Why English Majors Are Good at the InternetI became an English major not because I wanted to go into journalism or teaching or law. I became an English major because of what my 11th-grade English teacher wrote in thin red pen at the bottom of one of my essays:“You write a mean sentence.”I was one of the only students in my college classes who wasn’t a secondary ed double major, wasn’t pre-law, and wasn’t a minor in PR or journalism. I was just an English major, ready for where the wind would take me. It’s been 16 years since I graduated on that tree-lined quad, and for 12 of those years, I’ve been working in some way on the web. I didn’t start working on the web on purpose, though. I was a copy editor who humbly suggested that we turn some PDF newsletters into little emails, and I eventually found myself on a team of software developers, working as their translator on a battlefield of business requirements and tech-blabber. I served with valor, and wore my Bachelor of Arts in English like a badge of honor.Here’s why I think everyone working on and hiring for the web would be better served to look for more English majors, and even seek them out, for jobs that demand “technical expertise” in today’s workplace.We add a level of verisimilitude.A dear co-worker of mine was once developing a presentation for some internal stakeholders that would explain, in simple terms, the new API we’d be building for an e-commerce project. His slides were beautiful (he’s a designer at heart with a computer science degree), and I made a friendly suggestion to replace the generic label “conference” with the official name of one of our company’s upcoming events. “You know, it’ll add verisimilitude.” I waited through the raised eyebrow. “It’ll make it seem more realistic.” I watched him rename it, then smiled to myself when our senior executives nodded in understanding during the presentation. That minor change helped make the database and business objects mean something to them, and it proved that our team of developers was in tune with the business and what they cared about. It was a total win.We obsessively fact-check.I’d be surprised to find any English majors out there who were not excited when Facebook added the “Edit Comment” feature, because I’ll be damned if a misquoted line from Moby-Dick were to live for eternity on their servers, never mind appear on someone’s timeline. I was surprised when I saw this clever college campus “motivational poster” on Imgur; surely the author had hoped his or her work would show up on Reddit before too long, but the misspelling of “Lebowski” ruins it. An English major never would have let that happen, and if you want consistency and clarity in the work your company produces for the web, find an English major to manage it.We can work within constraints.This goes beyond comparing the composition of a tweet to the composition of haiku. For years I had wanted to start a blog, yet could never think of good posts, only good post titles. I discovered that Twitter was the perfect outlet for these funny but never-to-be-fully-baked ideas, and I enjoyed finding a way to convey their meaning within its limits. And, even if our stints at the college newspaper were short, many of us know the pressure of finding just the right words to make a 60-character headline fit into 30. There’s an art to this kind of creativity; it’s like a puzzle. People who can do this know that in business or marketing or development, hard choices need to be made to work within the system, be it a field of varchar(40) or limited space for the “perfect” email subject line.We use literary devices.Good writing is good writing, whether it’s in Harper’s or a well-done but under-read blog. And a lot of us, subconsciously or not, enjoy things well-written because we’re familiar with the work of classic authors and poets and appreciate those who know how to turn a phrase. We English majors do this naturally; we seek the “click” at the end of a sentence, the moment when the words beat down to nothing and you can feel an idea close like the back cover of a book. We love alliteration and anthropomorphism and know that malapropisms make funny status updates. These are the people you want running your social media beat, because your users will connect with their writing, and if they get a funny cultural or literary reference in the meantime, they’ll feel like a special insider and will want to spend money on your stuff.We like people, and we want to talk to them.English majors are the ones who invent the party games where you watch a movie and take a drink whenever a character or situation indicates foreshadowing. We’re also the people who know what it’s like to move our desks in a circle and read something to the class that you couldn’t get through writing without crying. We want to talk. We want to share. We want to talk about sharing. We’re good at talking to clients because we want to listen and craft their stories into something meaningful. It’s like finding a box of photos and arranging them in an album as a gift, only to have the recipient say with heartfelt thanks, “Wow. I can use this now.” If you want true understanding of a user’s needs, hire an English major to have the conversation and retell the story of what they learned; this time, more beautifully.My senior year of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I thought I might open a rubber-stamp store and spend my days by a creekside writing. I figured something would work out, and it did. Next time you’ve got an open position in your IS department, take a walk down to the water. You may find an English major there, wondering what’s going to happen next.
11 Oct 2013
I love the smell of libraries in the morning.