The 7 Habits of Mildly Effective English Majors

or, the war between my academic and creative side rages on

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a recent college graduate. Majored in English, minored in convincing people that my major was a good idea. As an English major, I did a lot of writing. Like, a lot of writing. You’d be correct in assuming that this would be useful for a writer, but there are downfalls too.

*Cue academic tone*

In this essay, I will be discussing seven tools used in both creative and academic writing, the habits I have acquired as an English major regarding these tools, and how said habits have both helped and hindered my creative work.  

1. Research

If you happen to write works that require citations, you’re probably familiar with the way one conducts academic research. Combing library databases with keywords that never bring you quite the results you’re looking for, cursing JSTOR for not giving you access to literally anything, and, if you’re a sixty-year-old trapped in a twenty-year-old’s body, getting hyped when the library has a physical copy you can check out (they’re easier to browse, I swear). When I first realized I was unlocking the skill of research, I thought, “Score–this’ll help me with my creative work.” To some extent, that has proven true. I’m better at quick fact checks while writing, instead of shrugging my shoulders and making shit up. I’m better at note-taking, at tracking my sources, at streamlining to find exactly what I’m looking for. I’m grateful for these skills, but there are times when the academic style just isn’t going to cut it.

Example: I’m currently working on a creative project that has me looking into ideas concerning the intersection of psychological trauma and the supernatural. When I first started the research, I naturally went straight to my university’s database, began searching keywords, and downloaded a couple books and dissertations. It didn’t even occur to me that there are other ways to gain information besides wading through a grad student’s (genuinely interesting) work on ghosts in Irish literature. I spent a solid hour reading an article about the history of witchcraft before remembering that I’m not even writing about witchcraft, and another forty-five minutes looking up synopses for horror movies I haven’t seen so that I could better read a piece about childhood trauma and the paranormal. The lessons learned here are:

a) Emily is a giant nerd who likes to learn.

b) Stay focused. When I’m researching for an essay, I know what I’m looking for; I scan an article, and if it doesn’t seem to be relevant, I move on. When researching for a creative piece, I kept thinking, “you never know what’s going to be useful later!” thus allowing myself to delve into a research hole that, while interesting, is ultimately a form of procrastination. Which leads us to…

c)  Know when to quit. If I told you I spent a couple hours reading stuff that wasn’t relevant to my story, you can imagine how long I spent with the material that was. Did I need to spend a full week looking into one aspect of a story instead of actually writing the story? No, but it sure was a great way to put off doing the actual writing. And, thanks to my academically-oriented brain, a week seemed like a reasonable amount of time to spend on research. It’s worth mentioning that, for some creative projects, a week or a month or a year might indeed be a perfectly apt amount of time to spend doing research. If you need to know all there is to know about Santa Claus’s origin story, then it might take a while (he’s a complicated guy). But if you’re just doing a quick dip into why we call different groups of birds different names, don’t spend hours learning about English hunting traditions. In an essay, you need to gather as much information on the subject as your schedule permits before you even begin to write it, so that you can make an informed argument from there, but in creative writing, you can only do so much research before you have to… you know, write. 

books on shelf in library

2. Making an Argument

When writing an essay, I continually ask myself questions like, “What is your point?” “What is the argument?” “Why does it matter?” These are valid and important questions; they help me cut out unnecessary information. And actually, they can be very important questions to ask with your creative writing too, but there’s a different way to go about it. In academic writing, I ask myself these questions while I’m prepping, outlining, writing. But in creative writing, I have to save these kind of questions until after the first draft. If I’m screaming at my characters “WHAT IS THE POINT OF YOU?” all throughout a rough draft, I’m probably going to give up, because that’s just depressing.  

Regarding the question of argument: a lot, if not most, of literature does not have a distinct argument to speak of. If you suffer from Academia Syndrome like me, it’s such an ingrained thing to want in your writing that sometimes your creative stuff can get… preachy. Preachy is not the same as political–you can have a piece that has a very clear political message that doesn’t involve the characters breaking down the fourth wall and handing you the moral of the story in a neatly wrapped conclusion with citations. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. A Christmas Carol is a hundred and fifty pages of Charles Dickens putting the upper class English into a chokehold and saying, “but really, REALLY, can you stop using your money as toilet paper?  In general, though, the idea of argument is one that should be left to the essay formatting.

