Advice to Future English Majors

Earlier this week, I had a student visit with me because she wanted to know whether or not she should become an English major. With no other guidance, I did what any other self-respecting former English-major would do: I began blabbering away, with great enthusiasm, detailing everything from my own experiences with an English degree (yes, it is a degree worth having, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), my own career path (an English degree may not lead to the most linear career path, but it certainly gives you more options than most people realize), and also, because this student seemed to want my advice on how to pursue writing, I blathered on about that, too.

In short, I told her the following:

  • I became an English major because I really liked to read and write, and had since childhood, so it was an easy choice for me. In fact, at the time, it was the only thing I thought I could do. It was the only thing I wanted to do. That may not be the case with her necessarily, but whatever she chose to do, she should ultimately enjoy the crux of whatever it is she chose.
  • The world has a shortage of people who can write well, so if she CAN write well, she will be ahead of most people in the career world. We need people who can write and just being able to do that (and successful English majors generally can) gives a person a tremendous edge.
  • The world also has a shortage of people who can think logically and critically, so if she could do that, too, she would also be ahead of most people in the career world. A degree in English can help prepare students for logical thinking, unpacking of arguments, finding errors in reasoning, and so forth.
  • Given the above, did she like to read and write? Because if not, then she’d be miserable being an English major. English majors do a LOT of reading and writing. Deep reading. “Writing-in-the-margins-after-reading-a-work-four-times” kind of reading, of the like she may have never done before.
  • Given all that, you don’t need to be an English major to learn how to write fiction. Many well-known writers had other careers, too. Just as an FYI.
  • That fear of failure at the blank page? (She nodded). That doesn’t go away. Writers learn to just live with it and find a way to tackle the fear of the blank page.
  • Every day, she should read. Every. Single. Day. It doesn’t really matter what. If she reads great literature, she’d learn how to read critically and write better. If she read crap, she’d learn how to read critically, how not to write crap, and she’d gain confidence that if that nonsense could be published, so could her own work. Ideally, she should read both quality work and crap (with more focus on quality work, of course). She should read anything and everything, so she can learn a confidence with the written word, learn new vocabulary, learn varieties of sentence structure, learn what works and doesn’t work. Writers read. There is no way around that.
  • Every day, she should write. Keep a journal and write down observations and notes on her world. This could be any notebook of her choosing, even on her phone notebook app for that matter, but all self-respecting writers need to jot down their thoughts and ideas on a continual basis so they don’t forget them.
  • Every first draft is crap and she should embrace that idea. This is completely fine and telling herself that will help her get started. But she should also remember that writers revise. A lot.
  • Don’t listen to the nay-sayers who tell you your English degree will be useless. I have never once regretted my English degree, even before graduate school. When I was an undergraduate, marketing majors loved to harass me about my English major and were forever asking me, “WHY are you majoring in English??” Well, guess what my one of my early jobs involved? That’s right: I was a marketing gopher. I wrote ad copy, press releases, and did other marketing-related work for two different marketing departments. When they hired me, they said when that they preferred to hire people with an English degree over a marketing degree (ha!). So, do your research and know what’s out there–don’t just listen to equally uninformed people without thinking critically. That’s not how future English majors roll.
  • Just because you have a degree, this doesn’t mean you will automatically get a job, English degree or other. There are a lot of people wandering around in the world with lots of degrees, but no job. It’s up to you to get the job. To this end, I recommended she make connections early while still in college. Talk to professors, be involved, get to know people in the community.
  • Be prepared to work hard. While it doesn’t involve math (amen!), being an English major is still not an easy degree. Think: 2 books of reading per week. Lots of papers.

In the end, I think I may have left her overwhelmed, clutching a Post-It note where I’d written a list of books to read, but I think it was good advice. I hope it was, anyway.

I wasn’t going to even write this post, but then, like a message from the Great Beyond, I was drinking my coffee this morning and got a good glimpse of my daughter’s laundry bag, which she brought down from her room so she could do her laundry. Check it out at the top. It is cute, unless you look closely and study the words. Then, it burns. Oh, how it burns.

Now, this bag was probably not made in an English-speaking country (one can hope), but still. I think it illustrates my point, future English scholars. If you can write well, the world needs you!

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