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Are English Majors Good Business Writers?

Updated Oct 4, 2022

I was teaching a business writing workshop recently for an entire team at a company. Attendance was mandatory. When I stopped to look at a participant’s laptop to coach the woman on her email, she said, “I don’t need your help. I was an English major. I know how to write.”

It was a sticky situation. Although she was an English major, one look at the message on her laptop told me she was not a good business writer–yet.

How could I tell at a glance that she didn’t know how to write email?

Huge paragraphs filled the screen. Huge paragraphs do not work in business writing, especially in email.

Are English majors good business writers? Not necessarily. Not without making a successful shift:

  • From well-constructed, complex paragraphs to well-constructed short chunks of text
  • From big words such as “populate” to small words such as “fill”
  • From long, complex sentences to short, simple sentences
  • From focusing on a theme to focusing on a purpose
  • From a discussion of ideas to a focus on results

English majors should not assume they know how to write for business, not without making the shifts above. I know–I was an English major, and I earned a master’s degree in communication in my twenties. Yet when I remember my first business letters, I cringe, seeing my very long, dense paragraphs and my focus on myself rather than my readers.

It’s no shame to have to learn to write differently for different purposes. Even Shakespeare would have to practice his craft differently if he were a business writer. Consider my experience:

I attended a recent production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Although I was enjoying the play, during the intermission I bought a “No Fear Shakespeare” version of it, which included both Shakespeare’s original and a plain English translation. I bought it so I could be sure I understood what the characters were saying.

Below is a character’s brief comment in both versions. Which one is easier to understand? Which one can you read more quickly?

Your worth is very dear in my regard.
I take it your own business calls on you
And you embrace th’ occasion to depart.

You’re both very precious to me. But I understand. You need to leave to take care of your own business.

I bet you are thinking we don’t read Shakespeare or attend productions of his plays for quick understanding. Fair enough. But business readers do insist on being able to understand a message quickly and easily.

Man dressed as Shakespeare with a quill in his hand is standing in a pondering pose with the caption: "how shouldn't I beginners this email?

So English majors, can we agree to write a plain English version when we create emails, reports, proposals, recommendations, presentations, and other pieces?

We can express our literary imaginations as complexly and creatively as we want to on the weekend.

Farewell. I must away.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

19 comments on “Are English Majors Good Business Writers?”

  • Good post. I was an English major, too, and I got a tech writing job shortly after I got my M.A. (also in English). I wrote some pretty horrific first documents as a tech writer; fortunately, I learned quickly that what works in the college English classroom doesn’t necessarily belong in the workplace.

    Sorry your English-major student was such a snob, though. We all have room for improvement, no matter how long we’ve been writing, or how much English “cred” we have.

  • Great post. This reminds me of print designers that try to design for the Web without learning the ins and outs. There are huge differences!

    How did you handle the situation?

  • I agree, Lyn. I was an English major, and I now teach business English at a university. Literary writing and business communication are worlds apart.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with Nina’s comment above. No matter what our credentials or experience, all of us have room to improve in every area of our lives, and we should welcome opportunities for such improvement. It’s not easy admitting our weaknesses, but it’s essential if we want to grow.

    Like Kevin, I’m also curious about how you handled this situation. Would you be willing to share?

  • Thank you, Nina, Kevin, Wickie, and Lisa, for taking the time to comment.

    Kevin and Lisa, you asked how I handled the situation. I didn’t handle it as well as I might have. So instead of telling you what I really did, I will tell you what I wish I had done.

    I wish I had instantly empathized with her, using a remark such as “Much of what we are talking about must be second nature for you.” Or I could have joked with her: “Another English major? We are soul sisters. If I faint, please take over the class for me.”

    Once we were on the same side of the issue, I might have grabbed a chair and sat down to read her first screen. I wish I had said things like “I can see that you have a strong command of language” and “You clearly have good rapport with your reader.”

    Once I shared some positive feedback, it would probably have been safe to offer constructive feedback such as “When I first glanced at the screen, I felt intimidated by the size of the paragraphs” or “If I were your reader, I would appreciate chunks of text that I could scan. What do you think your reader prefers?”

