Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bad Writing Advice Debunked

As a teacher of writing, I spend much of my time trying to undo the tightly-knotted, deeply ingrained, and wholly incorrect writing advice my students have gotten in years past.

Now, I am not accusing other teachers (particularly teachers of younger students) of being bad at teaching writing; I'm really not.

What I am saying is that there are some old rules that were never correct in the first place and should be buried now. These rules don't help kids write, and they certainly don't help me help kids write...because I have to waste so much breath debunking the myths.

First up?  You CAN start a sentence with "And" or "But" or "So" or "Yet." Start a sentence however you want! Anyone who tells you can't do that is wrong. And you can tell your teacher I said so.

There are no grammatical rules anywhere that prohibit this practice.

Similarly, a sentence fragment may be wholly intentional--and effective. I frequently tell my students to vary their syntax (write long, complex sentences followed by fragments) because it grabs attention. Professional writers are allowed to use sentence fragments, and so are you!

Next? Begin that essay with a question (as long as you answer it in the next line; not to answer the question is begging the question, and that's annoying).

I constantly tell my students that posing a question and then answering it is a easy way to begin a timed essay. Inevitably, I hear that some teachers said students were never allowed to do that.

"You are allowed; many great writers start essays with questions," I counter. So just do it if it works.

What about passive voice? That's typically a huge no-no (and even spellcheck/grammar check looks for it):

'We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically na├»ve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.'--Steven Pinker, Harvard psycholinguist from his book, (on right).

I will add that I have even seen entire schools banning use of linking verbs in an effort to eradicate any vestige of passivity. This is completely misguided--so much so that I can hardly deal.

"Is" and "was" are sometimes essential verbs; banning them does not create spectacularly clear and strong writing. No, it only makes for some crazy-awkward sentences that I then have to fix. Don't ban linking verbs. 

Don't ban anything. Writing is about communication; it is about sharing ideas. Teachers should help students enjoy writing, and writing should feel natural.

Too many rules make writing a nightmare.

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