5 Writing Lessons You Need to Unlearn (and 5 more you should adopt)

Oh sure. We all remember high school English. Verb-noun agreement. Proper use of the comma. How to write a thesis statement and a conclusion.

But some lessons are better off being forgotten. Here are five:

1 – Three sentences make a paragraph

Not always. In fact, hardly ever. If you’re writing a college essay, follow this rule. For your own writing, ignore that crap. It’s not uncommon to lead a news story with one sentence. In novels, it can be anything from one to five. The point is not to limit the number of sentences, but to complete the thought and keep the reader engaged.

Besides, everyone remembers rule-breakers.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.  – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  – J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

2 – Two spaces between sentences

Just follow the link. It says it all, especially this: “Is this arbitrary? Sure it is. But so are a lot of our conventions for writing.”

3 – Every sentence needs a noun and verb

Sometimes, a sentence fragment is downright sexy. No really. It shakes shit up for the reader. Of course, it’s like anything else in that you don’t want to do it too much. Because then the effect is lost. Like when a writer italicizes something in every other sentence for emphasis. Or uses a million exclamation points. Get it?

4 – You need a beginning, a middle and an end

For a term paper. Not so much for other kinds of writing. We don’t always have time for preamble. Sometimes, we need to dive in.

You see this mainly in news reporting. But it’s also fucking polite (see what I did there?) to get to the point in an email, blog post or memo. People are busy. We don’t always have time to peruse pages and pages of bullshit. The best writers are great with word economy while giving us important details, so we want to keep reading.

Edna Buchanan began a story for The Miami Herald this way:

Bad things happen to the husbands of the Widow Elkin.

Someone murdered husband No. 4, Cecil Elkin, apparently smashing his head with a frying pan as he watched “Family Feud” on TV.

Husband No. 3, Samuel Smilich, drowned in a weedy South Dade canal.

Husband No. 2, Lawrence Myers, can­not be found. . .

Tell me you’re not dying to know the deal. She ends it this way:

It is the murder of her fourth husband that got Margaret Elkin in trouble. She is accused of trying to hire a beekeeper to kill him. The trial is set for Sept. 9.

A typical story would have started with the date for the trial – because that’s the news. But when Buchanan dug around for info, she found an amazing series of events. And she was smart enough to write it that way. (In journalist jargon, this is called a kicker.)

5 – Throw out your thesaurus

Or burn it. Your choice.

The thesaurus causes more problems than it solves. And as long as it’s around, you’ll be tempted to use it rather than rely on your own brilliance.

And trust me: your words are far better than anything you seek in the thesaurus.

I spend the majority of my editing time reminding writers to just say what they mean. Don’t be clever. Be clear. Don’t make the reader work because you have to work to write it. Because the reader won’t work to read. She will stop reading and that sucks for you, the writer.

Every time you pick up the thesaurus, you’re seeking a word to replace whatever came to mind. Ask yourself, “Would I grab a thesaurus to replace a word before I said it in conversation with a friend?” Of course not. So don’t write that way. Just say it.

• • •

Now that we’ve covered the shit you don’t need, let’s look at five quick things you can do to make your writing better.

1. Cut with a chainsaw

Sometimes writers get excited about description. That’s when it usually becomes wordiness. I call it overwriting and it’s common with both new and seasoned writers.

We want to create a new image. But the simplest way of saying something is also the best. When you thump your chest with your prose, you stop storytelling. Overwriting is trying too hard. Writing with clarity lets the story speak.

Does your reader need to know the killer prefers boxers to briefs? Unless it’s important to the plot, no.

Not sure if something should go? Take it out.

2. Hire an editor

I don’t care who you are, if you’re a writer, you need an editor. If you are an editor, you definitely need an editor.

3. Have a plot

Choose a complication and resolve it. This is a plot. Your character wants or needs something and can’t get it for some reason. This is the complication.

How do they get it? This is the story. Once your character figures out how to get what she wants, you have a plot.

4. Write a lot, then write some more

The more you do a thing, the better you become. Nowhere is this more true than writing. Give yourself permission to write the utter crap you must write in order to improve.

5. Use “said”

Writers often try to come up with words to replace “said” as a dialogue tag. Shrieked. Groaned. Huffed. Growled. Choked.

Amateur mistake. You’re better than that.

“Said” doesn’t distract the reader from what’s important – your dialogue. Because like it or not, what is being said is more important than how it is being said. Don’t disrupt the flow of your story by thumping your chest with a fancy word. Don’t take your reader out of the story to pause and reflect on how clever you are. Readers hate that. They want to escape. It’s why they read.


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I didn’t say anything

When I was nine, my mother combed my long dark locks into a side part and clipped them with a single metal barrette for picture day. I wore a turtleneck with a tiny red whale print and a matching red sweater.

I carpooled with neighbors to a private all-girls Catholic school two towns away. The girls in the backseat with me passed slices of orange over my head and squeezed them into my hair, seeds and all.

I didn’t say anything.

When I was eleven, I transferred to public school where I was blissfully ignored.

At fourteen, one of the girls from the snotty private school transferred into my public school. Within a month, a clan of girls like her – rich, covered in inches of makeup, gloriously stupid and brilliantly mean – were following me through halls slinging insults. I didn’t know them. I definitely didn’t know what their problem was.

I didn’t say anything.

At fifteen, they chased me through the locker area and threw water on my head.

I didn’t say anything.

At sixteen, they shoved me into walls and threatened to beat me up. After school, they drove to my house and parked out front until late at night, yelling threats.

I didn’t say anything. And I never went outside.

Everyone knew what went on. Teachers, administrators and my friends. They didn’t say anything either.

I had one of the worst attendance records in school, despite earning some of the best grades.

It took me about 20 years to forgive myself for not fighting back.

I’m 41 years old. I may never forgive the bullies.

I am far from alone.

Seventy-seven percent of all students are bullied in some way. Of that 77 percent, 14 percent have a severe reaction to the abuse, according to recent statistics. Poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety about going to school, even suicidal thoughts.

About one in five students admit they are responsible for bullying their peers.

Almost half of all students fear harassment or bullying in the bathroom at school.

The most violent altercations between students are more likely to occur on school grounds than on the way to school.

One of the most unfortunate parts? In about 85 percent of bullying cases, no teacher or administrator intervenes to stop the bullying.

Sarah Cymbaluk of Fosston, Minnesota, is taking fire today because her 9-year-old daughter has been repeatedly bullied on the bus and the school has done nothing. So she posted a video on Facebook of her crying daughter, who says, “It makes me feel sad and scared, and I don’t like it.”

The video was viewed tens of thousands of times before being taken down by YouTube because it was a violation in their terms and conditions.

According to WDAZ-TV, who broke the story, Jon and Sarah Cymbaluk met with school officials repeatedly, to no avail.

Circa 1986, when I was in high school, that might have been the norm. But today, there is no excuse.

If you know someone who is being bullied or witness it yourself, you have an obligation to help. Not sure what to do?

Start here:

Kids’ help lines (with real people who want to help now):

“I want to feel like I’m wanted in the school and people like me,” the girl told Minnesota’s KHON channel 2. “You know what I want? I want it to never happen to another kid again.”

Me too. Me too.