook. That’s awesome, but now it’s time for a taste of failure.

If you hope to make it as a professional writer — any kind, ranging from social media person to epic novelist— get ready to be rejected a lot. Like, daily. Your inbox is going to be 95% “no,” 4% “yes, but” and the last 1% will be updates from your mom.

I don’t say that to turn you off from writing. Quite the opposite. Write more. Fail more. Because if you’re not constantly failing and learning from your mistakes, you’re not growing.

Getting comfortable with failure gives you emotional space to try again.

Learn how publishing works

Get familiar with all kinds of publishing. Trad pub, self pub, indie, anthology, literary mag, guest post, copywriting, ghostwriting, journalism, agented, unagented — there is a lot to learn about the publication processes, and very few college courses cover this stuff in detail.

Some writers say the publication part is harder than writing.

You don’t have to know which kind of publication or type of writing you want to do yet; just start googling. You can try them one after another or lean in on a single publication style. You could even be a multi-format writer (like yours truly) to experience a little bit of everything.

Try and keep your thumb on the pulse of the publishing industry, if you can. It changes all the time, but if you get the basics of how and where to submit, and how to query, you’ll do okay.

Learn how to self-promote

I know, I know, you are an artiste and English lit kids like you are very different from the marketing jocks. But that’s where you’re wrong, grasshopper.

Every single author you’re wishing to emulate knew how to hype. They knew the best literary tricks to wow their audience, they knew how to position themselves for success, they networked, and/or they wrote great copy (see: querying).

Yes, one way or another, every successful writer developed a strong personal brand.

Marketing speak, bleah. But get used to it. You want success as a writer? You need to start grinding.

Don’t be the grammar police

You’ll get invited to more parties this way.

But no, seriously, there’s not a soul out there who likes to have their grammar critiqued every time they open their mouth or shoot off a text. You’re not perfect, either. And even if your grammar does happen to be flawless, so what? Who does this impress? Not your friends, not your professors, not your future bosses — just yourself. Nobody cares if you can use a semicolon or if you know the correct usage of who vs. whom. Language is a living thing, so today’s rules might not even apply tomorrow, anyway.

If you want to get into proofreading, yes, become a grammar expert. But honestly. Keep your conversational grammar-correcting instincts in check.

Learn the rules, but bend them often

Start a sentence with a preposition! Make up words! Fragments for emphasis! Use too many exclamation points!

Learn how to color within the lines, but don’t forget the importance artistry.

By playing with words, manipulating sentence structure, and defying all the nitty-gritty rules you had pounded into your head over the years, you become a true creator. This is your voice! It’s your character. Develop it. Explore it. This is the part that makes writing fun.

Words are yours to wield.

Explore different written formats

Your professor wants everything TNR, double-spaced, 1″ margins, with MLA citations. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Only your professor wants it like that. Oh, sure, you’ll have to learn the Shunn manuscript format if you ever decide to submit to a publication (which you should start doing immediately) and all publications have their own guidelines. As a person from the future, though, I can confidently tell you that nobody in the real world cares about MLA format. AP and CMS, though… yeah, you should look into those. Especially if you’re considering any type of journalism.

Take a good look at written structure while you’re at it. Tap into your analytical side and watch for patterns while you read a wide range of formats.

See how writing a book report isn’t the same as writing a book, blog, newspaper article, or short story. Nonfiction reads very different from fiction.

Understand modern formats, learn how to replicate them, and you’ll go far.

Don’t lean on your laurels

The day after graduation, your GPA becomes irrelevant. Nobody ever wonders how famous authors did in their Shakespeare classes. After a certain number of years, your entire college experience is going to become an unimpressive footnote when you’re looking for gigs. Sorry, but it’s true.

The truth is that if you’re a hired pen, your client just wants to see you crank out solid marketable content day after day. Your agent wants you to develop vivid stories and your editor needs it all to make sense. Your readers are hungry and they want you to feed them!

And don’t bother looking back at your old writing too much. It’s going to be cringe. Not that you were a bad writer back in the day — it’s just that your writing has matured. If you’ve been learning and growing, it’s supposed to feel like that.

Keep on keepin’ on.

Above all — never EVER stop writing

It doesn’t matter if you’re still working on your degree, took home a PhD, are switching majors, or are a wistful time traveler holding out hope for success.

Write.

I’m not kidding. Rusty writing skills will be your Achilles’ heel.

Just find a topic and start scribbling.

Writer’s block is not an excuse, either. Use prompt generators. Dive down rabbit holes and then blog about it. Work on that novel of yours. Keep a diary. Review that show you binge-watched. If all else fails, post on social media.

Maybe you’re very busy and all you can manage is a single word today — that counts as writing. Or maybe you’ve got a whole book series in you, and that creative spark just turned into a roaring flame. However inspiration strikes, you absolutely must get those fingers on the keyboard or put that pen to paper.

Roll your eyes if you must, but here’s the stone cold truth:

You can’t write if you don’t write.

But for now, get back to Catcher in the Rye. Don’t you have an assignment due tomorrow? Maybe when you’re finished, you should pick up the latest romcom to see what all the fuss is about. Who knows! You might just find your calling — and this time, you’ll be prepared to grasp at success.

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