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The 4 Types of College Papers for English Majors
And why I had to unlearn all of them to become a writer
Let me start with a story.
The year is 1982, and I’m a grad student interviewing for a job at a very high-powered Silicon Valley company. It’s a company that everybody knows with a famous CEO. It is (by reputation) a very desirable place to work.
But the interviewer is a blunt, crass man. He spends the entire interview insulting me. In fact, I’ve just seated myself when he stares me down and says: “I’ve looked at your resume, and it’s very impressive—but I think most of the things on it are lies. I bet you didn’t do half this stuff.”
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I should have walked out of the interview right then. But I was in such shock, I just sat there with my mouth agape.
Then he takes another look at my resume, and says: “You were an English major in college? That was a waste of time, no?”
Once again, I’m dumbstruck. I’d like to give this fellow a quick lesson in English literature, maybe starting with a demonstration of how Beowfulf killed the monster Grendel during a job interview in the year 700 A.D., but I’m not sure that’s allowed in Silicon Valley. Instead I just sit there with a frozen smile on my face.
But it gets worse. A few minutes later, my inquisitor takes a third look at my resume, and now he says: “Okay, I’ve finally figured it out.”
“What did you figure out?” I somehow manage to ask.
“I figured out why your resume looks so good.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s because you were an English major. And all you English majors know how to write things to make them look better than they really are.”
This witty repartee goes on for another forty minutes, more or less, with an occasional interruption from me. But it’s mostly a monologue. When I finally leave the room, I feel like I’ve just been hit over the head with an anvil from the Acme company.
I should have had more self-respect than to put up with that barrage of insults.
But there’s a denouement to my story: Three months later, I got a phone call from this same guy with all the insults.
“Hey, would you be interested in working for us? The CEO needs a speechwriter.”
You see, English majors have something to contribute to the economy after all. Especially because they know how to make things look better than they really are.
Every company needs that.
Despite that obvious fact, not everybody shares my enthusiasm for literary studies. Just today I read another article announcing “The End of the English Major.” That’s actually the name of the article. And it appears in The New Yorker, no less.
Their account is filled with all sorts of gloomy statistics about the Department of English. But on a positive note, it convinced me that the esoteric learning I gained as an undergraduate has what is known as scarcity value. It’s stuff that students today might never learn—because they’re off doing calculations for their STEM problem sets.
With that in mind, I want to pass on some of this insider’s knowledge before it disappears off the face of the earth. In particular, I will share…
The Four Ways to Write a College English Paper—and Why I Had to Unlearn All of Them
Or how to make things look better than they really are
By Ted Gioia
This is where I spill the magical beans. I tell tales out of school. I reveal the tricks of the trade.
In short, I’m going to tell you the secret stuff you learn as an English major. These are the writing skills that allow you to make things look better than they really are.
There are four strategies, and they’re like a pyramid. The higher up you go, the better things look. But there’s not much room at the top.
I wasn’t always an English major at college. In fact, I spent my first 10 weeks on campus as a music major.
But the less we say about those 10 weeks, the better.
(There is some heavy irony in the fact that I later served on the faculty of that same Department of Music—but those stories must wait for another day.)
The upshot was that I was the first person in my college class to declare a major, and also the first to change majors. I declared as a music major during my first week on campus in late September, and decided to switch sometime in December.
But if music wasn’t going to work for me, what was my backup plan?
The obvious choice was to major in English. I liked reading books. I had learned some writing skills in high school, especially from my journalism teacher Konnie Krislock (who still gives me writing advice today, by the way). Studying literature for the next four years seemed like fun.
By the way it never occurred to me to pick a major that might help me get a job, or teach me marketable skills. I picked courses based on sheer curiosity and a fascination with learning stuff and expanding my horizons. As I saw it, reading books was the fastest way of doing that.
But I had one more goal at age 17, but I’m almost embarrassed to admit this. I wanted to gain wisdom. I thought that immersing myself in the great literary works of the past was how you did that.
In fact, that was my single biggest goal for college: gaining wisdom. (If I could insert a laugh track in this article, you would hear mild chuckling right now.)
And so I showed up at my college classrooms each day with the fervor of a true believer who had just joined a life-saving and soul-enriching cult.
But every day I lost a little bit of my innocence.
I soon discovered that surviving as an English major had nothing to do with finding wisdom. Even more surprising, it didn’t really depend much on reading books. The real key to success was writing papers that fit the mold.
And so I learned about the four types of college English paper.
No one actually told me about the 4 types, which was a little surprising. Because your grades actually depended on knowing how to write them. If you were a superstar student, you could churn out all four types, but just to survive you needed to know one or two of them.
Let me introduce you to the 4 types of term papers—in increasing order of difficulty;
(1) The Reliable C&C
This is the ‘compare and contrast’ paper, and is about as simple as they come. You take two things that aren’t exactly like each other. It’s just like Sesame Street, but with books.
Then you list 5 ways they are similar and 5 ways they are different. Voilá—you’ve written a college paper!
“Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen are both writers who share the same language: English. But Hemingway is an American who liked bullfighting and drinking martinis. Jane Austen is English and never fought a bull. She probably drank tea, because the martini wasn’t invented until 1863, some 47 years after her death. . . .”
You can write this stuff in your sleep, provided you dream about Wikipedia entries. But be forewarned: the reliable C&C probably only gets you a reliable C grade.
That’s why you should learn the next type of term paper, which is:
(2) The TWIT (They Were Idiots Then)
Back in the old days, everybody was a fool—They Were Idiots Then (TWIT).
We know that unfailingly, for the simple reason that they didn’t think like us. They were stupid and stodgy and superstitious and held all sorts of irritating views.
