What is good writing?
Ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you good writing is grammatically correct. They’ll tell you it makes a point and supports it with evidence.
Maybe, if they’re really honest, they’ll admit it has a scholarly tone — prose that sounds like Jane Austen earns an A, while a paper that could’ve been written by Willie Nelson scores a B (or worse).
Not all English teachers abide by this system, but the vast majority do. Just look at the writing of most graduates, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s proper, polite, and just polished enough not to embarrass anyone. Mission accomplished, as far as our schools are concerned.
But let me ask you something:
Is that really good writing?
I think most good writers listen to the way English teachers want them to write and think, “This isn’t real. It has no feeling, no distinctiveness, no oomph. You’re the only person in the world who would willingly read it. Everyone else would rather chew off their own eyelids than read more than three pages of this boring crap.”
And they’re right.
Create interesting content people want to read
Compare an award-winning essay to a best-selling novel, and you’ll notice that they are written in almost completely different languages.
Some of it has to do with the audience, sure. It’s natural to write differently for academics than you would for everyday people. But my question is: who are you going to spend more time writing for?
My guess: everyday people — your family and friends, your blog audience, your boss at work, maybe even a Letter to the Editor every now and again. None of them are academics. None of them want to read an essay.
Personally, I think good writing doesn’t have to be educated or well-supported or even grammatically correct. It does have to be interesting enough that other people want to read it.
Much of what comes out of high schools and universities fails this test, not because our students are incapable of saying anything interesting, but because a well-meaning but flawed academic system has taught them a lot of bad habits.
Let’s go through seven of them.
1. Trying to sound like dead people
It’s a sad state of affairs when the youngest writer on your reading list has been dead 100 years, but that’s the way it is in school.
I don’t know who exactly decides what’s worth reading and what’s not, but they (whoever “they” are) believe in reading the “classics,” and most of those classics are centuries old. What’s worse is that many teachers hold up the classics as examples of what good writing is, and they expect you to mimic those writers with your essays.
Sure, Chaucer and Thomas More and Shakespeare were the stud muffins of their day, but you don’t see them on the New York Times Bestseller List now.
Not because they aren’t good (they were freaking great), but because people can’t connect with them. By mimicking their style, you might make a few teachers happy, but you’re essentially handicapping your writing in the eyes of the public.
If you want to make a connection, you’re much better off studying hot writers like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Seth Godin. Watch what they do, and play with using some of their techniques in your own writing.
Yes, you’ll still be mimicking the works other writers, but at least you’ll be mimicking something people want to read.
2. Expecting someone to hand you a writing prompt
Looking through the eyes of an educator, I can see why telling students what to write about would be useful. You have a bunch of students who couldn’t care less about your curriculum, and making them write a paper about the assigned readings is a great way to force them to read the material.
Makes sense … but it doesn’t make it any less damaging.
One of the biggest challenges of writing is figuring out what to write. Whether you’re writing a memo, an article, or a letter to your mother, the process is always the same: you start out with a blank page, and you decide what to put on it.
Sure, that involves considering what your audience will want to read, but no one but you makes the final decision of what to put on the page. That act of deciding is what writing is all about.
3. Writing long paragraphs
Once upon a time, it was acceptable to write paragraphs long enough to fill multiple pages with big blocks of text.
Not surprisingly, that’s the way most of us were taught to write: long paragraphs, topic sentences neatly organized, lots of supporting evidence in between assertions. It was the “correct” way to write.
Nowadays, most paragraphs should be a maximum of three sentences. It’s also a good idea to include some shorter paragraphs with only one or two sentences, using them to punctuate powerful ideas.
It’s not so much about having a “correct” length as using paragraphs to give your writing rhythm.
4. Avoiding profanity at all costs
I admit it; this is a controversial one. Many excellent writers still hold that profanity has no place in professional publications, while others feel comfortable using curse words occasionally.
The rest of us sit around wondering whether it’s okay to express ourselves “that way” or not.
So, who’s right? Well, I think Stephen King says it best:
“Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ‘emolument’ when you mean ‘tip’ and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit. If you believe ‘take a shit’ would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say John stopped long enough to move his bowels (or perhaps John stopped long enough to ‘push’). I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct.”
5. Leaning on sources
Most kids I knew hated digging up sources and quoting them in their papers, but not me. No, the sneaky little bugger that I was (and still am) realized that sources were an escape route from creativity. With enough quotations from other writers, I could fill up an entire paper without coming up with a single original thought of my own.
And I was rewarded for it. From kindergarten to getting my degree in English Literature, I got an A on all but like five papers.
Here’s why: a lot of teachers care more about solid research than original ideas. They don’t want to see daring and inventive arguments challenging the foundation of everything we hold to be true and arguing boldly for a new worldview.
To them, it’s much more important that you understand the ideas of others and be able to cite them in MLA format.
But real life is the opposite.
Go around citing the sources of all of your ideas and people will start avoiding you, because it’s boring as hell. They don’t care who said what, and they aren’t interested in hearing the chronology of an idea.
What they want to hear is a new perspective on a favorite topic.
If it comes from you, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too.
6. Staying detached
We are taught that good writing puts the focus on the subject, not the writer. It’s unemotional. It gives equal attention to opposing points of view, presenting them all without singling out one as best.
And sometimes, it’s true. If you’re a scientist, engineer, or a doctor, then maintaining your role as a detached observer is a great idea. For everyone else though, it’s a disaster.
Have you ever read the stuff scientists, engineers, and other so-called “detached observers” write? It’s boring! Outside of their exclusive circles, you couldn’t pay people to read it.
If you want people to want to read what you write, then you should do the opposite. Be more like Oprah Winfrey or Gary Vaynerchuk. They are opinionated, have a unique style, and are prone to emotional outbursts.
It’s no coincidence. That’s what makes them interesting.
7. Listening to “experts” more than yourself
Who am I to criticize the writing habits you learned in school?
Well … nobody.
Yes, I’m a professional writer. Yes, I have a literature degree. Yes, other writers have paid me up to $200 an hour to edit their work, and they’ve been amazed when all I did was correct the above mistakes.
But that doesn’t mean I’m right. In fact, that’s probably the most important lesson you can learn about writing:
No one but you is an expert on your writing.
Not me. Not your English teachers. Not Strunk and White and their highfalutin Elements of Style.
The longer you write, the more you’ll realize that other writers can’t tell you what to do. You should listen to more experienced writers, sure, but never more than you listen to yourself.
Great writers don’t learn how to write by sitting in writing courses, reading writing blogs, or browsing Barnes & Noble for yet more books on writing.
They learn how to write by coming to a blank page, writing something down, and then asking themselves if it works.
If it does, they keep it. If it doesn’t, they don’t. Then they repeat the process until they finish something they feel is worth publishing.
Sadly, most writers don’t know this
They labor under the mistaken assumption that there is an invisible standard of good and bad. And they worry that the Writing Police are going to show up at their door any minute, handcuff them, and haul them off to jail for failing to measure up.
If that was true, you wouldn’t see a single writer walking the street without one of those blinking bracelets around their ankle.
The truth is that you’re in charge. You. The blank page is sitting there, and you can fill it up with whatever the hell you want.
So stop sitting there, silly.
Go for it.
Editor’s note: The original version of this post was published on October 28, 2009.
Reader Comments (278)
Jonathan Frei says
Good writing can only be indentified after it’s read. Did the person who read it suggest others do the same? Publishers used to get to answer that question. Now it’s controlled by internet, which collectivly decides what is good and worth reading and what should be cast into obscurity.
Glen Allsopp says
One thing I was always taught, which I never see in the online world, is to never put a comma before an ‘and’.
For example: I went shopping today and bought some eggs, crisps, and chocolate.
That would have been forbidden. Great post though, definitely reminded me of a few things.
Oh, man, what’s not to love about this post? There are so many ways that education is a wonderful, freeing experience that broadens horizons and opens eyes to the wonders of the world.
And then, there’s the other kind. The kind of education that restricts, that places boundaries, sets rules. The kind that makes you terrified to do anything for fear you’re going to get yelled at for “doing it wrong.” In the chemistry lab, that might be a good thing–laboratories are expensive to replace–but words on a page?
What could possibly go wrong?
(Although, I’m still a fan of #4–I think profanity should be avoided whenever possible, not only because I think it’s rude, but because using it often dilutes its effectiveness for when you really need it. Of course, everyone’s definition of profanity varies, so this is challenging.)
I agree with you…most of us have to ‘unlearn’ what we learnt in college and then learn not only writing but a lot of other things a new. Writing that captures the readers and causes them to do stuff they hadn’t planned to. Wanting to know more…and whenever there is a demand supplying isn’t that difficult.
Jane Osuagwu says
“No one but you is an expert on your writing.”
This did it for me.
Shane Arthur says
Your writing advice reminds me of what the Mixed Martial Artist industry did to boxing, karate, wrestling, and kick boxing.
Before MMA, each field had strict rules and no deviation occured for ages. It became boring.
MMA flipped all these rules on their head, combined them, and used them for their own benefit. Now they are the Kings of Combat Content.
Amazing post! It reminds me of my terrifying AP English class my senior year of high school. I fought for dear life to obtain a C, and I vowed never to write again. Ever.
When I got to college, I only took one English course and aced it. I remember one of my papers where we had to “write as if we were speaking,” and it was highest grade I’d ever received on a paper in college. Teachers have a way of terrifying students into thinking that their writing is less-than-stellar. They suck.
I’ve come to realize that until I abandon most rules of the English language will I truly entertain people. I’ve not been blogging for too long, but my feed seems to be growing rather nicely. I like that. As I read more blogs, I find myself picking up on nuances without realizing it. Before, I would never have one word as a paragraph. Now, I’m like, “Who gives a hell? I’m grown. I do what I want!”
Thanks for posting this. The information on your site is dabomb.com!
Stacey Cornelius says
I’d like to add one: using jargon for its own sake. Corporate types and academics use language that makes my eyes glaze over. Sure, it’s fine when they talk amongst themselves (or maybe it isn’t and they’re just pretending), but when they use their obscure terms on the rest of us… gah.
I love this & have never been told these things before. I struggle walking the line between reserved & removed to spunky & opinionated. Getting all wrapped up in the rules totally takes the fun and spontaneity out of the writing process. Fabulous article. Thank you.
Chelsea Edgell says
Great advice, but I think your tone and title make this post come across as slightly misguided. Granted, it is an effective title in that it pulls in readers, but it also prompted me to read with a great deal of skepticism. Your conclusion placated me somewhat, but the “yes, but” sentiment remains.
