As I more seriously study the craft of writing, I’m dismayed to discover some of what I was taught in school during my formative years was wrong. Some of this misdirection was trivial, and some were likely correct at the time but have changed since then. However, my teachers’ misguided instructions formed habits that are now hard to break.
From the simple to the serious, here are some of the wrong things I was taught in school:
- You cannot have a paragraph with only one sentence.
- A sentence cannot have one word and must always have a subject and verb.
- Never start a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, so, yet, for).
- Never end a sentence with a preposition.
- For dialogue, avoid the word “said,” and instead use other more descriptive labels. My teacher then distributed a mimeographed sheet with some eighty alternatives.
- Write descriptive text by using adverbs and adjectives.
The first three items are trivial, and though I am now free to break all these ingrained rules, I still feel a bit guilty each time I do.
I learned well the lesson about dialogue labels and fastidiously follow it. I thought I excelled at writing dialogue. However, a contemporary instruction is to only use “said”—any other label is mere distraction from the more important dialogue. Even more confounding is the advice to avoid dialogue tags whenever possible, such as in a series of verbal exchanges or to imply the tag and speaker in a separate sentence, as in:
“I understand,” she replied mechanically, becomes: “I understand.” Her reply was mechanical.
Causing me the most consternation, however, is in the description. As instructed in school, I pepper mine with adjectives and adverbs. Now I have been repeatedly told to use strong nouns and verbs while minimizing the use of adjectives and adverbs, especially adverbs ending in -ly.
This writing habit is the most difficult to break. If only I’d been given better instruction at the beginning, then I wouldn’t have to unlearn it now.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.