And it’s true. You can take absolutely any book from a hundred years ago, and find infractions on almost every page. The past is a different country, where everybody is a knucklehead.
Here’s how to write a TWIT: You take a yellow marker and highlight every time somebody in the book makes a blunder, according to our current rules of decorum this week. Trust me, you won’t even have to read the whole book. Within a chapter or two, your book will have more yellow highlights than Nicki Minaj’s hairdo.
Now you’re ready to roll.
You write up the infractions like it’s a district attorney’s indictment. But here’s the key—you must give it some fancy name. You can’t just call a twit a twit in your TWIT paper; you have to refer to your harangue as a critique or an exegesis or a deconstruction, starting with the title—which should be something like “A Critique of Phallogocentrism in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw.”
Once you get the hang of this, it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. There’s just one problem—everyone else in the class is also writing TWIT papers. It’s the most popular thing on campus since the invention of the senior admin job. So you only get a B on these. Or maybe B+ if you throw in a few French words (for example, inserting différance whenever you’d normally say difference).
For a real shot at an A paper, you need to learn the two other term paper strategies.
(3) The DIM
We are now trying to impress the professor and get an A. So we can’t just write about what’s happening at the surface level—we must identify the Deep Inner Meaning (DIM) that others don’t see.
Those bozos think that Moby Dick is a novel about a great white whale. But we know there’s a Deep Inner Meaning to the book—that whale is actually a stand-in for the author’s annoying mother-in-law. Or maybe it’s a surrogate for the President of the United States. Or a displaced sex object.
Let your imagination run free. It really doesn’t matter which you choose. It just can’t be anything obvious. And then you need to talk a good game, and not pay too much attention to facts and plausibility.
And who said you don’t learn useful job skills as an English major?
If you spread the B.S. thick enough, and never let on that you even sniff the stench, you have better than even odds of getting a top grade. It helps, by the way, if you show up in class dressed in something unseemly and having omitted several steps in your morning grooming routine—which are seen as signs of incipient genius in the School of Humanities.
But there’s an even higher level term paper strategy. But you must have serious game to play it. This paper is called:
(4) The Old Switcheroo
Only superstars write the Old Switcheroo. But if you pull this off, the sky is the limit. You might end up as a Senator or in the Cabinet, or have a prominent byline in a newspaper of record.
That’s because the Old Switcheroo turns everything into its opposite. If you master this technique, you can prove anything, no matter how implausible. Water isn’t wet. War is Peace. We have always been at war with Eastasia. You name it.
Everybody thinks that Shakespeare’s King Lear is a tragedy, but for the Old Switcheroo, you prove that it's actually a comedy. Everybody thinks that Mozart is a great composer, but you prove that he stole everything he wrote from Salieri’s butler. Frankenstein wasn’t a monster, but a respected scientist. Etc. etc.
Up is down. Black is white. Fire is ice.
Make no mistake, the Old Switcheroo is A+ work, and no fooling. Even more, it’s a surefire path to career success. There’s just one tiny problem: The people who master the Old Switcheroo are batshit crazy and have a psychological profile dangerously close to that of a serial killer. They might end up in the White House, but you wouldn’t trust them to house-sit your chia pet.
But those are the four options. There are no others.
And that was how I was taught to write as a college major in the Department of English. These were the skills that convinced even a skeptic at a huge Silicon Valley company that I should work directly for the CEO on my first job out of school.
I turned down that job. But he was correct. My training had taught me how to make things look better than they really are.
But when I tried to make a living as a writer, I couldn’t rely on any of them. They might work in a college course, but not in real life. In fact, readers despise and distrust all four of these formulas—and mostly because they’ve seen them far too often.
They think the reliable C&C is just a pose. The TWIT is a scam. The DIM is a bald-faced lie. And when they see the Old Switcheroo, they actually run away as fast as possible. (By the way, this explains why a lot of media platforms are struggling right now.)
But what could I do, if I didn’t rely on the 4 strategies?
Here’s the funny part of the story. I eventually returned to my original mindset, before I had taken a single college course. If you recall, those were innocent days when I was motivated by curiosity, and a fascination with learning things, and expanding my horizons.
[The laugh track here inserts a few gut-shaking guffaws.]
But this was no laughing matter, not anymore. I actually had to forget much of what I had learned in college and regain the mindset of a wide-eyed innocent. I even decided that the goal might actually be to seek wisdom. Heaven forbid!
I began writing articles (and eventually books) with questions in mind, not answers. I stopped listening to editors and agents, and followed my bliss, responding to the urgings of my inner heart. I researched topics because they excited and inspired me, not to pad the bibliography or please people in positions of power. I started taking chances on writing projects, because that made things more interesting—even if it made things harder too.
Why does this strategy work? It not only runs counter to what we’re taught, but also violates the basic rules of career management. But it does work—I know that from firsthand experience.
The reason should be obvious by now, but let me spell it out. A writer must be curious, because the readers are. A writer must seek inspiration and mind-expanding experiences, because the readers do. A writer must try to find wisdom, because that’s what readers are after.
Not every reader. But the ones you want to write for are like that.
Let other people write for readers who hope to have their prejudices confirmed and feel like they already know it all. Sure, there’s plenty of supply and demand for that fluff—but that’s the first stuff that disappears when the media market tightens. In fact, it’s already getting squeezed out, and for all the obvious reasons.
So that’s my advice to young writers. And it’s sweet advice, too. Because you don’t have to grow up. You retain the innocence and inquisitiveness of a child—and if you’re good enough at it, you can spend you’re whole adult life that way.
And the funny thing is that if you do retain this childlike quality, you not only have a more interesting life. You’re also more useful to the world. And maybe even useful to those CEOs and their lackeys. Although I wouldn’t count on them figuring that out.