I take issue with your distinction between GOOD writing habits and BAD writing habits. I don’t like the dichotomy. I think there is effective writing and ineffective writing, and what that looks like depends on your audience, your medium, your style and your intent (among other things). You acknowledge this, but then go right back to talking about BAD habits.
In this post, I don’t think you are really discussing BAD writing habits. You discuss some bad habits, and then some writing habits that are simply not effective when used in mediums such as blogs.
For example, avoiding profanity and heavily emphasizing your sources is usually (not always, but usually) a very good idea if you are writing your doctoral thesis or a briefing note. So these are not BAD habits, per se.
Anyways, apologies if I misinterpret. Thank you for a great post and some great advice. I will be sure to tweet it, regardless of the fact that I take slight issue with your tone.
Glenn: you are referring to the Oxford (or serial) comma. It’s funny that you were taught never to use it, as the Oxford comma is the subject of an ongoing debate in literary and language circles. Check out the Wikipedia entry!
Karen Rice says
Re: reading the “classics” and being told they are great writing…I thin what a lot of people miss is that the part that makes the writing GOOD is what it produces in the reader. Does it produce a sense of emotion, connection, outrage, anger, fear, sadness, joy…does it make you want to keep reading or put it down?
By reading a classic we can see what the elements of a good story are: plot, character development, flow…and translate that into modern language.
Personally I gave up reading Stephen King because I don’t want to read about people stopping to take a S*it and read the F-bomb over and over. Just like I hate how they show men standing around urinals peeing in movies…what for? We don’t need to know this, it does not add anything to the story, we all know everyone pees and takes a dump. An occasional profane word does not bother me. It does bother me when it’s repeatedly used…again, and again, and again…that’s not good writing, that’s lazy writing for shock value.
So, people have paid you up to $200/hr to give them this exact advice, and you’ve just given it away?
That’s just awesome, gotta say.
Loved the tips, love the openness with which you write, and hope you’ll come back to these topics at more length on their own!
Andrew Nattan says
I love this article. I’m always coming up against problems like this at work.
Trying to explain to a grammar nazi that you can sacrifice textbook English to convey things like “emotion” or “emphasis” is like smashing your head against a wall.
Oh – and thanks for the paragraph tip. I constantly have to go through and shorten my rambling blocks of text.
This is exactly why most ad agencies will only hire those with journalism or communications degrees vs. people with English degrees. Very well said…
anton kozlik says
You got me with “chew off their own eyelids”. Great!
@Glen: Yeah, that’s the thing about the English language: it keeps changing. The rule you learned about “and” was the convention of the day, but now it’s considered optional. Most English teachers who are up-to-date teach it that way. There are LOTS of little changes like this that have slowly appeared over the last few decades.
@Deb: I once met a CEO who said the secret to giving a great speech is knowing when to curse. You can only do it once (otherwise, it loses impact), so the key was figuring out what you wanted to emphasize and then using profanity to emphasize it. I don’t think that’s always true, but it’s an interesting idea.
@Stacey: jargon is a tricky one. You’re right; it can sound pedantic (even the word “pedantic” is pedantic, isn’t it?), and it can frustrate beginners who are unfamiliar with the terms. At the same time, psychologists have shown that jargon makes people feel like more of a tribe, and many of the best leaders use it to make people feel included.
Jeff Lazerus says
RE: #5: Unless you have a source or other trusted reference that is not YOU, it’s just your opinion. It doesn’t matter how great a writer you are or that you are trying to avoid being “boring as hell”, you can’t just make up facts. Otherwise, great article. THanks.
So interesting & true.
I used to think I hated Hemingway’s writing because it lacked what my English teacher called “voice.”
Then I started writing for a newspaper and recognized his quippy short sentences as a relevant read.
Now I love Hemingway–luckily, he is not the youngest writer on reading list.
Biggest bad habit taught by my English teachers? Avoiding the sentence fragment. Way to just categorically discard all of the most striking sentences available to the language!
Pamala Knight says
Awesome post. Thanks for sharing all the useful information.
It took me a while to realise that all the formal writing style and terminology I’d been taught in ‘corporate land’ simply wasn’t appropriate when writing a newsletter, and later blogging.
Today, coincidentally, I received Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and am looking forward to learning from a master!
John Briggs says
Why not mention good modern/post-modern authors? No good author would adhere to a maximum of 3 sentences per paragraph rule. If you want to blog, follow these rules (this is a blog on blogging after all). If you want to write, go study Kurt Vonnegut and learn how to break the rules and write truly interesting and original things. Following 7 rules will never mask poor writing. (sorry, this is more than three sentences 🙂 )
Shouldn’t the title be “Learnt in School”?
Brian Clark says
Not if you’re American.
Oleg Mokhov says
The best writing is genuine and remarkable. The style and formatting are simply how honest, unique, and irresistibly great words are presented, that’s all.
It’s about finding your voice, not some “proper” grammatical style. All the people you listed have a truly amplified voice. THAT’S what we’re attracted to and keep reading, not the paragraph formatting 🙂
I was forced to learn all 7 habits you listed throughout school and college, not to mention all sorts of rigid (and boring) grammar rules.
And I hated writing. I thought I’d never do it after I graduated.
But what I found was that writing is merely a way of expressing yourself. A lasting, effective way. I was unlearning almost all of those habits. And I couldn’t be happier (and I’d like to think my writing is all the better for it).
I feel good writing is in the eye of the reader. For most writing, everything you stated is true. But for a research paper–which isn’t meant to be read by the masses–a source-cited, opinion-free style is best. If I needed to dig some resources up, I’d rather get as many hard facts as possible than a single person’s emotional opinion.
Every writing style has a place. The academic, research-based place is very small and uncommon, but it is best-suited during those rare moments.
Great article. Awesome reminder that there is no inherent “right” – you make the rules. Throw whatever guidelines out the window to be able to unleash your most genuine, remarkable writing.
Art Mealer says
Thank you for the freedom and release to write what I’m thinking and feeling without a ton of myth watching over my shoulder and criticizing me. How encouraging.
I once counted a sentence from James Fenimore Cooper that was 124 words, with oodles of commas and semicolons. A classic writer who himself broke all their rules!
Barb Sawyers says
I advise clients, mostly corporate people who write too formally, to 1. think about what they want to say, the best way to say it and their ideal reader 2. pretend they are talking to their ideal reader as they write 3. revise, to shorten, catch mistakes and improve. In other words, Write like you talk–only better.I
I think many people forgot what their English teacher told them about grammar, much as I have forgotten the periodic table of elements.
Sonia Simone says
@Denise, my secret weapon for hiring marcom writers is to look for MFAs in creative writing. (Not English, and not marketing.) Fiction writers have to unlearn academic writing style as much as bloggers do. No, they don’t know about the call to action or benefits/features, but those things can be taught more easily.
You conflate “good writing” with “Formal Standard English”. One can use FSE to create drivel. One can produce good writing with slang, profanity and jargon.
Cecily Walker says
Neil Gaiman, a successful writer with a great following, once said the he became a better writer when he became a better reader, or something to that effect. What that means is that not only do you pay attention to how the storyline, but you pay attention to the mechanics of a story. How is the writer constructing her sentences? Why does she choose to use several words when, in your mind, one word or different words would suffice?
To become a better writer, study the work and craftsmanship – not just the stories and prose – of your favourite writers. Try to write like them if you’re just starting out, and as your skills mature, try to write *better* than they do.
I too think the title of this post is a bit misleading. Some of these writing practices are actually good habits depending on the context. I’d really like to see an academic who is submitting her Ph.D. thesis get away with writing short, one word paragraphs. Writing for print isn’t the same as writing for the web, and to assume that “writing is writing” regardless of the context is a little short-sided.
Cecily Walker says
Ergh. That should read “How the storyline comes together…”
Roberta Rosenberg says
I’m not allowed to edit my children’s school papers anymore. I make the paragraphs too short, the language too simple and I think it’s fine and dandy to use ‘and’ & ‘but’ to begin a sentence. 🙂
Brian Clark says
Cecily, I’m pretty sure Ph.Ds don’t read Copyblogger for help with their thesis. We write for bloggers and online marketers, therefore, the headline is aimed at our audience and I can’t see how it would be misleading in that context.
Chris Anthony says
Glen and Jon, it’s funny how polarized people get about the serial/Oxford comma. Myself, I love it: I feel that it adds clarity and style to the sentence. Also, you avoid sentences where a continued list can seem like an appositive, like “I’d like to thank my parents, my coach and Jesus Christ.” 🙂
John White says
An enjoyable post. You could have made your points more concisely, but it’s enjoyable. It may even be a good post.
@Sonia, marcomm writing needs to be persuasive (IMO); not all creative writers can do that, but they’re more amenable to it that most technical writers.
One thing that I have finally realized is that good writing is being true to your writing style. If you are someone who writes short paragraphs, then do it. However, if you do better with longer paragraphs, then do that. You can’t mimic other people’s style. You have to have your own.
Sonia Simone says
@Chris Anthony, I heard that one as “my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Similiar hilarity ensues.
I was not this sort of English teacher; such strictness is against my nature and my training. Students would get frustrated because most of my answers to their writing/grammar questions started with “that depends….”
So I have to take exception to parts of your list and reasoning. “Good writing” is in the eye of the beholder. Writing “rules” exsits to be practiced because they are, for the most part, “best practices.” (However bastardized they might become over the years, in and out of the classroom.) Quality writers know when to use a “rule” and when to bend or break the same.
Academic writing does often suffer from an archaic-sounding stuffiness, but blame the writers, not the format. “Staying detached” and citation of quality sources (for example) don’t exists merely to stifle and control the author but to improve the work’s argument. Appreciating these guidelines should also improve a reader’s appreciation of what is a quality argument and what is crap. I’m talking about the difference in tone (an indication of an author’s respect or lack of respect for an audience and/or subject) and accuracy (quality sources) between PBS’s Frontline and Rush Limbaugh, for example.
The definition of “good” writing changes with audience and intent. What is high-quality academic writing is not the same as high-quality creative writing, though academic writing can indeed be creative, and creative writing can indeed be well-informed and referential–see T.S. Eliot’s or Steve Martin’s writing, for example.
“But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.” -George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
Despite my taking difference with your argument, thank you for making it!
Also, @ Glen, it’s complicated: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma
janice | Sharing the Journey says
Your whole post was a breath of fresh air. One thing I notice in other folks’ writing is whether they seem to beenjoying writing and communicating or not. Passion, exuberance and authenticity add a depth it’s hard to fake. So does a genuine craving to to connect.