    In the real situation, I did not successfully lower the woman’s resistance. If I had more consciously taken the steps above, I believe we both would have been more successful.


  • I think your article describes a common trait called pride. English majors are not unique in this.

    For example, someone told me their mom taught English as a reason to cease improving their writing.

    In contrast, someone else said although their mom taught English, he can’t really claim to be a writer and asked for help.

    — Everyone should take a hard look at their abilities and improve no matter their pedigree.

  • Thanks for the great post, Lynn!

    Another English major here. Fortunately I stumbled upon a Technical Writing course early on and experimented with applying that clarity even to papers for literature courses. It worked! Lit professors seemed thrilled to read essays that strove to communicate an idea instead of obscure a lack of one.

    Of course, all that literary reading still tended to cause longwindedness. Every day remains a new challenge to write concisely.

    Lester Smith

  • Hi, Lester. A technical writing class is a great idea to rein in an English major’s literary energy. I am glad taking such a class was successful for you.

    Thanks for admitting your challenge with long-windedness. It is good for readers here to know they are not alone with that problem.


  • Hear, hear! Another English major here. I had to break a lot of habits lo those many years ago to adjust to business writing. Being an English major helped me tremendously, especially in sharpening my analytical skills. BUT, many of the things you learn are definitely not transferable. For instance, minimum page counts that encourage to actually use more words when fewer might do!

  • Rob, thanks for mentioning how being an English major helped you. It reminded me of one of the areas I developed as an English major–an awareness of the rhythm of language.

    I believe studying Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and the other rhythmic meters gave me an awareness of the sound and flow of language. Some people seem naturally to have that awareness. But others in my business writing classes do not seem aware of sentences that clunk to an abrupt end rather than flowing to a natural end.

    Thanks for reminding me of that English major’s gift.


  • Thanks for putting in writing what I have struggled to express: English majors are not automatically suitable for business writing jobs.

    Several doctorates in English applied recently for a writing job opening in my department. Their resumes alone were so poorly presented that I could not get excited about their applications.

    I’d encourage any academic writer to learn the basics of business and technical writing to make themselves more well rounded.

  • Hi, Diane. Thanks for sharing your resume-screening experience. It is a good reminder that resumes should be scrutinized by a test group of savvy business readers before they reach a potential employer.

    I hope you found a good writer to fill the position.


  • Lynn,
    I have really enjoyed reading your posts during my downtime as a technical editor/writer. I noticed something on this post: didn’t you mean “well-constructed” on your first bullet point?

  • Excellent post, Lynn.

    As a Teaching Assistant for a Business Writing course at the University of Maryland I can relate to this article. One of the primary objectives for this course is to teach the students to write more concisely. This is an extremely difficult task. The majority of students, at this point in their academic career, are set on their ways of writing.

    To address the issue, the professor and I introduced the Paramedic Method from Purdue Owl. Are you familiar with this method?

    In addition, we encourage the students to use Microsoft Word’s “readability statistics” function. The function allows students to review the number of sentences in each paragraph, the number of words per sentence, the characters per word, and the Flesch-Kincaid grade level.

  • Hello, Jacob. Thanks for mentioning the Paramedic Method at Purdue Owl. I am not familiar with it, but I will go to the site and read about it.

    Like you, I recommend that class participants use Word’s readability statistics. For many, that function is an eye opener.

    When I think about students being set in their bad writing ways, I blame their assignments of “a 500-word essay” and “a 20-page term paper.” Wordiness, redundancy, and lack of focus result from minimum lengths in documents.

    I am glad you stopped by.


  • I have written two books on business.
    One on Entrepreneurship, “In Search of the Silver Bullet” and the other, a satire on Big Business and those who work in it “The Low Road to Business Success”. (N B Schklair).

    In my opinion, a good novelist probably wouldn’t make a good business writer, in terms of, standard office correspondence. A good business book should be short and to the point and even that requires a different verbal tool set.

    I believe that business letters, proposals and reports work best when they are somewhat devoid of content and contain a lot of “white” space. The most effective communication in business is normally personal and conducted on a face to face basis.

    I could be wrong, but that’s my opinion. My web site is at
    and one of my books can be found at:

    nick schklair

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