Sunday, October 14, 2012

Five Writing Rules According To High School Students

Earlier this year, I asked my students what’s important to them about writing. Since teenagers are the authority on all things cool, I expected negative comments and complaints about such staid topics as writing and English, but the kids surprised me;. their responses were astute and thoughtful.

Victoria said, "If I try to add things to sound smart, it ends up making me look ignorant." Novice writers are tempted to sound writerly. In the early days of my own writing, I front-loaded stories and essays to reveal my large vocabulary. No wonder nobody wanted my work. It was pretentious.

Sure, in grad school I used ten dollar words for essays, but my reader was usually an erudite professor who ate such words for breakfast.  When I first started teaching students occasionally handed in papers with sentences like “Such cartulary  extrapolated its theophenia to provide a history of said diety.” When asked what did you mean here, the response was always a red face and a shrug.

Say what you mean in words you understand. Clarity is priority one.

2. Kayla remarked, "I never want to repeat myself so many times to where I become uninteresting or sound stupid."

Early drafts are often loaded with repetitive mantra-like words and phrases and words and phrases and words and phrases, as if the writer needs to warm up the engines, and remind themselves of the point of the essay, poem, or story. I call these false starts. For me they come in three’s: the first three lines or stanzi of a poem, the first three paragraphs of a story, and the first three pages of a novel. The holy trinity of crap.

Ok I repeated my syntactical structure there. You get what I mean in those words and phrases.

3. “Vocabulary ...can turn a bland sentence into a memorable one with relative ease," Mallory wrote. "Large words, small words, it doesn't matter, I'm happy to use them all." Words are the foundation of good writing, and fluency with them makes us better writers. I tell my students to take a foreign language. "It will enhance your English. "

Mallory is a good writer, largely because she always has her nose in a book. Readers are exposed to multiple words, and it shows in their work. Read a lot.

4. According to Katie, "Books allow a person to see the world and know things they didn't know before."

If we are doing the hard work, we aren’t relying solely on what we know; we write to explore what we don't know as if excavating for a new spin on a truth.

5.  “Writing is hard,” Tosha said. “I wish there was a handout that told me how not to make mistakes."

I hate to tell you this, kid, but there ain’t no such thing. The only way to learn how to write better is write, make mistakes, write even more failed manuscripts, screw up more of them, and eventually write something good. Next time you will write something bad, but maybe not as often, and eventually your good writing will outweigh the putrid pages. But there will be days, always, when some of your writing stinks a big one.
Exercise: I stole this from my Friend Cindy Sterling. Whenever her students were stuck, she had them remove a shoe, set it on a piece of white paper, draw an outline, then write a first person narrative through the viewpoint of the shoe. The shoe can belong to anyone famous (Madonna, the president, Clark Gable), or not ( your own shoe,) cartoon characters (Scooby Doo, Charlie Brown) etc. . What what the shoe's life like? What have they seen? Where has it been? What happens when it rains? What happens on the basketball court if you are Michael Jordan's shoe? What would the Dalai Lama's footwear know?
Happy Writing


  1. Pretty sharp students! Makes me feel good about the future of writing.

    1. Yes . My students always manage to surprise and inspire me.

  2. Replies
    1. Don't tell them. I would hate for their heads to swell.