I’m not convinced about your paragraph advice, though. I prefer to read a variety of paragraph lengths where the length helps the paragraph do the job it’s meant to. I suspect online reading has shaped folks’ preferences for shorter paragraphs. They’re easier to scan and easier on the eye, but in books, long paragraphs don’t worry me as much.
I’m from the UK, so I just roll my eyes when folk get all prescriptive about punctuation and certain spellings. Last time I looked, Microsoft Word had about eighteen varieties of English available in the spell check, and cross cultural differences in punctuation make me realise it’s as much about consistency as anything else. I’ve had editors from the States, Canada and New Zealand and it’s been an eye-opener.
Thanks for this – I enjoyed it!
Kerry Dexter says
about the classics: seems to me it’s the ideas a writer learns most from, and is meant to learn most from, not the style, which may be specific to time and audiences.
about avoiding profanity: your examples are of obscenity, not profanity. there is a difference. I’m with those who think good writing is done without either one, though I know many disagree.
zoekmachine optimalisatie says
A tactic that I’ve read about (but haven’t tested yet) to increase writing speed is to use voice-to-text software.
But besides increasing writing speed other reasons for wanting to try that is to avoid sounding like a dead person.
Because when you’re talking:
– you already put more emotions in it
– you almost never use profanity
– usually it makes more sense
(happens to me all the time: I’m thinking what I want to say and I type it. Then when the post is done I read it and it doesn’t make any sense at all…. sigh)
Maybe there are more reasons to try it, but hey…. I’m not writing a post right now so there’s no reason to overthink this 😉
Now about habit no. 7: Jonathan… any “bad” habits in this comment?
Drew Fulton says
In college I fought to publish my honors thesis in Biology as a book written for the general public rather than in the academic style only accessible to other academics. It took some convincing but fortunately I had a great professor who pointed out that in order to explain complex scientific theories in lay language, you have to have a better grasp of the material than if you simply use all the buzz words and fancy vocab of academic/scientific writing. The project turned out to be very different than anything I have seen come out of the school and a great success.
Fight for your own voice and keep working at it!
It’s true. When you’re writing for academics, you write differently. In fact, I think I said that in the post somewhere, didn’t I?
And, for the record, I love academics. I might become one some day.
This post just demanded an enemy, and academics drew the short straw. If I qualified my argument any further, it would have taken all of the punch out of the post — precisely what I’m arguing against.
That being said, I love that you guys care enough about this stuff to argue with me. It’s what makes me keep writing for Copyblogger.
@zoekmachine: Yep, I use speech recognition software to write, and sometimes I think it’s made me a better writer. In fact, I’m working on a video about how I do it. It’s going to be featured on ProBlogger, so keep an eye on the feed for the next few weeks. 🙂
Sonia Simone says
@Zoe, that’s funny, if I used speech recognition software I’d definitely have to edit out the swearing. 😉
I love academics & English teachers, but like Jon, I also love posts that don’t qualify their arguments until they become verbal sleeping pills. Pace Smith wrote a terrific post for us about just that: https://copyblogger.com/qualified-and-respectful/
Shane Arthur says
I also believe that if we learn to love the craft of writing, we will learn to love even the rules. But like our own loved ones, we can’t take them everywhere with us. The rules will understand if, on occasion, we leave them with the nanny.
Sonia Simone says
@Shane, I totally cannot believe you said that.
Shane Arthur says
I’m scared! Is that a good or bad thing! :O
I love to express myself and writing is quite possibly the easiest way to do that. I discovered early on that readers have the easiest time with copy that is worded the way people actually speak.
The mind absorbs the cadence of sentence structure the way it absorbs a typical conversation. Subconciously, when reading more clinical writing, the mind is constantly rethinking what was just read, making it harder to concentrate on the next sentence.
I’m confused by your assertion that:
“They don’t care who said what, and they aren’t interested in hearing the chronology of an idea. What they want to hear is a new perspective on a favorite topic.
If it comes from you, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too.”
No, it’s not.
Perhaps it’s just me, but credibility is a currency based on the transparency of information delivered via hyperlinks. Hyperlinking makes the internets go. By the way, isn’t that one of the Top 10 Brian Clark Truths of Building and Keeping an Audience Online (I wish I had a hyperlink so you could easily check my claim…oh the irony), or was that the devilishly talented Sonia?
So if you’re advocating that people need not give credit – at least a link back for a reader to check the bona fides – then, in my mind, the information the author has provided to me is less credible. The author seems lazy. I don’t have time for lazy people. I want to be able to trust the information, opinion, or research offered up by the author I’m giving my time to read. If I doubt your credibility, I’m not going to waste my time.
Bill Goode says
There’s some good stuff in here, but you lose me when suggesting that Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are contemporary authors who merit study. There are many contemporary authors who are much MUCH more talented than these two middling authors and do much more interesting an creative things with the English language (and who have even made the best seller list, which seems to be this columnists main criteria for what makes a book worthwhile).
Amy Reads Good Books says
As an English teacher, I just may be guilty of teaching one or two items on your list! I’ve been thinking a lot lately how to balance teaching the peculiar conventions of academic writing to students who will like NOT become scholars. . .
Dave Doolin says
Academics almost always draw the short straw in these arguments. Not sure why. I can tell whoever wants to listen that reading a well-written academic paper is truly a joy to read. I could also say that writing a well-written academic paper can take years.
Mostly I stay out of these discussions. It’s always one way against the academic.
Speaking as a former English teacher in the public schools, I can tell you that you are forced to teach those terrible 5 paragraph essays so the students can pass a test. The introduction, the transitional sentences, the supporting points, the conclusion: a cookbook recipe. There is no time in public education for other types of writing because a teacher’s job depends on making sure the students can produce a cookie cutter 5 paragraph essay. I took time I shouldn’t have to let students really write, and I can tell you that students can write amazing and insightful material if given half a chance.
Elizabeth Campbell Duke says
Awesome! As a former teacher and now accidental marketer I couldn’t agree more. I can’t tell you how hard it is to get high school students to write – anything – because they’ve taken the risk in the past and then been beaten over the head with crappy grades that just scream out, “YOU SUCK!”
Editing is the LAST step of the process for a reason. First, you need to nurture the flame… only then do you show people how to clear away the smoke so the flame burns more brightly.
Rafael Marquez says
A professor in grad school almost destroyed my writing confidence. Fortunately, I decided to ignore most of what he said, but I still have that little tinge of doubt in the back of my head. Thank you for writing this post.
Sherice Jacob says
Ohhhh how I need to print this post out and tack it to my wall.
I’m really bad about this – having just come out of the fog that was my thesis about a year ago. When you spent 10 years writing for academicians –ahem– teachers, you find you start to sound more like them every day!
The good thing was, I completely edited my thesis once I received my degree, turned it into a book, and now sell it on Amazon.com – I’m proud that the pages flow with MY writing style. 🙂
Shane Arthur says
@sonia, to clarify, I just meant that as long as you respect the rules, it’s okay to break them on occasion. I believe that if you don’t know/respect/love the rules, you don’t deserve to break them.
Like parenting, if someone is a bad parent, they don’t deserve to go out and have fun. My comedic/sarcastic self just had to work the word “nanny” into something written today. 🙂
Kerry Grier says
This is fantastic stuff! I am 41 and have only just stopped hearing the voice of my English teacher wanting to deaden my prose. Thanks all the great advice you send our way.
Jay Zenner says
As an English major who was also a slow reader the comments I received from profs were usually something like “Well written but needs more research” which I was usually forced to ignore.
The best English course I took in college was in rhetoric so the real question is not what to write but what are you trying to accomplish by writing. Sometimes a little profanity helps, usually it doesn’t.
It’s not short paragraphs but tight editing that improves. This is tough because I just love to see the words spilling out as I type and I hate going back and cutting about 30%. But it usually help.
Copyblogger does great service by providing a forum for discussion of the craft.
@Bill Goode: Stephen King and JK Rowling merit study because more people want to read what they write than any other writers on the planet. It’s not because they’re the best — “best” is subjective. What’s important to me is millions of people enjoy reading their work. Since I aspire for millions of people to one day enjoy reading my work, I emulate them (and others like them).
@Peter: Most readers don’t judge the credibility of an author based on hyperlinks. I’m not saying it’s wrong; I believe that we would actually be better off if everyone did demand lots of links. But they don’t, and that’s the world we live in. Also, please understand that I’m not against giving other people credit. I’m against letting the ideas of others get in the way of your own.
@Virginia: I feel for you. I have several friends that are teachers, and they tell me about all of the restrictions. I can’t imagine being forced to work in that restrictive of an environment. It’s amazing that you can cope with it.
Technical writing seems so much easier than writing good, compelling copy because we’ve be taught it since we were young. Although it may be easier to write in a detached manner, no one wants to read it because it doesn’t grab them. By allowing some of yourself to come through in your writing you show your readers that you are human too. It’s amazing what that small connection can do.
Bamboo Forest - PunIntended says
OK. I’ll stop sitting there and being silly and I’ll go for it! 🙂
Mark Hansen says
Another issue I have with the way writing is taught is that, when I was in school, anyway, you wrote it once and handed it in. There was no drafting, no rewriting, editing. You turned it in, you got it back, dripping in red blood.
In the real world, of course, I can edit it all over the place before I post it, and even in some cases, after…
You said highfalutin. This is a great post. The reason blogs have become so powerful is everyone, even those without a degree in English, can write their point of view, grammatically incorrect and often confusing ramble, but it works. Its the amercan way. Great Post, sadly it is inspirational to me. Whatever it takes I guess.
Melissa Karnaze says
These are excellent tips Jon, and you captured what I went through since graduating from college and unlearning writing.
One of my favorite things to read is an academic paper on a topic I’m passionate about — preferably as jargon- and reference-packed and detached aka scientific as it can be — which is the best and most informative way to go with academics. And just so you know, I wasn’t at all offended by how you talked about academics.
I think if people are arguing with you, they missed the point of the article (#7), which is to make up their own minds on what rules to keep and toss.
Todd Mintz says
To follow your advice in #4:
This post is really, really, really good shit :.)
Blake @ Props Blog Reviews says
I don’t know why I didn’t write this article firsts. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve noticed all kinds of boring habits school taught me.
Rules were made to be broken. Following grammar rules most of the time keeps you from looking uneducated, but breaking the rules once in a while makes you look real.
There should be a course on writing context. For scientific publications the grammar should be in the house, but for e-mails, blogs, and other business, teachers have to realize grammar gets thrown out the window for functionality and entertainment.
Jarek Rozynski says
Really good stuff!
Giles P Croft says
A great article: I could learn from #3, in particular.
