Yeah, I said it.
Your middle school teacher lied to you. A bunch of times. Some of the advice you got back then, often in your first real class about how to write, is terrible advice.
I could go on for days about how that happened. About the people tasked with teaching middle school english, delightful and dedicated professionals that they are, are almost never people who have had to write compelling, sellable sentences. That they’re stuck in a feedback loop where the people they spend their day with get punished for contradicting them. That they’re working in an underfunded industry with textbooks that are way out of date.
But the reasons don’t matter that much. What matters is that aspiring authors learn better than what they were taught. So here are the twelve biggest fibs you learned in middle school english, and what you should do instead.
1. Deadlines Exist and Matter
Although it is important to keep your promises and commit to schedules as a professional writer, no deadlines are as rigid as your middle school teachers wanted you to believe. Do your best to make your deadlines, but if life intervenes you can always get a little extra time.
One key to this is to meet deadlines as often as possible. Once you’ve developed a reputation among your clients for being on time, they don’t mind the occasional exception. If you communicate ahead of time about the possibility of being late, all will be forgiven.
2. Always Avoid Passive Voice
You probably did at least one worksheet or unit about how you should never, ever, ever use the passive voice. In my seventh grade English class, they identified “was/is/were/are” as “taboo words” and had us rewrite every sentence where they turned up.
For folks who need a quick review, passive voice is when you make a sentence’s subject receive the action instead of perform the action. “A book was read by John” instead of “John read a book.” It is often weaker writing, and a good idea to avoid.
But it’s not always weaker writing. Sometimes avoiding passive voice feels unnatural, or requires a workaround that’s awkward and broken. Avoiding passive voice is good advice, but it’s not universally true.
3. Persuasive Writing Differs From Other Kinds
Remember that year when you did a unit on fiction writing, another on essay writing, another on journalistic writing, and another on persuasive writing? As if the lines were clear, and well defined, and none of them bled into the others? It was all something of a fib, since the elements of great writing run through however many categories you want to create.
But it’s especially bad with persuasive writing. Everything we write should be persuasive. In fiction, you are persuading the reader to identify with your protagonist and care about the story. In nonfiction, you are persuading the reader that you know what you’re talking about, and that your knowledge can help them. Use persuasive techniques in everything you write, and all your writing will be more vibrant and impactful.
4. It’s Cheating to Get Help
This lie isn’t unique to middle school english, or to middle school. It’s pervasive throughout schools all over the world. In class, you’re told you’re not allowed to get help, to collaborate, or to engage in any other form of “cheating”.
I get how some of that is necessary to prevent widespread academic fraud, but the whole concept just isn’t true out in the real world. It is absolutely fair game to have friends and mentors help you with tricky passages, to outsource your marketing, and to hire an editor to fine-tune your manuscripts. It’s essential to join writing groups, attend conferences, and tap in to your local literary community.
No matter how many times your teachers told you otherwise, getting help is the only way to make it in the competitive world of writing.
5. Use Fancy Dialogue Tags
Remember that one worksheet where you had to come up with as many alternatives to “said” as you could? Then you had to write some dialogue where you never used the word “said”? It was fine for developing your vocabulary, but very bad advice for writing.
Thing is, “said” is invisible on the page. Just like most of your punctuation, readers won’t consciously recognize it unless you use it wrong. It simply helps identify who is speaking and the eyes move right across it. Almost all of your dialogue tags should use “said.”
Only branch out if you really want to make that line of text stand out. Even then, it’s usually better to stick with “said” and make other words do the heavy lifting.
6. You Have to Memorize Proper Spelling
I’ve heard rumors that things are better in school now, but most adults writing today remember endless spelling tests where we had to memorize the correct spelling of increasingly obscure and difficult words. It was a time-consuming exercise that used energy we could have put toward actually learning important things.
I say that because modern technology has rendered this skill unnecessary. If you’re a naturally good speller, that’s great. It will save you some time in editing and rewriting. If you’re not, spellcheck, google searches, and apps like ProWritingAid or Grammarly have your back. You can just put in the closest spelling you come up with, and move right along. Nobody’s going to judge you until you go to publish.
7. Slang is Bad
If you never got a paperback with some piece of slang or informal language circled by a red felt-tip pen with a snarky comment from your teacher, did you really go to middle school?
This one isn’t really a full-on lie. Our middle school teachers were preparing us to properly complete academic writing. That’s an important skill for the college-bound, but its rules are far from universal. Even business and technical writing use a kind of slang called “jargon”.
In most writing, slang isn’t just okay. It’s essential. Especially in dialogue. Don’t overdo it, but remember that informal writing more closely matches natural speech, which makes it more effective in many cases.
8. They Have the First Idea How to Use Commas
Most middle school teachers have less accurate information on comma usage than the average urban corvid. Abandon what you think you know, and trust a professional editor.
9. Use Your Thesaurus Often
This is similar to the point earlier about not using “said.” You almost certainly were subjected to multiple exercises designed to increase your vocabulary and to use that vocabulary on the page, repeated until you believed firmly that this was a good idea.
Although having a wide vocabulary makes your writing easy, going wild with your thesaurus can ruin the tone and voice of your writing. In most cases, any given piece has a narrow range of appropriate vocabulary. You should stick within that range for the piece. Writing in the real world, especially any writing you want to sell, is not a place to show off your vocabulary.
10. You Should Diagram Your Writing
Remember sentence diagrams from middle school, where you were made to identify each part of speech in a sentence to help you know how the thing was built? And later, in some “creative” writing unit, they had you count sentence length, list the first words of sentences, and other weird pseudo-scientific measurements of the words on the page?
That was fine when you were learning english, but if you’re tempted to keep doing that now, resist that temptation. You’re much better off trusting your internal ear and intuitive sense of good language. The only numbers you need to worry about as a professional adult is if you reached your word count commitment for the day, and how much your books are making you.
11. Only Read “Good Books”
I could write an entire article on this alone, but for here we will stick to the two biggest lies your middle school english teacher told you about this.
First, that you should only read good books. I probably don’t have to convince you that reading good books is great, but writers should also read bad books. It makes your writing better to understand why you didn’t like a book, so you can avoid those mistakes moving forward.
Second, some teachers will try to tell you that some genres are universally bad, usually romance, crime, or sci-fi and fantasy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every genre has great books and terrible books, and countless books in between.
Read widely, read often, and read well. For our purposes, there are no bad books…just books with different things to teach us.
12. You Must Show Your Work
Many middle school english teachers wanted to see our rough drafts for various reasons, and providing them probably helped them grade our work more easily and helped us improve our writing. But the usefulness stopped the second we graduated.
As adult, professional writers, there is immense power in knowing nobody is going to see that first, very rough draft. It lets us put concepts down in clunky, imperfect prose. It helps us complete a bad writing day with stuff we will probably erase tomorrow. That secure privacy to write badly before we write well can help us avoid writer’s block, stick to our commitments, and take those first brutal steps toward creating something beautiful. Treasure it, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s wrong.
One Last Little Thing
This isn’t a lie, but it’s something you should have been taught but probably weren’t: the order of adjectives when describing something is important. I’ll show you what I mean:
- The stupid, old, brown dog sounds right.
- The brown, stupid, old dog seems right but feels off.
When using multiple adjectives to describe something in english, the order must be opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose. That’s why the second sentence above sounds weird. Nobody remembers why it worked out this way, but it’s a rule — and this one, you have to follow.