Our Reading Lives

Not All English Majors Want to Be Writers

Deepali Agarwal

Staff Writer

Deepali Agarwal has a Master’s in literary linguistics, which means that every person she’s ever known has, at some point, asked her to ‘edit a thing’ for them-- ‘just see if it reads okay?’ She doesn’t mind, because she believes that the world can be fixed one oxford comma at a time. Deepali lives in Delhi, the capital of India, where cows are sacred, but authors and poets exist and write brilliant things. She works as an editor with OUP India’s School ELT division, where she moves apostrophes, looks up pictures of cats, and talks about children’s books for eight hours. The rest of her day is spent reading, thinking about Parks and Recreation, and wondering if there exist jobs for English majors that pay more than peanuts. Twitter: @DeepaliAgarwal_

As an English major, free advice sure makes up for all the money I do not earn. Advice from family, from friends, from concerned neighbours and absolute strangers.

“You should get a business degree.”
“You should pursue law. Lots of literature people end up as good lawyers.”
“You know what? You should go for a PhD and be a teacher… it’s such a stable job.”
“So, are you planning to apply to the civil services?”

All of these are as annoying as they are useless, because I don’t plan to do any of these things, nor I do not appreciate you making me feel as if my education is somehow incomplete. I did not end up in publishing because none of the above worked out; I don’t edit books because I couldn’t study for law, and I don’t really want a “stable job,” whatever you think that is. I know and acknowledge that the book industry doesn’t pay well, and I could tell you about the reasons behind it. I could tell you about the work of software engineers being more valued than the work of teachers and writers and editors, and what that says about the world we live in. I don’t like that after years of hard work I am doing a job which doesn’t pay well, but I’m going to stick to it and see what I can make of it.

I’ve become pretty good at nodding politely with slightly-raised eyebrows at people when they start with me about alternate career paths, but there is worse, I have realized. There is also a category of people who think publishing is wonderful and appreciate the work I do… until they reach the just-write-a-book point.

“Oh, you should start writing. You can publish a book, and earn so much more!”


“Writing children’s books couldn’t be hard? You’ve read so many.”

“I mean, J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter, and now look at her, a billionaire! You could be the next her!”

You could be dead, sir.

Here’s the thing: I do not and cannot, unfortunately, write fiction. You know what I’m good at writing? Posts such as this on the internet, extremely articulate e-mails, academic essays, snarky tweets, and crappy poetry nobody gets to read. Studying literature for 4 years and my love for reading does not mean I am a creative writer.

It makes my blood boil when people suggest I just “write a book.” There is no switch that I can pull which will cause me to sit down and let a book flow from my fingers. Writing is hard, and creative writing is harder. You need Ideas, and I have never woken up to a single idea for a piece of fiction. My degree is not useless because I don’t write fiction. Not all books are Harry Potter. Writing a book doesn’t automatically make you a millionaire.

Not all English majors are born authors.

The point of this rant is a PSA that English majors do not appreciate your two cents about their careers, especially if you’re going to be condescending about the things we’re passionate about, the decisions and choices we’ve consciously made, and the work we’ve put in to get where we are. I mean, you’re a mechanical engineer who makes spreadsheets for a living, are you sure you want to go down that road?