Make English Majors Show Their Work

Make English Majors Show Their Work

If you didn't know, I moonlight as a copywriter. It's nice money and I control how much money I make / how much work I have at a time. Don't get me wrong; it's also a huge pain in my ass. For many reasons. But the biggest is without a doubt the fact that everyone in America thinks they can write. You can't.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming that this blog is a shining beacon of quality. I usually write these in one quick session and maybe, maybe, I'll proofread them. This blog is a hobby. My professional one gets a little more scrutiny from me.

The Hubris

Any copywriter can tell you about the client (or agency superior) who has constant edits for their writing – most of which actually detract from the writing. That's because they do no have in mind how the audience would read it; they have in mind how they would write this. As a writer, you can never match their voice. It's a faulty way of measuring the subjective quality of a piece.

But advertising is a stubborn old mule.

Most people are only concerned with getting the right answer. For those of you who did not grow up in 80s or later, this may sound familiar. There was a time that math class was only concerned with the right answer.

Math Education ('Maths' to the British in the audience) hit its stride and started teaching how to do math instead of how to get the right answer. I never got multiplication in elementary school until a teacher showed me how to do lattice multiplication. I never got another multiplication question wrong ever again. Because I didn't have to do it in my head. I learned how to multiply.

Unfortunately, writing never received the same treatment.

The Problem With How We Teach Writing

At best, students will be able to do a rewrite of their English paper. They'll get spelling and grammar corrections, but not edits of how to improve the structure of their paper. If they do get structural edits, they may be based on a premise that the student didn't intend to convey.

In math and physics, we'd always have points taken off for not showing our work. The same should be true for English majors.

When students turn in a paper for English class, they should have to turn in an outline, short responses to the research books they read, and quick answers about what their premise was. Otherwise we're not teaching writing; we are teaching students that getting the right answer is more important than doing it right. And that's how we get clients and bosses who think they can write – but never had to work for it.

Sadly, it'll take more than just changing how an English degree works to fix this. Not every professor knows how to write or even how to grade work in progress. They're a product of this system, too. I got my English degree from one of the most renowned programs in the country. I didn't learn how to write until I became an intern at a magazine after graduation.

What Playwriting Gets Right

Even though my English classes didn't teach me how to write, my Playwriting professor did.

(See? There is a reason this is on my creative writing blog!)

We had to talk about concepts for scenes in class. Our monthly journals were reflections on our writing processes. Our peers even helped us describe in one sentence what the main character's objective was in each scene. We were graded on process.

Later, while trying to figure out how to be a journalist and copywriter, I'd return to my playwriting knowledge. Writing in both of those fields has a goal of conveying a feeling to an audience. Oh hey, that sounds like an objective. And each paragraph is a tactic for getting the reader to feel something. What's fun about writing for the web is that you get to UI/UX design, writing a new pages for if you succeed or fail in your objective to make the reader feel something.

So if you have a playwriting education, you're probably more qualified for that technical writer job than a run-of-the-mill English major.