Updated: Oct 10

A common reaction when someone slips into English-major-ese

One of my favorite college professors essentially introduced herself on the first day of class by having trouble with her computer and saying, "Being a medievalist [i.e., one who studies medieval literature], I am unable to handle anything more technologically advanced than a fork."

Oh, Dr. "P." She was a riot. Out of the many times she appeared in my quote journal, this exchange is particularly relevant to us:

Dr. "P." (paraphrased): "Everybody knows that you speak differently in English-major-ese than you do in other places."
Female classmate: "If you don't, it's a problem."

Whether we are/were English majors or not, I think we authors have a tendency to slip into English-major-ese when we write. We might go down tangents that we know will eventually lead back to our main subject but that leave our audience scratching their heads (*cough* looking at you, Victor Hugo *cough*). We might start using jargon, big words, or purple prose when more-straightforward or more-easily-understood words would do just as well. We might overuse semicolons. One might write in a lofty, abstract, formal tone that sounds quintessentially academic and delights instructors of secondary-school English but has a curiously soporific influence on the lay reader.

(Okay, even I can't take that last sentence seriously. 😁) 

My point is that we have to strike a balance between what we can do with language and what our audience will understand/respond to. We might write killer sonnets (that sounds like an oxymoron--and a fun idea to mess around with), but would it really help us reach readers of, say, the Harvard Business Review? We might create a paragraph-length sentence with the help of our trusty semicolons, but how many general readers will still be with us by the end of it? Everyone likes to show off now and then, but what good is it if none of our audience gets it?

This doesn't mean you have to suppress all your writerly flights of fancy, of course. Write what you want to write, what's burning inside you to be written, even if it sounds crazy. Then bring it to me, and I'll help you work out the kinks so it can reach your readers and demonstrate your skills. Even if some passages have to go, I can help you find other ways to use them.

Write on,


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(Thanks to Magdalena Kula Manchee for sharing their work on Unsplash.)