3. Outlining

Speaking of the essay format, let’s talk prep work. One of the best things that my academic career has taught me is how to plan what I’m going to write. I used to dive head first into stories without any idea as to where I was headed, and while I understand that this is a technique that some people use successfully, I am not one of them. I’m so governed by structure that if I start something without at least a vague idea of where I’m going, there is a 98 percent chance that I will give it up. So thanks to academia for forcing me to do thorough outlining. The one thing to be wary of is being so busy following at outline that you don’t let yourself think outside of what you’ve already planned. When I’m writing an essay, especially if I’m on a time crunch of “If I finish this I can finally go to bed” then I’m going to be following that outline without detour. I’ve done the research, I know my argument, now all I have to do is write. But with a story, it’s much more likely that I’ll realize a massive plot hole, or find a much more interesting way to get from point A to point B, or get deeper into a character’s psyche and realize they would never make that decision, etc., so I’ve learned to leave room for improvement.

idea bulb paper sketch

4. Sentence Structure

Please compare these two scenarios and spot the differences:

a) A compliment from a professor: “You write such long, beautiful sentences. Look at this one: half a paragraph. Amazing.”

b) Comments that Verb leaves on my stories: “Is there a way to make this more succinct?” “This is a little rambling” and “Good lord Emily this sentence is so convoluted you might as well stick a minotaur in it and call yourself Daedalus.”

For reasons that probably have to do with the fact that the longer the sentence, the harder it is to read, and therefore by some skewed logic the smarter you have to be to parse it, scholarly writing is chock full of unnecessarily long sentences. It’s great, for the sole reason that it means I can get away with sentences that find their purpose 3/4 of the way through like a protagonist in a coming of age novel. It’s also not great because the habit has transferred over to my creative writing, and Verb isn’t going to put up with that bullshit. Of course, the thing you want to be wary of is not long sentences in general, but rather, long sentences that could easily be shorter without losing an ounce of meaning.

5. Tone

Every single scholarly article I’ve ever read has the air of someone who’s sitting in a leather armchair in a study that smells like fancy bathrobes and outdated source materials while sipping on scotch and saying, “Listen darling, it’s none of my business, but logically speaking, if you’re looking at Homer’s Odyssey through the proper historical lens, the sirens clearly represent his lust for sex rather than knowledge, and furthermore, if you’ll just turn your attention to page 407 of Fitzgerald’s translation–because what are we, animals?–you’ll see that blah blah blah…” I’m going to be honest, I (un?)ironically love that tone. It’s interesting, hilarious on occasion, and meant to keep you somewhat objective, though admittedly that fails more often than not. I’ve spent a lot of time replicating this tone, figuring out its trigger vocab words and structure. However, I totally get why a lot of people find it unspeakably boring, and therefore I’ve prepared a three-step process to avoid having it leak into my fictional writing. At this point the blog just becomes me talking to myself.

Project No Fancy Robes Step 1: destroy objectivity. It doesn’t exist anyways, and there’s no reason why your narrator would keep a neutral tone unless, for example, they’re a scholar, sitting in their study, sipping on some scotch while calmly and dispassionately telling you about their battle to the death with a fellow scholar who had the gall to use Fagle’s translation of the Odyssey. I’ve found myself falling into a weird pattern in which I have my narrator justifying or rationalizing other character’s actions simply because I, as the author, know their motives and therefore feel the need to be objective. Impartial narrators can work, but if you’re not using one, don’t go out of your way to make them try and be fair.

Project No Fancy Robes Step 2: don’t point out themes. For the love of god, Emily, don’t point out themes. If you’re using the concept of themes properly, subtly, with a level of finesse that would make Kurt Vonnegut proud, then the reader will be able to figure it out without you putting a big neon sign up that says, “we’re talking about sexism.”

Project No Fancy Robes Step 3: spare the details. That cool fact? That interesting piece of information that you are sure is relevant to your story? It’s not. Cut it. It doesn’t add validity to your argument because you don’t have an argument.

pile of covered books
Just fuckin’ cut the deadwood, y’know? (This is Verb, by the way. Sometimes I crash Herb’s posts.)

7. Reading as a writer vs. reading as a scholar

This has less to do with the struggle of writing, but since reading is an integral part of writing, I figured I’d mention it anyways. The way I read books as an English major is antithetical to the way I read them as a writer. When I’m reading a book for school, I’m looking at social and historical context, finding symbolism, scouring for an aspect I find interesting enough to write an entire essay on. When I’m reading as a writer, I’m thinking, “wow, I care a lot about this character. Why is that? What did the author do?” “Hm, this section is losing my attention, what went wrong? What can I learn from that?” Both are valid and fun ways of reading, but I have not found a way to do both at once successfully. Sometimes when I’m reading for pleasure I hear the little English professor demon on my shoulder, tempting me to really concentrate on that fire imagery instead of just reading. This isn’t so much a problem as a minor side effect of my academic choices, but it’s worth noting, since it falls under the category of “habits I picked up whilst majoring in English.”

7. Oh my god you just wrote a 2000 word BLOG POST with numbered sections and academic jargon are you even listening to your own advice?

No, I’m not.

In conclusion, some of the habits you picked up while writing for university are bad if overused, or bad for creative writing in general. But if you are by some miracle still reading this, hopefully you got that and this tell-them-what-you-told-them outro is useless, as most essay outros are.