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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What They Should Teach In High School English

This was written to my son, after seeing that he was not learning how to write in high school. I thought it would be worth while sharing it on my blog:

Son,

You probably don't know that I studied writing with several excellent professional authors, including one, J. R. Salamanca, who made millions of dollars at it. He was a student of writing style, and he made certain his students learned it well. Working on my own fiction, I've come to appreciate what he, and the other writers, taught me.

Most Americans write abysmal prose. Most English teachers through high school are mediocre and do not teach their students how to write properly. Son, I am very proud of how bright you are. You earned an 800 on the English Writing SAT II. So I was stunned, after looking over the essays you wrote this year, that no one ever taught you how to write. You know how to structure an essay. You have no grammar mistakes. Your use of rhetoric is fairly good. But your sentence structure, your word choices, your syntax, and your writing style in general show that you never learned how to properly string words together. You tend to learn what you are taught. If someone had tried to teach you how to write, you would know how. I am creating this because I am shocked by this major gap in your English education. I've decided that if the people we pay to educate you don't teach you English, then I have to.

For every sentence you ever write, you need to consider each of the points that I am including here. You should work at drilling these ideas into your head so they become habit. If you have to think about all of it as you select each word you use, writing will become too much of a chore. Like any other habit, it has to be something you do without thinking, but you have to do it.

I'm putting this together from my own head. I think it might be better this way, more personal, than if I relied on reference material. I'm probably leaving out much that you should learn. But it's a start. It will improve your writing. (There is a lot of reference material, by the way. Remind me to get you your own copy of The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. It has some odd biases in it, but it's short and easy to read and will teach you a lot. It’s usually referred to as “Strunk and White.” Every writer needs to read it at least once. If you decide to become a professional wordslinger, then you also need to read Fowler, and perhaps Foster, and the GPO, MLA, and Chicago style guides. I have most of this in the house somewhere, or perhaps at my job.)

Here's my list, somewhat in order of importance.

  • For every word you write, after you've written it, look at it. If you can come up with a better word, then use the better word.
  • For every sentence you write, after you've written it, look at it. If you can do better, do it.
  • As you examine each sentence, consider the verb. If it does not convey action or something that can be visualized, ask yourself why not. Try to restructure the sentence so that you use a visual or action verb. If you can't, think about deleting the sentence. Verbs should slap the reader awake. If your verbs are boring, your readers will fall asleep. If your verbs are confusing, readers will stop reading.
  • Listen to every word you write. If you remember hearing it anywhere in your previous two or three paragraphs, it will make the reader think of a misplayed note. You don't want your reader to notice poor writing. Your readers should not laugh at you. They should laugh only when you choose to make them laugh. So, try hard not to repeat words that you've recently used (other than articles, prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and "to be" verbs).
  • Listen to your sentences. If your rhythm is noun-verb-predicate, noun-verb-predicate, noun-verb-predicate, then you are composing a waltz, not prose. The same holds for repeated noun-verb-predicate-conjunction-noun-verb-predicate conjunction sentences, or really any constantly repeated sentence types. But don't overdo mixing your sentence structures. Most of your sentences should be short. Think of Hemingway's favorite sentence: "The horse smelled water."
  • Use pronouns wherever you can. This prevents you from banging your readers on the head with the same nouns over and over. (But make sure, of course, that your pronoun references are clear.)
  • Whenever you see yourself using a preposition (in, of, by, for, and a whole lot of others) or a subordinating conjunction (because, while, though, so, etc.) stop! Try to get your idea across some other way. Everyone has their own personal flaws in their writing; this is one of your biggest. Your prepositional phrases have prepositional phrases and your subordinate clauses take subordinate clauses. Prepositional phrases are tough to avoid, but try to. Think of gerunds and participles instead (look them up). Avoid subordinate clauses (and most conjunctive clauses) by splitting up sentences or just rewriting your sentences.
  • Try to use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Rewrite your sentences to use better verbs and nouns. Note that "The horse smelled water" has no adjectives or adverbs. It has two nouns you can visualize and a verb describing something you do zillions of times a day.
  • Think of your prose as if it were poetry. Every word is important. Every word should convey an image or an action the reader can appreciate. Every word should sound good in relation to those around it. Be conscious of the rhythm of the words.
  • Use metaphors to clarify complicated ideas. Metaphors color your writing, making it more fun and interesting. BUT, be very careful when using them. Make them appropriate to what you're saying. Do not mix metaphors. If you have a metaphor in a short paragraph, don't use another unless it relates to the first. Algebra metaphors go with geometry metaphors. French fry metaphors go with hamburger metaphors. Trig doesn't go with chicken nuggets. Using one metaphor as a theme for an entire essay sometimes adds cohesion and power.
  • If you hear yourself using a phrase or a metaphor you've heard before, throw it away before you make your reader throw up. Those aren’t metaphors; they’re clichés. Unless you are P.G. Wodehouse, who plays with clichés on purpose to be funny, stay away from them.
  • Use odd combinations of words to add power, but do it very rarely. It jolts the reader and makes the reader notice the writing, which is something you usually don't want to do. But on rare occasions, it's a neat affect. For example, instead of mentioning a weighty question, you might say, "He let heavy seconds drop between them before he responded to her question."
  • From the level of an entire paper, it will usually help if you add one or perhaps two of the following: passion (something that you and/or your reader can care deeply about), something personal (to which your reader can relate to the same extent that you do), or one pervasive metaphor or several flowing similar metaphors that hold an entire work together.

The more I think about this stuff, the more I come up with ideas to tell you about. But I want to keep this short so you’ll read it and remember some of it. Also, the next time you have an English paper, maybe you’ll look at this before you start and it will make your paper better. So, I left out a lot of “elements of style” that you could probably find in Strunk and White if you want to learn more. But keeping what I’ve written here in mind as you write should improve your writing an awful lot.

Your father

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