My external hard drive rests before me on a copy of Strunk & White, to remind me always of Rule #17: “Omit needless words.”
I will admit that I read this post with some skepticism, especially when the post starts out with the statement that writing doesn’t even have to be grammatically correct (which is one of my biggest pet peeves).
However, you provide some great tips. And the golden nugget for me was: “No one but you is an authority on your writing.” GREAT ADVICE!
Sonia Simone says
The funny thing is, most of the really good English teachers I’ve run into would agree with about 98% of this post. They have to un-teach a bunch of this too.
Terrific post. The whole point of writing (for most I assume) is to grab an audience actually interesting in reading it. By adhering to rules created before your birth, you run the real risk of not connecting with your peers/audience and going unnoticed. Writing has gotten much more casual as social media has evolved. There are no more rules.
That’s true, Sonia. I’m going to send this post to one or two of mine and see what they say. I’d guess they’ll agree.
But what’s interesting about this discussion is I think there are two different tribes here. I don’t think it’s as simple as labeling the two tribes “academics” and “bloggers” — some academics love colloquial writing, and some bloggers are quite scholarly (and proud of it).
Really, I think it’s more about the way the written word is evolving. The Internet has made it a lot more colloquial and accessible to a lot more people. Most of us love it, but some people want things to stay the way they were. I can understand that, I suppose.
It sure makes for an interesting discussion. 🙂
Lydia, Clueless Crafter says
Nuff said. Working on it.
Yes, Shakespeare is a “stud”
Christine Myers says
Ah, rules and writing habits. Sometimes these are great for providing structure and guidance, and sometimes these are great for throwing out the window.
I think the main reason I write well is because of how much I’ve read. Different books, different magazines, different blogs. . .all of the various styles and genres have created a wonderful, intuitive resource in my head that usually lets me write without worrying about rules.
Reading is my number one writing habit.
Brian Clark says
Amen, Christine. I wouldn’t know a thing about writing if I hadn’t been a voracious reader since elementary school.
re #4 – if you’re quoting someone and/or writing fiction, profanity may be appropriate (depending on the audience). Short of that it just demonstrates a deficit of vocabulary and imagination – and a somewhat disturbing level of unprofessionalism.
ittybiz is a perfect example. If you remove all the profanity from her text, it still makes the same points – minus the Tourettes. Because of this I would never, under any circumstances, recommend ittybiz to a business associate.
most profanity fails the “eliminate unnecessary words” test. In Stephen King’s example he’s actually describing an action, whereas most profanity is merely gratuitous decoration. There are a lot more adjectives and adverbs than that; use them.
this sort of thing might have made you sound grown-up and hard-boiled to the other ten-year-olds at your skating party, but now that we all know these words we’re not so easily impressed 😉
As an avid fan of MMA, I loved that – “Now they are the Kings of Combat Content.” Not just because its not boring, but because it keeps on evolving. Most things they teach in schools today are what they’ve been teaching my grandma long ago. They need to keep up with the times and evolve too.
Laura Christianson says
I’m a former high school English/journalism teacher-turned professional blogger and blogging consultant. I’m forever advising my clients, “Forget everything you learned in high school English.”
Unless you took Journalism — you DO need to remember most of that stuff, because journalistic style closely resembles blogging style.
Writing short paragraphs is the bugaboo for most bloggers. It’s hard to re-train yourself to write tight when you’ve spent 13+ years learning to write the official five-paragraph essay!
I disagree with point #4. Profanity is a sign of lazy writing. There are plenty of strong words to choose from — if using profanity comes too easily, I suggest consulting a thesaurus.
Thanks for your entertaining post!
Three sentences for a paragraph. I thought online it was six. Either way good advice to keep them short. Once great example of short paragraphs is how Yahoo does it news. Read any of their headline news posts, and you will find half their paragraphs are only one sentence long.
I’ve been guilty of #1 more times than I’d care to admit. *I* love the writing of Oscar Wilde. And Shakespeare. And Johannes Gower. And it’s taken me years to realize that people don’t want to read Wilde or Shakespeare or Gower when they read my blog. They want to read ME.
The burden that that puts on bloggers to be interesting and continue to put out high quality stuff in their own voice is, I think, another post altogether.
Thanks for this. 🙂
Nnamdi Iregbulem says
I have been trying to do away with many of the habits you mentioned. I always felt that my writing would be a lot better if I didn’t sound like I could care less about what I was writing about, but many teachers would say, “You are being too informal”
Luckily, this year my English teacher has a been a great advocate for writing well and putting personality and opinion in your writing. It has been extremely liberating.
One piece of advice I can give people is to write how you might speak. Don’t write in a way that would sound terrible in oral speech. Write with your ear.
Thanks for the post Jonathan
Sonia Simone says
@Charlotte, that said, Wilde is a pretty fair model even now. 🙂 (Starting, of course, with “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”)
Am I the only one who read the comments with short paragraphs, but went into scan mode when reading those with big bock paragraphs?
@ Chris Some of those Paragraphs are Longer than Most Peoples Blog posts. I often see that people try to Take over with Many Words with No Meaning
Nnamdi Iregbulem says
@Chris No dude, we all do it. That’s why it’s so important to break up your paragraphs, especially in online content. People don’t want to read a “wall of words”. It just looks intimidating and unmanageable.
That’s why I like the style of posts here on Copyblogger. Small paragraphs are just easier to read.
Patrick Gillam says
As I tell my clients before I eviscerate their supplied copy, “I work with a lot of smart people who got A’s in their English classes. But remember: The people who awarded those grades were paid to read those papers. If you want someone to pay *you,* or simply to pay attention, those old rules for writing can actually work against you.”
Wow, Patrick, that’s a great quote. Love that!
I suck at writing but somehow people come back for more – maybe it’s my literal translations from Spanish (that make no sense) – maybe I’m a masochist…but conversational pieces are so much more interesting to me…thanks for this.
Janis Miller says
Enjoyed this post and the comments, Jon.
I, too, take somewhat of an issue with #4. If you just read point #4 without reading your explanation there are some who would think you are encouraging a “potty mouth.” However, your explanation and quote from Stephen King lead me to believe that you are simply trying to say write to your audience so that they understand you without needing to consult a dictionary. Certainly you are not promoting gratuitous profanity.
I feel @Karen Rice, @nah, and @Laura Christianson made some good points about using profanity. Using profanity is unnecessary (Laura, “Profanity is a sign of lazy writing), detracts from your message, and you can lose followers and recommendations (not a good business decision IMHO).
I agree with Elder L. Tom Perry who said, “Today, probably more than in any other period of history, we find more profanity and vulgarity being used. Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly.”
As Laura said, “I suggest consulting a thesaurus.”
Cathy Toll says
As a former English teacher, a Ph.D., a successful writer, and a reader of Copyblogger, I would offer these thoughts:
1. Not all English teachers fit the stereotype. In general, writers are wise to avoid stereotyping.
2. The strongest writing instruction will help students to adjust their style according to the audience. The style of blogging is not, say, the style of academic papers, and the strongest writers will get this and be able to move fluidly among writing contexts.
3. Many teachers are not writers themselves and therefore learn a stilted set of “rules” about writing because they don’t understand writing. The National Writing Project is one of the best ways to help teachers move beyond this approach to instruction by helping them become writers.
4. The group that really needs this post is the group currently developing the National Standards in writing, which 49 states have bought into. National tests will soon be developed to go along with these standards. The authors of the standards do not understand writing of the kind described here.
Kelly Watson says
I would add “Not starting a sentence with and or but.” I think that rule is really outdated.
Also, can we please come to a consensus on serial commas? Schools need to get on that one. I vote no.
Sonia Simone says
My take on profanity is that you use the language of your audience. (Which is why it so often works best when you are a member of your audience.) From my observation & experience, over-worrying about offending “someone” will do you more harm than good. But if profanity isn’t your thing, it would be a horrible idea to try and tack it onto your writing.
The important point for me isn’t profanity, it’s speaking to your people in a way that creates connection.
@Cathy, thanks so much! I was hoping we would get some good discussion here from the English teacher side of the fence.
Nice primer on the differences between scholarly writing and news writing. The suggestion that scholarly writing is BAD writing is a bit jarring. It seems I’m not the only reader who would have appreciated a nod from Jonathan noting that blogging should be more like news articles, less like research papers, and then go on, rather than just pulling out his sledgehammer.
But it wouldn’t have inspired some us to come to the site and comment, so, I guess, nice lesson in driving traffic.
It’s just that, it would do the reader a service to note that both forms have a proper context and that the academic style isn’t simply wrong. Some people reading will replace one set of rules for the other, like Roberta Rosenberg above, instead of keeping the academic form and adding the conversational one.
@Dave Doolin: I definitely agree! I assisted the editor of Community Literacy Journal (http://communityliteracy.org) for a few years, and some of the most compelling writing I’ve read has been papers we were tuning up for publication.
@Elizabeth: Technical writing requires a voice just like all writing, and I would go so far as to say it is much more difficult to produce than blog copy. In many aspects, good blog copy is about turning the analytical brain off and not letting it get in the way of the conversation we’re trying to have with our audience. Not only does a successful piece of technical writing need to present potentially enormous amounts of information in an accessible way, but it needs to be compelling to get the audience to actually read the damn thing and not just stop after the executive summary. Many more levels of detail to look at.
Not that I’m biased, mind you.
@Kelly Watson: How about we refuse to use punctuation as breath-marks but rather as tools to improve mechanical clarity? As long as the comma, chief of these criminals, is used by a writer to indicate “take a breath here,” the issue will be unresolvable.
Sometimes the serial comma reduces ambiguity, at which point it becomes very appropriate.
Naomi Dunford says
See, now this is where I’m going to have to disagree with you. ‘Nough said? No, I don’t think so.
I can’t believe you called me a two dollar paid companion. Everybody who is anybody in marketing knows that if you’re going to charge two bucks for it, you may as well make it free and let it go viral.
Hahaha, I was hoping we would hear from you Naomi. If it makes you feel any better, what I said about you was much more profane, but the Copyblogger Editorial Staff deemed it inappropriate for mass consumption. 🙂
Naomi Dunford says
I seem to remember meeting that particular member of the editorial staff. I understand your pain. Clearly, nobody understands your artistic vision.
And are people still making the same old “swearing shows an inadequate vocabulary” argument? Still?
I am lucky enough to currently have an English teacher (grade 11) who endorses none of these habits. She is constantly telling us to stop trying to please her and just to make sure our writing pleases us. She is fine with vulgar language (as long as there is context): I have already used the word “pussy” twice in work that I have submitted without so much as a comment.
