School is where we learn the foundations of writing. We learn spelling, grammar and the technicalities of putting a sentence together. But do we learn how to be good writers? Probably not. So I’ve put together 10 rules writers should unlearn from school.
#1 Use lots of words to get your point across
Verbosity at school is a survival mechanism – it helps you reach the set 5,000 word mark of an essay even if you don’t have much to say. In the real world of writing the more concise you are the better. Make a point instead of talking around one.
#2 Big words are better
When I was at school I’d throw around the most obscure words my thesaurus could offer and it seemed the less understandable I made my work, the better my marks became.
When I started an internship in a TV newsroom the chief of staff would take one look at my stories and cross half the words out. I couldn’t understand it! My teachers used to praise my writing and now it seemed I was a failure. That is until one of the more seasoned journalists told me to pretend I was writing to a 12 year old. I took his advice and suddenly my stories were being broadcast word for word.
What I learned was that no one in the real world is impressed by you showing off your vocabulary. Big words often don’t fit naturally and make it sound like you’re overdoing it. So many amazing writers evoke the best imagery and feeling from the simplest of words.
#3 Don’t begin sentences with AND, BUT or OR
I never liked this rule and thankfully in the writing world no one minds if you break it.
#4 Don’t use incomplete sentences
Incomplete sentences can be used as a device to create quick, punchy sentences. Journalists often employ this technique to add drama but so too can other writers – poets, bloggers and novelists. Think Annie Proulx in The Shipping News (incidentally a text I studied at school). The device, while an allusion to Quoyles occupation (a journalist) also creates a mood as choppy and unpredictable as the ocean.
#5 Don’t take initiative
At school it’s always the kids who do exactly as their told who get the good marks. You’re handed assignment after assignment that spells out exactly how you should write, what you should write and what themes and topics are taboo.
There is however, no formula for writers and the most successful are those who stay true to themselves. They don’t avoid topics that are tough or controversial. They don’t need someone to tell them what to write about. And most importantly they find their own voice, something which is mostly discouraged at school.
#6 Avoid profanity
It depends what kind of audience the work is targeted to but using profanity isn’t a bad thing when used in the right context.
#7 Don’t use slang
At school you’re encouraged to be formal in your writing. But this doesn’t always work. Again it depends on your audience and what you’re writing.
When used correctly slang can be a great literary device. It can be used to denote time, place and characterisation AND create a distinctive voice. When I think of the successful use of slang I think of Mark Twain. He delighted in popular slang which dominated his early writings and letters. Even his pen name – Mark Twain as he was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens – was slang and had two meanings – two whiskeys on credit at a saloon or the depth of a sounding in the Mississippi River.
#8 Avoid contractions
At school we were never allowed to use contractions. In formal writing they seemed out of place – plus when you’re trying to bulk up your word count they’re just not practical.
In normal conversations though how often do we use them? Most of the time. I’m a huge advocate of contractions. I think they make writing more accessible, realistic and conversational. They’re a must when writing dialogue.
#9 Avoid first person
Teachers understandably don’t want to be given a piece of writing all about a student’s life or opinions with no evidence to back up what they’re arguing. In real life, first person is a great tool.
When writing blogs using first person allows your style to come through and also allows your audience to connect with you – especially if you share anecdotes as part of your posts. With the rise of social media the use of first person in journalism is also gaining traction. However, if you’re writing a formal piece or a news style article rather than an opinion piece – steer clear of first person and instead present the facts.
First person of course has been used as a device in fiction, poetry and music for centuries and will always have its place.
#10 When you’ve finished your work, hand it straight in
When writing an essay, article or story at school there’s not much time for editing or in some cases (if you’re like me and left everything to the last minute) no time at all.
In the writing world it’s the complete opposite. Editing is what makes writing good. Take the time to polish your work. Get other people to read it and give you feedback. Learn to love criticism and join a writing group. That way when you hand your finished product to the world you’ll know it’s the best it can be.
Are there any writing rules you learnt at school that you disregard? What were the things you learnt that made you a better writer? Let me know in the comments.