What the World Needs Now is Another English Major

English Majors
Image by toastforbrekkie via Flickr

I admire this instructor’s self-control. I might have slapped the little twit.

I have no regrets about my English major. Indeed, I’m proud of it and have actually found it helpful in my career. It helped with my writing, but mostly it sharpened my analytical skills. When you’re picking apart every phrase or even every verb or noun and looking for a motif or theme to enlarge your understanding of the text, it tends to focus your attention on the power of words and the importance of subtext.

A typical copy of the The American or Dubliners from college, and even high school, would have furious scribblings and circled passages on every page, a la: she wore a “black cloak” — why? Why black? Religious imagery, like a nun’s habit? What is she “cloaking?” Does she have a secret? Etc.

And, as the author of that blog post pointed out in the comments section, the study of meter in poetry no doubt gives English majors a leg up in finding and exploiting the natural rhythms of the language, which is particularly useful in speechwriting.

Now for the downside. When I started doing business writing after graduation I had to break some old habits. Mostly puffery. Lots of showy phrasing designed to prove all that SAT vocabulary drilling was worthwhile. And the long-windedness that was the natural byproduct of mandated minimum page counts.

Probably what helped me was that I also studied journalism, working on both the high school and college newspapers. So things like a lead paragraph (or lede, as they like to say), short sentences and spare prose were also drilled into me.

I think that what really sharpened my writing was working for a lawyer my first few years out of college. He was a tough, tough editor who didn’t let me get away with anything. He challenged me to justify every word and always drive toward greater clarity and precision. (He wasn’t a practicing lawyer, obviously.)

The other important lesson from this episode: you don’t know what you think you know, so get off your high horse, Sally.

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