She is defiantly the best English teacher that I’ve had so far; she gives us just enough guidance to start writing, but not enough that all the papers come in exactly the same.
School isn’t what it used to be.
Karen Rice says
Yes I am still making that argument and not the least bit ashamed of it.
One advantage of having a life-education instead of a college education is that I never had to unlearn your rules, Jon. Instead, I absorbed every book on writing I could find and took every opportunity for paid work as a writer.
The written word is meant to communicate. When the message resonates, then the writing was good. No matter what style or rule is followed.
Experience across a wide range of writing styles and communication goals taught me these rules. It is nice to see them in one place. Thanks for an excellent post.
Janis Miller says
Ditto, @Karen! How could anyone THINK otherwise? How much easier to just blast out some foul language rather than some compelling pithy language. You cannot deny it takes more effort. Yep, I dare say using profanity IS lazy writing. 🙂
Sonia Simone says
I’d call Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, or George Carlin a lot of things before I’d call them lazy writers.
Disagreement is cool, but let’s keep things respectful please.
Mike Consol says
And let us not forget that we’re taught to write in a plodding sentence by sentence fashion. No classroom discussions about technique, steam of consciousness or accessing the subconscious mind where maximum creativity resides.
This is why so many people detest writing. They were never taught effective writing techniques to open them up. Instead, rules were drilled and we all shut down.
Michelle Russell says
Jonathan, great post! You’re certainly following your own advice and taking a stand, rather than trying to be polite and objective. ;o)
I’m not even going to jump into the various debates going on here in the comments–I’ll just state *my* opinion (agreeing with many here) that what constitutes “good writing” is very context-dependent.
And now I want to take your seven points and retype them as a list entitled “How NOT To Write,” and pin it to the bulletin board near my computer. I think it would serve as a great reminder. 🙂
Gabe | freebloghelp.com says
Excellent post! There are so many blogs that read like text books. It’s always refreshing to read a post and feel like you’re sitting next the author at a local watering hole.
this very idea has been rolling around in my head from quite some time. Bravo. I am left wondering where was the class on writing for the web, writing for a blog, writing for the connected age when I was in school? Why are english classes like 100 years behind the times?
A revolution to our educational system is coming and its gonna be crazy
Andee Sellman, One Sherpa says
Love the post and I think at the end of the day its a matter of being yourself and expressing yourself in a way thats comfortable for you. There could be nothing worse than meeting someone in person whose writing you’d read for years and to find out they express themselves completely differently in person. What a sham and disappointment.
anton kozlik says
Norman Mailer and George Carlin had a hell-of-a-lot of content and certainly knew more than a passing bit about context. Bad language was Lenny Bruce’s schtick. It appears to be Naomi’s as well.
Dan Bossenbroek says
I guess it’s a good thing for me that I din’t pay attention in English class. I think I still need to work on #3.
There, that’s better.
Sonia Simone says
Agreed, Anton. Different things work for different people. Of course it isn’t for everyone, and as we’ve seen a bit here, it can stir up some very strong feelings for some.
At the end of the day, there’s no formula. That was what I liked best about Jon’s post — he turned the responsibility around where it belongs, with the writer. We each have to find our own path.
Janis Miller says
@Sonia Simone Sorry if you feel I was not being respectful. I apologize to you and to anyone else I may have offended. Regarding the writers that you mentioned; lazy people, no, but I do think they could have been more eloquent in their use of language. Language can be such an effective device it seems a shame not to be more respectful of the medium. Just think of the possibilities. That is all I am saying. 🙂
Rick Castellini says
Fantastic information and something very hard to break after all the years of the writing training we received in school. However, it is extremely liberating once you start making the transition…bravo!!
Sonia Simone says
@Janis, fair enough. 🙂
anton kozlik says
I agree that all writers find their own path. I wonder if today’s writers understand that “writing samples” no longer secure writing contracts since all prospective employers need to do is Google the author’s name — or are all of your readers self-employed on the internet?
This post makes me not feel so bad on what I missed out in high school. I had to leave in the middle of freshman year because of health issues and haven’t been to school since. I was devastated on how that would affect my writing, but I guess it’s not that bad hahaha. I thought it would have a serious effect, and it killed my confidence to call myself a decent writer.
Thank you so much for writing this, Jon!
Pretty unfair on the scientists!
There’s nothing bad about justifying (referencing) an argument if you have readers with an attention span of more than ten seconds and who are naturally skeptical.
WITHOUT justification, you can claim anything. And people are doing exactly that all the time – engineering consent, anyone?
Usually this blog is a wonderful resource but this is a really one-sided piece. Sorry. And you got a comment out of me. Well done.
I believe that everyone has his own style of writing. I don’t have anything against English teachers but I never agreed to anything that they said when I’m still studying. Writing is a form of expression where you can openly say what you are thinking. It doesn’t matter if its not interesting as long as you can say exactly what you are thinking.
But then again, doing the #3 tip will surely help making your article easy to read.
Melissa Donovan says
I love it when writers break the rules effectively, and I agree that some of the rules we’re taught in school are useless. Teaching centuries-old literature to junior high and high school kids never made sense to me. At the very least, I think there should be some balance of modern and classic literature.
However, I believe it’s essential for writers to learn when and how to cite their sources. Yes, writers should be encouraged to develop their own ideas. Conversely, they should learn that it’s not acceptable to invent facts or mislead readers (in nonfiction writing). Misinformation has become a way of life in what is supposed to be the Information Age, and I have a big problem with that. Leaning on sources is not a good idea, but citing sources and supplying facts and research to support your ideas will always result in stronger, more compelling, and more effective writing.
John Samuel says
A well written article. I cannot but thank you for writing such a thought provoking article. And even the number of comments points to the fact that many have felt the same. The words you have chosen for your post really touch the heart of readers.
Melissa, definitely agree regarding research. Even a decade ago, there was no question that writing even a news article required at least a few hours research and some sources. Apparently, simply saying “real life is the opposite,” is now perfectly acceptable.
I suppose it’s expected that our audiences will be reading the same story on 20 different blogs and the rule of majority will win out.
It’s a load, but the rationalization makes the laziness excusable.
Here’s one story for the win:
I was 16, and was scoring distinctions upon distinctions with 5 essay papers prior to the major O’level examinations. I ended up getting a C5 (barely a passing grade) for the finals. Boo. 🙁
Saima Farooque says
Very nice and amazing post !
This is a fascinating discussion for me. In the UK our English teachers are not able to teach good grammatical English. This is because for two generations we taught only ‘creative writing’. Now our business people, on the whole, write nonsense because they have no knowledge of structure, spelling or punctuation.
I would argue you need creativity and correctness. Once you have a grounding in the rules of English you can move on to experiment and to find your own voice. In the end the best advice I can give is write for your reader.
PS a great contempory writer for me is Kate Atkinson who can write grammatically for the purists and wittily for the
reader who wishes simply to be entertained!
I loved writing in primary school. Loved it all the way to year 10, when I had a shocker of an english teacher who sapped my confidence in being able to write well. Then I turned to the sciences for a couple of years, until I eventually returned to the arts.
I now write for a living (public servant), and I’m secretly always nervous that I don’t write as well as other people and that I’m just a fraud. In reality, this is simply because I don’t write as would be required by an academic, which is actually fantastic, as managers and Ministers don’t want to read what academics want to read.
“I realized that sources were an escape route from creativity. With enough quotations from other writers, I could fill up an entire paper without coming up with a single original thought of my own. ”
Absolutely. It’s how I got through 2 degrees at University. LOTS of sources, paraphrased and mashed together. The lack of creative thought frustrated me, and I alwyas felt penalised if I did try to write a critical creative problem-solving paper, rather than an academic theme-based structured one. I now have two pieces of paper to prove I can follow a system. They don’t prove that I can write or think, which is a shame.
I agree with your wonderful and entertaining premises, EXCEPT that there is a very good reason for correct grammar: it allows us to correctly interpret what’s being written. Charlotte makes a great point.
anton kozlik says
Imagine someone reading your material in 50 or 100 years. If it is meant to “live” that long, will you be considered a “classic” writer — or something else. Good writing has a habit of surviving over time. For example, we still study Greek writers of 2,500 years ago. I suggest that many of us should consider writing for our great, great grandchildren and ask, “Would they understand what I wrote? Would they be impressed?”
Teachers also teach the five paragraph essay as the gold standard.
While at a presentation on writing in the classroom at a teaching conference I went to a few years ago, the presenter asked us teachers to raise our hands if we have written an “essay” (meaning an essay following the typical essay format you learn in school) since being out of school. No one raised their hands. The presenter then asked us why we as English teachers are having kids write essay after essay after essay when in the real world no one writes them.
That was definitely a light-bulb moment for me as a teacher.
While it’s true “good writing doesn’t have to be educated or well supported or even grammatically correct”, it’s certainly important to know the rules. It’s in everyone’s best interest to try to do all those things. Breaking them is fine, especially if you’re going for a certain style, but you should know that you’re breaking rules. This can only enhance your writing.
Ragan Communications misquoted you in their PR Daily Newsfeed dated Oct 29: “…Much of what comes out of high schools and universities fail this test…” I was so appalled by the grammatical error that I came to your blog to comment, but found that you originally had it right. Bravo to you, boo to Ragan.
RE: Ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you good writing is grammatically correct.
Odd to start a piece on good writing with a singular/plural disagreement, is it not?
L.L. Barkat says
: ) Sounds like Julia Cameron’s opening riff in ‘The Right to Write.’
She highly recommends “bad writing.”
I really enjoyed reading this.
One of the problems I had with English in high school was exactly what you touched on, that they rewarded structured content over original and inspiring ideas.
I’ve always said that the English language cannot correctly convey what I want to say, we are limited by our language. I write the way I do to best tell how I am thinking and feel, wither it being in quick burst sentences or long explanations.
I’ve always told myself “A picture isn’t worth a thousand words, it’s worth a thousand thoughts”
I don’t believe that these “classics” are what we should be studying and pushing on students. Since Shakespeare, we’ve added almost 3 times the amount of words to our vocabulary. Why can’t I use them in my writing?
Wonderful discussion on writing!
Writing is most effective when it reaches your intended audience and makes them pause….think…..and engage in open discussion.
I’m sorry, but how is a person to know what rules they are breaking if they didn’t learn them in the first place? Should we forgo the teaching of algebra because differential calculus equations are where the beauty’s at? Should we forgo the teaching of Afro-Asian B.C.E. history because we can’t be bothered today with the building blocks of culture and civilization?
