In defense of English majors: we can understand business issues, too

Alan Pringle / Opinion3 Comments

In his latest blog entry, Neil Perlin explains how important it is for technical writers to have an understanding of business issues. With such knowledge, they can contribute to cost justifications for decisions that affect them directly. I couldn’t agree more with that. It is absolutely in writers’ best interests (and a matter of self-preservation) to understand processes and costs.

I strongly disagree, however, with the following assertion:

Writers from fine arts or English backgrounds can rarely discuss cost-justification in finance terms, so they have little input on buying decisions.

I am an English major, and I freely admit I am more of a “words” person than a “numbers” person. That being said, I am no slouch in the finance department. (Calculus is another matter, though.) I know many people with degrees in English and the liberal arts who are quite adept at understanding The Big Picture and developing business cases. Lumping all of us into a “can rarely discuss cost-justification” group is unfair.

Now I need to remind myself not to group software developers into a “can rarely write a coherent procedure” category. (It’s easy to make generalizations when you’re not the target of them.)

About the Author

Alan Pringle


Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

3 Comments on “In defense of English majors: we can understand business issues, too”

  1. I worked with some very good writers at a semi-conductor company. They were the engineers. They were very clear and very pedagogical in their style. I felt I was really an editor for them, not their writer. They did most of the work and very well, too. They were also eager to learn grammar and writing tips so they could improve the quality of their work. I loved them and actually shed tears when I left them. Fortunately, we can meet now and then for a beer or two!

  2. Hello,
    After getting several rather annoyed responses to my initial post about tech writers and business issues, I added an expansion to that post on my blog. I’ll repeat that expansion here.
    I have nothing against tech writers, including those with a fine arts or English background. (I have a BA in English myself.) Nor do I think that those writers can’t learn and become proficient in business and finance issues. My point is that I run into too many who don’t want to, an attitude that puts them at a disadvantage in today’s business environment. For example, if a doc group wants to buy a CMS that costs $100K+ but can’t cost-justify that expense in traditional finance terms, they may not get the money or, just as bad, the company may still buy the CMS but under the control of some other group, such as marketing or sales, that may make operational decisions on using that CMS that don’t take the doc group’s needs into account.
    My other point, which got buried, is that the finance aspect is just the most obvious business issue that may affect tech writers. The security issue and its effect on the adoption of something like Google Apps is less obvious but just as significant.

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