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A literature professor asks how I could have used the phrase "merely a literature professor" in my most recent post. And I realize that I wrote the "merely" to be provocative -- so apparently it had the effect I planned -- but I should have explained.

Literature professors, in addition to their many other talents, often know a lot about writing. Some have worked as journalists, grant readers and writers, etc., and thus know a great deal about how to write for institutions outside the academy as well as inside. But the question had come from a fellow moving from journalism into business writing. He already knows how to write. What he needs now is someone who has written for big corporations to show him how the writing styles will differ.

Certainly a great teacher with a good textbook can create a worthwhile course despite little experience in the subject area. But most business writing textbooks involve silly formatting stuff ("Here's what a memo looks like") that you can get as easily from a Microsoft Office template. They rarely examine audience, media, goals, information design, charts, tables... a whole host of philosophies and techniques that most English majors never even stop to consider. (Faced with useless textbooks, too often literature professors end up talking about literary theory, since that's what they know -- though not what the student of business writing needs to learn.)

"Business writing" and "technical writing" usually get little respect in English departments -- probably justified, since they're certainly not literature. But they do involve a unique skill set -- different than the literary essay OR journalism, as I had to figure out basically on my own. To my constant surprise, colleges frequently assign, say, a Shakespeare expert to teach a business writing course. It's like asking a mere PhD metallurgist to teach welding.

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