To use a system well, we have to know how it works. You don’t know, what you don’t know,
Moving forward creatively from the founding systems used to teach the language is a Great thing. Our most accomplished writers quite obviously did not write their opuses while toiling away in finishing school. But moving forward does not justify condemning those foundations.
It’s truly unfortunate Jonathan was too lazy in school, for example, to not put effort into making his papers not only well researched but engaging. His teachers and professors obviously did him a disservice by not downgrading, but that is a problem with teachers and not with the merit of proving you’re not lying.
I’d be curious who Jon would suggest recently has demonstrated such excellent control of imagery and metaphor as the classics. That’s why they’re taught — because still today they are wonderful demonstrations of how powerful language can be. Not to get students to mimic the language. I would love to see a student try to pass off Joseph Conrad’s construction, for example, and get a passing grade.
A.S. Byatt comes to mind. Ursula LeGuin, but a lot of her stellar writing came in the 80’s.
King? Rowlings? No doubt these two, and others implied, produce very popular work, but it can hardly be called “good.”
Maybe “7 Ways to Make your Writing More Popular” would have been a better title. All of these points work directly at that aim quite a bit more fervently than toward enriching writing.
Sonia Simone says
Matt, you really can’t think of any first rate fiction writers who are working now? Michael Chabon? Cormac Macarthy? James Ellroy? William Gibson?
You never know who’s going to still be worth reading in 100 years until those years have gone by (and I, for one, would not rule out King, who is a much stronger writer than he gets credit for), but there are plenty of contemporary writers doing terrific work.
Cathy Toll says
1. Last week I read a couple of blog postings on a couple of sites and I didn’t like them at all. So this week I plan to send out some of my own posts condemning all blog writers. Oh wait, that wouldn’t be fair. There are millions of bloggers and it isn’t fair to judge all of them by a couple. But that is what people do all the time with teachers. Because people sit in a handful of classrooms as students, they believe they can judge all teachers as a group.
2. A few years ago, I remodeled my bathroom at home. I interviewed several designers and remodeling specialist. One of them selected tile and cabinets that I didn’t like at all. So now I tell everyone I know that designers are really full of it, they don’t know what they are doing. Oh wait, that’s not fair. There are a variety of tastes, styles, and purposes when producing something to share with others, and not everyone shares mine, and sometimes a person misses the mark. Right? But that isn’t how some people think about teachers of writing. They ALL must teach the same way about a process that we can’t agree on even here in this comments section, and if they don’t, well, then all non-educators can damn them.
3. My mother never taught me to play a musical instrument. What a bad mother! Oh wait, she taught me many other things, mothers can’t know everything. But teachers — well, they should master every subject the public wants them to, plus pass on every person’s idea of the “right” values, hygience, attitudes toward sexuality, truth about evolution AND lies about creationism, etc.
4. My doctor prescribed a great antibiotic for my ocular rosacea, but it is very expensive and my insurance company won’t pay for it, so I take a less expensive antibiotic that works OK but not great. What a crappy doctor I have! Oh wait, she is working within unreasonable restrictions. It is not fair to judge her negatively. But teachers — well, just because state-mandated tests require the five-paragraph essay, and therefore teachers teach within those restrictions, I still can say that the teachers are bad.
The blog post above and the comments have said as much about teaching as about writing. If you reflect upon them, you will begin to understand how complex teaching is and how unfair teachers are treated. Is every teacher an effective teacher of writing. No. But some are and many more could be if given the support and time to learn deeply about writing. But we are in an era where that does not happen in many school districts. I teach those who coach teachers to improve their writing instruction. If you would like to know about how hard this work is and how many obstacles arise, write to me.
the affiliate marketer's help desk says
As a former English teacher, I must say, I really hated when my students tried to imitate stuffy sounding academia-type writing. I instead, encouraged them to rely on their own voice and knowledge. I encouraged them to write about what they already knew and fill in gaps with appropriate research. That’s how you get to writing that is authentic-that’s not so boring that it becomes an insomniac’s best friend…
If you read through the comments here, I think you’ll see two different groups of people. One group feels like school stifled their creativity, and they are relieved to see someone attack those practices. The other group feels like their school did a great job teaching them how to be a better writer, and they are aghast that I would attack it.
It sounds like you’re in the second group, and that’s cool. I understand where you’re coming from. Please realize though that this post wasn’t written for you. It was written for people in the first group, many of whom seemed to absolutely adore this article. It gives them permission to be themselves, which is exactly what they need to grow as writers.
I agree with you about fundamentals being important, by the way. I just don’t think that’s the message the first group needed to hear. It wouldn’t have gotten through to them.
Does that make sense?
the affiliate marketer's help desk says
Thank you for your passionate defense of teachers. You’re absolutely right. People expect so much from us…yet for some reason we get paid the least…hmmmm… [scratching head…]
@Sonia: I was half-looking to drum up the discussion a bit again — there are many, many excellent writers today, to be sure. It’s really difficult to expect teachers to teach off of current writing, because it means giving up what little free-time they have, and probably some sleep-time, to do original research and analysis rather than drawing off of previously established work. T.S. Elliot may be stuffy but the best of his work is accessibly documented.
Similar to how every tech writing teacher on the planet has either studied or teaches a section on the Challenger memos. Boring as hell when it’s the 7th time you’ve read them, but the case (engineer at ____ company wrote memos to boss and NASA saying the O-Rings were faulty at low temps, study on the effect of bad persuasion by engineer and subsequent misdirection by company to NASA) is exhaustively documented and provides clear examples.
I didn’t intend to present such a polarized opinion. I agree not only with the overall effect of your post (encourage people to move past the foundation) but the with the examples you highlight.
School is certainly stifling, but it is stifling because English is such a difficult language to excel with. Yes, a casual, conversational form is quite appropriate for Internet writing, but “flexible” grammar standards create severe difficulties for non-native English users, or for readers that use an appreciably different vocabulary or dialect.
The tired, mind-numbing five paragraph essay isn’t a real-world form, just like a soldier wouldn’t take a fencing foil into combat. But if you were to arrange even this post into “traditional” paragraphs, the format, while having a few extra paragraphs, is quite similar. Introduce the topic, support the topic with examples, close the discussion. They were teaching basic logic and persuasive argument.
So, I wasn’t appalled that you’d attack schooling, simply that the way you attacked it glossed so completely the value it did have. It makes for a more compelling article, certainly, but we, your readers, are probably intelligent enough to still get the “grow and expand your writing abilities: here are some examples” message without needing to take such a radical tack.
But I’m not in your position nor is it my audience, so admittedly it is just my perspective from the outside.
@the affiliate marketer:
You might want to try a different location — average teacher’s salary here in Michigan, for example, is in the mid 50’s I think.
the affiliate marketer's help desk says
Don’t tempt me… that’s not too far away either! Hmm…
Thanks for the suggestion. 🙂
@the affiliate marketer:
Michigan could use a little population growth. After losing so much volume especially in tier 2 and 3 auto part suppliers the state’s hurting. I mean, the big idea in Ann Arbor is to try and market MI as a Hollywood movie location…
James Incandenza says
Hated the article. Some thoughts.
“Ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you good writing is grammatically correct. They’ll tell you it makes a point and supports it with evidence. Maybe, if they’re really honest, they’ll admit it has a scholarly tone.”
Academic assignments are usually asked to be written in relatively-proper English, but “academic writing” is reviled by many English teachers for being obfuscated, pretentious garbage. It’s a little bit silly to suggest that people that devote their lives to teaching English have such a disrespect for the language.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when the youngest writer on your reading list has been dead 100 years, but that’s the way it is in school.”
Where did you go to school? When I was in High School we read mostly 20th century Lit. To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Remains of the Day, White Noise, etc. California’s state reading list has more – http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/readinglist.asp – (-10 pts )
“Go around citing the sources of all of your ideas and people will start avoiding you, because it’s boring as hell. They don’t care who said what, and they aren’t interested in hearing the chronology of an idea”
Your aversion to citing sources doesn’t excuse you from making up claims that have no evidence. (-15 pts)
Writing lists with sensationalist titles is about the laziest kind of blogging I know about. (-5 pts effort)
The fact that J.K Rowling sold millions of books doesn’t make her writing style good or worth emulating. Likewise, the absence of Chaucer and Shakespeare on the NYT Bestseller list is immaterial to a discussion on good writing. (-10 pts logical fallacy)
“It’s not so much about having a “correct” length as using paragraphs to give your writing rhythm.”
Yes. (+10 pts for understanding at some level that the only real problem that you’re talking about is rigid enforcement of a prescriptive writing style.)
“They labor under the mistaken assumption that there is an invisible standard of good and bad.” (-2 pts, i agree with this point but you’ve undermined it earlier in the article by discrediting essays, classics, etc.”
Needs work. See me after class.
Gerald Sears says
Hmm this attacks classes, writer’s help books and writers’ blogs as not having taught any great authors, but is that really fair?
How many “Great” authors have been around since the advent of these classes, books and authors?
True there have been classes and books for centuries on writing, and several great writers have in fact used them.
King and Rowling I’m sure both spent time in an English class.
Also the Great writer of today might be the laughingstock writer of tomorrow. Indeed time itself IS the ONLY test we really have for finding a truly great writer that is why most greats are over a century old.
Roberta Rosenberg says
Interestingly enough, I received an email from my son’s 7th grade English teacher about his “disregard for conventional writing skills.”
While I don’t disagree with her, I just had to laugh outloud. My husband, who also received the same email, wrote me with, “That’s my boy!.”
hmm… I find this all so very interesting. So many opinions! I just finished my very first blog. I am feeling like the new kid in school. I can see there is much to learn about this expressively loud but silent culture of blogging.
Great post, thanks.
My take on the discussion is as follows: language is a tool. If you are writing a thesis, use correct grammar and follow all the rules, as is appropriate. However, if you are telling a story, then tell the damn story! If your character curses, then curse. If your character is an academic, have them speak in an academic voice. Use the language as a tool to make your point, but do not allow the point to be blunted by blind adherence to an arbitrary set of rules that could care less about anything but their own self-indulgent whims.
A good summary, though maybe a little zealous at the end there 🙂
Tim Drake says
Most of the people here, including the writer, have completely missed the point of “academic writing” and the point of all those exercises we’ve all had to do in high school and beyond. Not surprisingly, it shows in the post and the comments. Most of the naysayers – including the writer of this blog post – have made some pretty nescient and narrow minded comments on the subject.
Here’s hoping you’ll take another look at the topic and write another post as to why this one was so stunningly dumb.
I totally agree! I think most kids get putt off of reading in school because they are forced to read the “classics” and they grow up thinking that is how every book is written.
