Unlearning the Essay

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of the English Literature degree. Here’s another reason why I believe it inadequate preparation for most professional careers:

The 1,000 2,000 3,000 any number above 350 words essay.

Every English Literature class requires the essay, an overly long piece of writing that accomplishes three goals:

  1. Prove that you actually read the required material and pay attention in class.
  2. Prove that you are capable of coming up with a clever and sophisticated argument.
  3. Prove that you can analyze scholarly essays by using an overly complex system of citation (MLA, APA, or Chicago, pick one) and pretending to sound original.

These points hold merit in developing skills you will use in the real world. Yet the execution demanded by English Literature professors through this essay holds no merit whatsoever. An essay is a long drawn out series of black words on white pages. For scholars and professors this boring presentation is fascinating. In the real world, your thousands of words will go ignored.

Real-World Example: In the ecommerce world I work in, if I want to make my point to a customer I not only require a nice design, I also require brevity in words. I can, and often must write a product description in less than 350 words (one standard page). If I go beyond this length, prospective customers  must scroll down excessively, and I risk them losing retained information and interest in the product. Essays often require at least 5-10 pages, usually more on the upper levels of literature classes. I can count the number of times I’ve written something that long at work on one hand. And I can spare a few fingers in the process.

Whew, that was a long paragraph. Still with me? My point is, although commonly used and hated by students everywhere, the long essay is too frequently used in the college level. Students need to learn to be brief and make their points quickly. Their future bosses don’t want an introductory paragraph, thesis statement, support, and conclusion. They just want the thesis statement.

Incidentally, the essay also fails in a design standpoint as well. If I used any of the above formatting tricks in a paper in college I’d lose points. Yet they actually help me design my information, which technical writers need to consider when drafting a document. If technical writers designed all of their documents like essays, they would not get very far. My blog design is white letters on a black background for a reason.

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Filed under Information Design, Technical Writing, Writing

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