The demise of English as a major

I think the joke goes that if you’re an English major (or a liberal arts major) in college, you’re going to end up serving burgers and fries at a fast food restaurant. How long this stigma has existed I do not know. What I do know is that many liberal arts major struggle to get a job after college. They have, as some employers say, “no tangible skills”. These recent graduates usually end up in an entry level job as glorified interns – getting coffee, filing paperwork,  data entry, etc. They save next to no money as most of their income goes to rent, food and, for many, loans.

I can understand why many college students prefer to go into engineering, business, pharmacy, or even teaching. While those majors don’t guarantee you a job, you’re probably in a better position of finding one (and making good money) than an English major. Thus, you make more money, pay off your loans sooner and start saving.

Perhaps it’s the high cost of education these days that is making students opt for a non-liberal arts education, but maybe it’s another reason – students just don’t see the value in learning the humanities.

In a 2013 New York Times article titled “The Decline and Fall of the English Major“, author Verlyn Klinkenborg explains:

“There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Klinkenborg, yet I also find it sad. I feel as though English and the humanities used to be worn like a badge of honor. One was considered an educated, well-read person of society. To be able to write well was  (and maybe it still is) seen as a necessity to function and succeed in society. Perhaps those students who are not English majors think they’ll just pick up writing and vocabulary as they develop their careers?

I disagree with that notion and I think Mr. Klinkenborg does as well:

“What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”

If we’re going to have fewer English/humanities majors, then maybe universities can begin to add more requirements in these areas. At least then students can get a small dose of English in their lives. A little knowledge won’t kill them – and it certainly won’t lead them straight to the fry-o-later.

Writing is tough

For me, writing has never proven difficult. A blank page does not intimidate me. Rather, a blank page lends itself to an endless amount of possibilities. Perhaps that is the problem. Where do I even begin? Which character do I choose? What story? What setting? It becomes very tough to make a decision. Then when you do settle on an idea or a character, you have to make sure the whole story will translate into something big. Or else you’ll get through 50 pages of a novel and realize you have a beginning and ending, but no middle.

About a week ago, I sat down and tried brainstorming ideas for a television pilot. Questions ran through my head once again. Drama or comedy? Hour long or half hour? A story every episode or one long story drawn out over a season? What’s the hook? Has this been done already?

Sigh.

Additionally, my mind has been locked on novel and feature film writing; while longer in length, these two media have shorter stories than television shows which need to have endless possibilities for story arcs.

Eventually, I did settle on a TV idea that seems like it’s never been done, yet isn’t so far out there that nobody will understand it.

Writing is tough. I think a lot of writers doubt themselves. “This isn’t edgy enough”, “This won’t sell”, “This character’s too shallow”, are all thoughts that I’m sure have crossed other writers’ minds. My solution to all that? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – just keep writing. First drafts are meant to be revised. Let the questions sink in when you’re on your second draft. Chances are those questions won’t be as heavy since you’ll probably feel accomplished in finishing that first draft. You’ll be closer with your characters and know where the story is going.

For a laugh, check this out. Sound familiar?

Favorite Children’s Books – “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”

 

 

books I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. I have a handful of ideas but haven’t really developed any yet. The children’s book I compare all children’s books to is “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, by Laura Numeroff. Published in 1985, this became a best seller and has spawned other “If You Give a Mouse…” books.

Simple and short, this book tells the story of a boy who gives a mouse a cookie and then the mouse asks for a glass of milk. Now that he has the milk, the mouse asks for a mirror to check if he has a mustache. Then he wants a comb, and the story makes a complete circle back to the milk, and thus the cookie.

It’s cute, it’s clever and the artwork is stunning. The pictures are vivid and detailed and some are “zoomed in” as if we’re the mouse’s size.

But what makes it good? What has made this book timeless? It might be the pictures. It might be the mouse. (Books and commercials with animals seem to become very popular I’ve noticed). It might be that we know mice don’t wear overalls and draw pictures and we’re able to suspend belief for a short while.

I believe it is the simplicity of the story, at least in part. Each page has one sentence on it if not less. Many of these sentences are simple “If, then” statements, something anyone at any age can understand. Also, the story doesn’t take our characters anywhere or take a long time. There are only two characters – the mouse and the boy – and they stay in the house and accomplish cleaning, drawing, and napping within what seems like an afternoon.

Another thing I noticed is that even at this level, there is character progression. The mouse accomplishes task after task. The boy is up for it, but as we turn the pages, he becomes more ragged and worn down.

So what are your thoughts? Why is this book timeless? Or why isn’t it? Let me know – maybe I’ll start writing a children’s book sooner than I thought.

Business writing and email etiquette

Pulse shared an article on LinkedIn today titled ” How Spelling Mistakes and Bad E-mail Etiquette Can Help You Get Ahead“. Naturally,  I had to read it because I’m a firm believer of good spelling, grammar, and email etiquette. The article recounts how Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook wrote to the Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat requesting a meeting. Instead of replying with a formal email – e.g. “Dear Mr. Zuckerberg”, he replied very informally saying, ““Thanks :) would be happy to meet – I’ll let you know when I make it up to the Bay Area”

The article goes on to explain that this type of response tells us that Mr. Spiegel believes he is an equal to Mr. Zuckerberg. Disagree if you must, but they are equal in title. Others believe his response was cocky and arrogant.