Here’s a good rule — serve the reader.
Everything else follows from that.
Zealous? Moi? Never…. I’m writing a story at the moment, and one of the characters is, as you say, a little zealous. Sorry about that. I suppose that makes me a “Method Writer” 🙂
Nancy Hinchliff says
What a great post! I happen to be an English teacher. Thank God I never taught my HS and college kids any of your seven bad writing habits. Or none of them would have learned anything about writing.
I love your first sub-heading (#1) “Trying to sound like dead people”. I laughed so hard when I read this, I could hardly concentrate on the rest of the article.
Very good advice, Jon. But after reading it, I’ve concluded that I’m not your average English teacher….too many years writing journalistic articles on line. I even write in the 1st person.
Natalie Grinnell says
This article is not entirely wrong in its details, but it is wrong in its assumptions about what English teachers (let alone English professors) value in writing. To take one example, no one want students to fill their writing with sources to conceal their own thoughts. On the contrary, students use sources for a number of reasons, sometimes as evidence to support their ideas, sometimes as a way of contextualizing an argument or entering an on-going conversation about something. In other words, if you don’t read and respond to what others have said before you, then you can never reach beyond the limitations of your immediate experiences which, while valuable, are insufficient to comprise a civilization, let alone an informed conversation. The author, if serious, either had bad teachers or no idea what they were trying to teach. Either is, unfortunately, quite possible.
I’m highly amused, by the way, at the idea that anyone, anywhere is teaching students to write like Chaucer.
Stefan Lorenz says
I have to strongly object on Point 5. Sure Leaning on Sources maybe be boring but what would you think if i would just write your posts in german and then publish them w/o refunding you or at least mentioning my source?
Footnotes and links in blog posts are not distracting that much from the content as citation in brackets is (blabla, 1984). At least here in Germany its commonly used.
The key is understanding what you’re writing (or reading). There’s good literature writing, awesome corporate copy and there’s blogging and informal writing (such as e-mails). And I am looking for different things in all these genres.
A good blog/how-to-literature/non-fiction writer should be an acrobat of words. Should know the technique, the grammar, understand what (s)he’s doing. And then work the contrast and put on the show for the readers. Include dead person-talk in an otherwise contemporary text, write funny-witty things like “Shakespeare was a stud muffin”; in other words surprise and excite his (her) readers. While keeping the main ideas clear and easy to follow.
I love this post! I am no longer teaching but am now in a position where I do more writing. I freeze up and can’t write a lot because I have never gotten rave reviews on my writing. Between my grammar and my “folksy” writing style (as I have been told), I sit down to write only to have a block. I have to write with my own voice otherwise it just doesn’t come out. Thanks for giving me a little confidence! I can’t wait to write my next article/blog post!
Tracie Weisz says
LOVE posts that generate this much response! The subject of “good writing” never fails to spark opinions (me included). I have taken writing, English, literature courses that have ranged from what I would call extremely traditional to wildly left field in terms of what I was taught “good writing” ought to be. English teachers are a weird bunch (I ought to know, I am one). I’m guessing most students will get as much of a mixed bag of instruction as I did. Out of all that chaos, I managed to find a style and a voice, and I know how to adapt it to different needs. The real point here is to not emphasize only one right way to write. Writing instruction, method, and style vary as much as the responses to this post!
Writing as a skill, writing to communicate, and writing to learn as an academic activity are not the same. Perhaps these distinctions are at the heart of the disagreements voiced here. Quality writing instruction also tends to train you to write for different purposes. Sometimes a formal style is appropriate and sometimes a formal style is not.
anton kozlik says
This post and its many comments is proof that teaching English is a lot better today than back in the 50s where most underachievers “taught” English in high school lower grades. They couldn’t teach anything else and figured English was an easy go. Unfortunately, some of their students also became English teachers.
izzat aziz says
its very long post indeed, but I can’t stop reading it until the end.. after read all the points now i know how stupid my writing look like.. i need to improve more in every section of it. write for exam is one thing, write for people is just totally different thing… this kind of post that make copyblogger, copyblogger. great and thank you.
Ryan Bright says
Throughout most of my time in school, I’ve been continually frustrated by instructors that insist on providing prompts for every writing assignment that is given. While such assignments work to improve reading comprehension and analytical ability, they often stunt the student’s creativity by restricting the direction that can be taken with a response. Furthermore, these assignments often deprive the student of the ability to reach targeted audiences with his or her writing.
Fortunately, my experience with university professors has been much different. I have completed restrictive assignments, but the majority of writing I have done has granted me a high level of flexibility in regard to the topic and direction of my writing. In addition, several of my pieces have been written to address a public audience, and one I am currently working on is being written with the intent to publish. This not only allows me to be innovative with the approach that I take on my topic, but it provides me with incentive to focus on my content and how its presented. Overall, this style of instruction has encouraged me to exceed the expectations set in place by the instructors rather than making me feel as if I’m working against the current in attempt to survive the monotony.
Shelley DuPont says
Oh, can I relate to this! As a former English teacher, I find that internet writing is “just like Greek” (Hamlet) to me. Trying to overcome the tone and level that is suited only for academia has not been easy to overcome. Maybe part of my problem is that I love the classics!
I appreciate those that show us what good writing should look like and read like. My goal is to present my writing in a more transparent way that lets people see what I’m all about.
Breaking out of the classic “academic” voice can definitely be tricky.
I’ve found that, for myself, peer-competition was a big hurdle. I though that I needed to sound smarter than my classmates and then colleagues. All that came of the sentiment, though, was that my writing was aloof and unapproachable.
What I’ve found most successful is telling myself “Quit trying to sound smart,” or, “Stop trying to impress yourself with your writing.”
When I put my ego aside, I get a much more positive response from readers and find that I even enjoy re-reading some of my old writing now and then.
While I “get” the attempt here to differentiate between different types of writing, I don’t agree that just anyone should dismiss grammar. Other than creative writing, there is no legitimate reason to dismiss basic grammar concepts, especially when the writer is attempting to provide a logical argument. Just reading this blog post, which I did find interesting, is a good example of this issue. After seeing numerous grammar problems throughout this post (one in the very first sentence), it immediately puts into question the content provided. There is no reason why “good” writing cannot be both grammatically correct as well as compelling.
hey Jonathan, you hit the nail on the head, so to speak. As a bilingual person who learned English from school, I tend to write academic-sounding English. It isn’t very vibrant and conversational. Been practicing to be more natural in writing. the way i would speak to a friend instead of trying to impress a professor. 😀
Een Rockstar says
I have been reading this blog as a silent reader before. But when I read article above I feel like I want to say something. So I like to mention that I do agrre with all the points above but I do like more on 7th point which is “listening to authorities more than yourself”. It’s someting relating to me. Because I write what I feel, I write what I think. For me when I’m listening to others more than myself, I feel like I’m faking myself. As a conclusion, evryone can influence me but nobody can control me. My life, my rules and my writing.
Kimberly Moritz says
This is the first I’ve encountered your blog and I can’t stop reading. I’ve been writing since July 2006 and wish I had encountered you sooner. I’ve honestly never thought about the blog as a way to generate income–not going to happen for my purposes, but still interesting–but have thought a lot about how I write for my audience (a school community). This post is spot-on and should be required reading for ELA teachers. I’m sending the link to our ELA teachers today. Glad I found you, now off to add you to my feeds. Kimberly
Kiara Designer Suites says
Awesome post, Jon. I think there is a huge load of difference between academic writing (compo writing!?!), business writing (the kinds which bosses expect in a proposal), and writing for communications and persuasion.
Unfortunately for most of us, we never had a chance to be graded for writing to persuade – what might be the most important skill when you are in business!
It would seem that Business and Academic writing must both communicate and persuade to be effective…
Not to nitpick, of course 🙂
Jessica Wolbert says
this is absolutely brilliant. Most of us have been reading boring books for years. Now that we’re grown up can’t we communicate in an exciting way?
Anis Siddiqi says
I wouldn’t call what we learned in school as “bad writing habits”. You have yourself admitted that you “write differently for academics than you would for everyday people”. No matter how much we write for “everyday people”, we do need to write academically (for business purposes) some time or the other – and we certainly cannot write that in everyday language. That would reflect badly on us. So, while it’s true that writing in everyday language will get us more readers, it’s also true that we do need to learn proper English in school.
Blog voice (non-corporate blogs) is about the same as writing dialogue. People want a blog to read like a friend is talking to them about some interesting thing or another. However, there are people who like short, sweet and uncomplicated posts and people who prefer something a little more substantial and eloquent. I think it’s a matter of personal preference and the blogs subject matter which style is most appropriate. The voice, however, is its own and will probably be looked at as such in composition classes eventually.
I don’t particularly agree with some of your assessments – as a writer myself and as a home-educator of 20 years.
I think I’ll go point-by-point:
#1 – It is critical for your writing to be gramatically correct. You will lose people FAST if you can’t use proper grammar and spelling 99% of the time.
#2 – The reason writing is taught the way it is, is because most people only NEED to learn to write what would be considered a “good essay” to get along in life. Those that are going to really write do so because they have it in them. They will have their own voice and style but they also better know “the rules” if they are going to reach an intelligent audience.
#3 – Our kids should absolutely be reading “the classics” not just because someone says they are classics but because they are written at a high level – whereas most of the popular literature is written at probably a middle-school reading level at most. I’m not saying I don’t read any popular lit. I am very into crime thrillers right now. But I also love Dickens and I will always go back to his books from time to time. And our children should be familiar with these authors as well.
#4 – As far as length of paragraphs, any good teacher will teach their students that paragraphs should vary in length. That is the most effective way of writing.
#5 – In regards to profanity, very few people can use it in an effective and non-offensive way. The vast majority of people should not use it in their writing, ever. Like 99.9%.
#6 – When it comes to research and reference it depends on the topic. Some topics should be referenced (don’t make up statistics, for example). Most of what bloggers write probably doesn’t rely on this.
Finally, you can’t slam the way writing is taught (and for some background: I taught my two oldest children all the way through high school, they are college graduates now and did fabulous in their college writing courses because they needed to! I’m teaching my 15-year old now, he is a naturally good, funny writer and amazes even me how well he writes.) My point I intended to make was that teaching writing needs to be done so that students DO know the rules, can write in a logical, grammatically correct way. If they are seriously interested in writing – blogs, books, whatever – they will use their own voice and take those basics and make something original and something that is worthwhile to read.
Sorry, Copyblogger, usually I love your stuff. But I think you missed the boat on this one.
