Teaching Writing Formulas is GARBAGE :: Confessions of a Dirty Blonde

In middle school, we’re told our paragraphs must be three sentences long. In high school, we’re told five sentences will suffice, but only if you use a hook, a lead in, something of substance, a lead out and conclusion. It’s systematic.

Then as upperclassmen, we’re allowed to lengthen our paragraphs, to add three more sentences (for a total of eight). Providing guidelines is two-fold for teachers, so writing becomes formulaic, easy to understand for the math wizards in the classroom and approachable for every other student who thinks their writing sucks.

Teaching writing formulas is total garbage.

We’re teaching kids all paragraphs should look the same, begin and end the same and, consequently, bore readers in the same way. So what happens when you’re no longer in school but you had to follow these rules through most of your formal training in writing? You’re writing similar paragraphs, fearful to color outside of lines you were once graded between. It sure as shit isn’t easy to break bad habits. Hello, smokers.

Writing paragraphs in a variety of sentence lengths can and will make your writing more interesting. (One sentence.)

Don’t believe me? Pick up your favorite contemporary author and dig around in their book, noticing how many sentences are in each of their paragraphs. (Two sentences.)

Then play with your own writing. Make long paragraphs with short sentences or make a short paragraph with one complex sentence. Either way, you’re breaking the habit of writing cloned paragraphs. (See what I’m doing?)

Writers sometimes lose focus on the fact we are meant to entertain our audience. To do this, we must employ techniques to make navigating our work easy and effective. One of those techniques is as simple as mixing up your paragraph structure, playing with where to cut one and start another. But the key is to play, to pick apart your own work and see if it’s more effective divided in a different way.

If you can do this, it will become second nature. You’ll realize you can have a long paragraph, detailing the sights, sounds and smells of your hometown. Showing us the stars sparkling in the night ocean or the lighthouse beam, dizzying your step as you focus on each twist around the harbor. But the light always brings you home, reminding you you’re alive and present.

Except the grueling scent of Pier Seven Fish Market, which suffocated your throat – and reminded you why you made the trip back to the northeast.

And THAT one sentence paragraph just gave us a complete juxtaposition of the feelings and memories you displayed in the first paragraph, stirring questions and responses from your reader, instead of being the conclusion of a single paragraph about the setting of your scene.

One thing I’ve learned from teaching students in generation Y, and being a student of generation X, is education has never given students enough creative outlets. We don’t value what isn’t practical at this point. And sure, plenty of people could argue they don’t teach this way. But the vast majority do. Which also means the vast majority of writers were taught something similar. And if there is one habit that’s easy to break, it’s this one.

Start digging around in your work. Play and reconstruct and make the words you already love more interesting by simply putting them in different places.

It’s that simple.

Got writing questions for Lindsay? Email capo@rebeccatdickson.com. You might see your answer here. Confessions of a Dirty Blonde goes out every Thursday.

The best writing is yours

Since I started asking people to email me in The Guide, I’ve received hundreds of responses from writers all over the world – all sharing the same sentiment.

“How do I make people love my work?”

“How do I market my book so people will read it?”

“I have no clue how to connect with my fan base.”

Most of us can relate to one, if not all, of these. It’s hard to throw down your words and expect others to feel what you do when reading them. Writing makes you vulnerable to other people, who may or may not like your work. And that sucks. Because rejection and fear suck.

If you want to get better, you can read all of the writing books, columns and posts in the world. You can play with your language or mimic someone else’s style. You can even pay someone to write for you.

The bottom line?

No amount of marketing or mimicking will help you connect to you fan base.

Your voice, your story, your heart are what will sell your books.

No amount of swag or Facebook ads will keep people reading if you don’t pour yourself into your work. Because, whether you like it or not, people are either going to connect to your voice or they’re not. They’ll form their own opinions.

I mean, don’t you?

I absolutely understand how easy it would be to market ourselves and our stories if we only had to throw more money at our fears. But big budgets don’t help us get what we want out of the deal.

We want people to hear us.

And being heard isn’t about speaking the loudest or longest. It’s about being genuine. It’s also really fucking hard to be genuine when you’re consumed with fear. So you can both give in to the fear and give up on your dreams, or you can work through the fear and let your true voice rise.

The first option makes it easy to go about life without ever glancing back at the fire burning inside, the passion you have for writing and the dream of finishing your manuscript. Hell, it’s where most of us stop dreaming and start living what-ifs and back-thens.

The second option makes you face everyone who isn’t going to love your work. But they aren’t the people you want reading anyway. And it humbles you enough to realize everyone doesn’t have to love what you write.

A few naysayers are better than a lifetime of regret.

The people who do love what you write? They’ll let you know. Once it happens, once you get your first email from a fan thanking you for writing what was in their soul, you’ll know the pain and fear and hard work were worth it.

But you have to use your own fucking voice to get there.


Want to learn more about writing like YOU? I’m polishing a new product that will teach you exactly that. Join our subscriber list (upper right-hand corner) to hear more about it and get a discount when it’s released. I’ll also let you know when the new cell phone app is available.