Now consider this: both CEOs are young – Zuck at 31, Spiegel at 23 – a young age for a successful CEO. That said, they are peers. Judging by the fact that the meeting was held, clearly Zuck didn’t care about the response. They’re both in the tech industry, they understand that shorthand is becoming the norm.

If, say, Bill Gates wrote to Spiegel, I can only presume that Spiegel would respond a little more formally; after all, Gates is of a different generation. Generally, in my opinion, if you’re writing to your superiors, you should write formally with proper punctuation, spelling and grammar.
The article calls this shorthand “strategic sloppiness” citing examples of Bloomberg being able to write “tx” instead of “thanks” since he is at such a high level. However, this “sloppiness” can also help those at lower levels. When you write informally, usually it’s brief and direct and doesn’t beat around the bush. This direct approach can be attractive to some. Examples from the article include, “I won’t waste your time inflating my credentials, throwing around exaggerated job titles, or feeding you a line of crapp” to a recruiter. (I only wish I had the gall to do that, but I just can’t bring myself to write like this.) But I get it, it’s direct and grabs your attention.

This type of informal communication rubs me the wrong way though. Yes, we are becoming more efficient, yes, it can be effective in catching our audience’s attention, but are we sacrificing good writing and communication? Will we soon communicate and write in only abbreviations, acronyms, and sentence fragments?

 

 

 

Grammar tip – split infinitives

Happy New Year to all! Today’s post is a grammar tip regarding split infinitives. Not a pet peeve of mine, but still important to know.

I was in a meeting recently where a colleague was writing an email to a number of executives. She wanted to use the phrase “to fully support” instead of “to support fully” in her sentence because the former sounded better to her. I said that the latter might sound better, but the former is grammatically correct. Either way, I doubted the executives would really care, and they would understand what she was trying to say.

However, as a rule, I don’t like to split the infinitive. What does that mean, exactly?

All verbs have an infinitive. For example, “to support”, “to make”, “to buy”, “to walk”. These are all the basic roots of verbs. “Supported, makes, bought, walking” are all derivatives of the roots.

When you split the infinitive, it’s improper grammar. In my example above, an adverb has been placed between the two parts of the infinitive.

Many people today (grammar nerds excluded) won’t blink an eye when the infinitive has been split. However, if you’re a writer and you’re submitting your work to a contest, agent, or editor, you should definitely avoid it.  Personally, I think it should be avoided in a professional setting as well, but that’s my opinion.

 

Don’t use words you don’t know

In high school, many of my teachers would say, “Don’t use big vocabulary words if you don’t know what they mean.” (Then I would look them up and use them anyway.) Not only did they mean in everyday conversation, but in writing as well. I still believe that this applies to writing today. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, etc.

Many people think that by using “big words” they make their writing sound better. They might, but generally, big words interrupt the flow. Your reader may not know what the word means and have to look it up, or he/she may get so fed up with reading extravagant words every few seconds. Take, for example, the following sentence, which I borrowed from here because I think it’s a great example.

“In this contemporary society that we have at the present time, the problem of racism is unfortunately not an anachronism and appears to be an inexorable conundrum.”

Yikes. Too wordy, right?

Now how about this instead:

“Racism remains a significant issue today.”

The second sentence says the same thing but is much more concise.

Bottom line: If you don’t know what it means, don’t look it up and then use it. Just leave it out. Writing should be a free-flowing stream of consciousness, using the words you already have in your vocabulary. It should also be something your reader can understand quickly without reading ten extra words. Using lofty vocabulary isn’t going to make you sound smarter, it’s just going to frustrate your reader.

Writer’s block doesn’t exist – you’re just lazy

The title says it all. Often we hear of authors and writers suffering from writer’s block. They just can’t write a thing. The words just aren’t coming. Frankly, I think that’s just an excuse. It’s laziness. I understand if you don’t have the time because of kids, work, illness. (Or perhaps I don’t – if you enjoy writing so much, you’ll make the time.) But if you do have the time and you can’t come up with the words, then you’re just lazy.

If you’re working on a first draft of anything then all you should be doing is writing freely. No stopping. No thinking. Just writing. Even if it’s total garbage, at least you’re moving forward toward that next page. Save the thinking and editing for the second draft.

Can’t write anything because you don’t have a clear ending or you’re not sure where your piece is headed? Then your characters aren’t developed enough. Stop the story. Go back and flesh out your characters. (This is still writing, albeit “soft” writing). Once your characters are developed enough, then the story should practically write itself. If you know your character well, then you will know what they are thinking, where they are going, and what they are going to do next.

If you do know your characters well and you think you’ve got a great story, have you tried outlining? It’s not for everyone, but it may help put a structure in place so that when you do get stuck, you can look back at the outline and say, “oh right, that’s what I was going to say next.”

Now if you’re still stuck after all that, then (in my humble opinion) you’re just lazy. (or tired). Take a nap, have something to eat, take a walk. Do something to get the blood to the brain. I would avoid TV or the internet – you’ll get sucked in, trust me. If you’re still stuck, then do a writing exercise, find a writing prompt website. Work on another idea you have.

If writing it what you love, then stop making excuses and get writing.