Anis Siddiqi says
@Anne : I agree with all your points above, Anne. Even I was surprised to read such a post on Copyblogger. I even re-checked to see if I was on the right blog.
You have done a good job in writing everything down point by point. It will greatly benefit those reading it. I (in my response above) just tried to put forward my view in a few words.
Sometimes I find myself writing structured and I know it came from school. I like free flowing writing. It engages the reader and doesn’t have the technical montonous tone. It’s just unlearning habits by writing. This piece is very inspirational. Thanks John.
The Dangling Modifier says
What I can never understand is why teachers have this thing about ‘got’ and ‘get’ – as if ‘got’ and ‘get’ were profanities.
Then they had that thing about making your writing ‘interesting’ by using ‘interesting’ words.
And I agree with Anne about the classics – they are classics for a reason. But some of them are enjoyable, and some not. A good teacher will surely recognise that and allow students to discuss them.
J. Lynne says
I always thought writing and music should be more alike.
My music teachers first wanted me to learn to play the notes correctly, but once I had the basics, I was encouraged to add something of myself into the mix — play with passion, feeling, whatever; my teachers always wanted me to interpret the music myself.
I always felt that writing (and ideas) should be the same. First you learn the basics; then add something of yourself to the mix. How else are we expected to evolve and create?
Dave Young says
Great post Jon…I was once an active member of an online community that was chock-full-o’ academicians and snootier-than-thou types. When I tried to engage in threads with my down-home, calls-it-as-I-sees-it prose, I was called “glib”. I had to look it up. Yes, I had to look up a single-syllable word that basically means un-intellectual.
I quit the site and haven’t looked back. I like to make things simple. Yes I do.
Nicole R Murphy says
For starters, NO GRAMMAR? ARE YOU MAD? Excuse me, but I do want to be able to understand what I’m reading, and that’s what grammar does – gives us a common language on which to build understanding.
Now, off the soap-box. I was a primary school teacher for a number of years, and am currently friends with a number of high school teachers (in Australia) and this article is just too simplified. For starters, students do study creative writing as well, and are encouraged to do their own writing. My friends have been using texts as diverse as manga and Neil Gaiman in their classes. Students are being exposed to a wide usage of the English language, and have opportunities to practice across a variety of writing genres.
Having said that, I don’t believe that school gives you the answers for anything. School provides a basis of knowledge and skill, from which adults then create and build and become what they want to be. Woodwork classes at school don’t make someone a carpenter, and nor do English classes make someone a writer.
Brian Clark says
I’m pretty sure the post doesn’t eschew all grammar. Our philosophy here is to know the rules of proper grammar, so you can break them when it makes for better, more engaging copy and content.
Nicole R Murphy says
Line from the article – Personally, I think good writing doesn’t have to be educated or well supported or even grammatically correct.
That’s what I was reacting to. I agree with your comment – know the rules so you can break them with meaning and purpose, but that’s not how I read the above line.
Mike Kirkeberg says
My favorite author is Elmore Leonard. I can fall deeply into anything he puts on paper. I love what he said about his own writing, which was something like “I write and then I read what I write. If it sounds like writing, I get rid of it and start over.”
That’s what I love, writing like a human.
Jon Paget says
Jonathan – an interesting post but I don’t agree with all your points. I’m not sure where you’re based but the British system has a mixture of classic and modern literature in the school curriculum (point 1).
I was also encouraged at school to keep paragraphs short (point 3) but maybe that was just my teacher’s opinion?
However, point 7 is a great point and something I feel is thanks to the Internet. Before blogging and freedom of written expression through the Internet came along, publishers largely dictated what and what wasn’t published. That, thankfully, is no more…
I’d also add a point 8. I was taught never to start a sentence with the word ‘And’. I don’t know many good writers who stick to that ‘rule’.
I’ll have to add myself to the ‘dissenting voices’ column. Not much of a writer, in fact I think my writing is quite ghastly compared to some of the work I produced in the very educational system you seem to denounce. I get that ‘real people’ want ‘gritty, interesting, opinionated’ and all that, but writing for public approval is, in my opinion, as bad as writing for good grades.
There’s a niche for everything. If you empathise with a non-profane, grammatically pure, antiquated style, by all means, go for it. If you want to be Stephen King, you can do that too.
As far as putting yourself into your work, I’m with Oscar Wilde (or one of his characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray), “We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.”
Sarah Z. Cordell says
I thought the post was entertaining, but I was a little saddened to see how many people have had bad English class experiences!
Eugene Carpet says
We are all great writers, just some of us are the only ones reading our stuff.
thanks for the post
Oluniyi David Ajao says
Words cannot express how much I am in love with the writing style on this blog.
I must confess that my own writing style is based on skills I acquired in school but over the years of constant practice, my writing has evolved into my own unique style and I can easily express myself without giving it much thought albeit I’m compelled to check for spelling errors.
Spelling errors are inadmissible.
Pretty interesting stuff here. The one I agree with most is #7, and I tell people that all the time. Write your style, and if it seems to work for you, then go at it. Now, if you notice you’re not getting the type of response you were hoping for, you’ll learn to change up so that you’ll have a chance to achieve your goals. Otherwise, you have to be who you are, not who someone else is.
Getting all but like 5 A’s in your educational career? Like, really?
Let’s drop the American teen lingo 🙂
I feel pretty damned good about my writing now, knowing I break most of these rules. My son loves to tell me I can’t start a sentence with “because”…another one I call bullshit on. But I’d add one more to your list: writing the way you speak. I was always taught never to write the way I speak and yet it’s what most of my blog contains, and what my readers most love. It’s engaging and unapologetic.
Like any art form, you have to learn the rules, then learn when to break them.
Fortunately, I’m too opinionated to follow rules that don’t work for me. 😀
internet marketing specialist says
3 sentences minimum.
I do admit that its much enticing to read posts that are short yet straight to the point.
Keeping it short and simple works best. Great post!
Paul McKeon says
A cogent and enjoyable post!
#1, “Trying to sound like dead people,” is so true. In my business I also see “Trying to sound like the CEO.” marketing writers try so hard to jam every possible Value Proposition and Keyword Phrase into each sentence, the result is menaingless. We created a “Jargon Quiz” on our site with hilarious examples of real marketing copy.
Thanks for an engaging review of the rules that were made to be broken.
Sue Peppers says
Junior College, Creative Writing Class – 1972.
At the age of 17, I had already been writing professionally for two years. No, I didn’t think I was hot stuff. I simply grew up in a home filled with writers, so it was as natural as drinking water. A writing class would be required for my AA degree – and since I figured my young self still had lots to learn, I enthusiastically signed up. Paper after paper, I would eek out no more than a C minus. My frustration reached an all time high. What was I doing wrong? Following grammatical rules was like writing with no lead in my pencil. Nothing flowed. When I read it out loud, it was not ‘my voice’. So I did what sounded right and, again, “earned” a C or a D.
My mother, the author, was no help. She wrote to SELL, not to get an A. She had just sold an article to Readers Digest. It was about 3 weeks away from being published, so I figured it would be safe material for an experiment. I retyped her entire article, word for word – put my name in place of hers as the author, and turned it in. “F”!!!!!!!! My mom got an F on an article Readers Digest had just purchased for $1500 (in 1972…not bad!).
Point made. I dropped the class, and went on to write for national newspapers, two anthologies, several magazines, television documentaries, videos, and will publish my first book in about a month.
I’m am still (and often) grammatically challenged – but never at a loss for a good story to write. (About which to write? What is it? Should I care?)
anton kozlik says
Yours is an oft-repeated story. I had been supporting myself as a writer since I was 15 when I left home. I am now 71.
In addition to my full-time job as a news reporter, I wrote for several magazines and other newspapers. As university was in my plans, I had to get high school credits so I attended high school while I kept up writing for an income. The only subject where I received less than 90% was English Composition where I seldom got more than 60% even though I used some of my better magazine articles for my school writing assignments.
I now mentor budding writers and have found that not very much has changed on the “schooling” front while blogs like this one help budding writers — and even some old timers.
Wow – you asked one English teacher and more than one answered. 😛
Writing MUST* be grammatically correct to be good, but it’s takes so much more than that.
*Unless it’s in an overly obvious personal voice, kind of like novels in dialect, but a modern version for blogs.
Oh and I’m realizing even further how my English teachers were very good, even from middle school (Hingham public) on to college, the puny Quincy College. I’m blessed to have had such great profs for a budget. 😀
My professors worked hard to get us to write really well – the stuff had feeling. (Of course what poetry class assignments wouldn’t?)
(This is not counting that high school teacher who assigned an essay on the first day of 12th grade and after I BSed it because I didn’t like getting a huge assignment day 1, I got an A. Lesson learned, fabulous. This i the world we live in. No, that teacher does not really count in my book.)
Waqas Ali says
You really focused on very important issue.
Yes language is changing very rapidly, especially when you aren’t writing just for school grades but for an important audience. When you get in the field of writing professionally then there is no option to stop learning otherwise you’ll be out of race.
Mike McLean says
Rule #1a should be “Passive Voice”. There is nothing that contributes to bad writing quite like passive voice. Write in the active voice, always.
I think writing is somewhat important as a internet marketer, but not so mandatory. This because
bad writing can be over looked by some readers if there’s an good subject.
Just my thoughts
Antonio Coleman AKA ‘TrafficColeman” Signing Off
Thanks for such a great bit of information. I had already given up most of those taught rules. I must admit that I still clung to the long paragraph so thank you for that. Also, the reminder that there is no good/bad standard…
I am going to stop being silly now and write! Thanks again!
Exactly when was the last time you were a high school English student? Education has come a long way since “back in the day” practices that you are referencing in this article. It’s sad that a person with an English degree who isn’t a teacher assumes (and we all know what that means) that those of us who have English degrees and are teachers are out of touch with society and what students need. You’re right, those are bad practices that most educators I know today no longer employ. If you were to learn a foreign language, would you disregard its rules for usage and mechanics? If you were to publish this very article, would you not check it for grammatical mistakes? The fact of the matter is your credibility suffers if your writing is filled with mistakes. And while reading Shakespeare may seem daunting, what do you do when you come across something difficult to read? How do you analyze it and understand it? Chances are you learned those reading comprehension techniques from reading difficult texts like Shakespeare, not New York Times best sellers. I’m sure I also don’t need to point out that besides a difference in audience, writer’s also must consider a difference in purpose for what they are composing. As I’m sure you do. There’s a big difference between writing a novel and writing an analytical essay. Will you write essays about Jane Austen for your job? Probably not. But throwing it out because you won’t use it 10 or 15 years down the road is like skipping puberty because eventually you’ll be an adult. It just doesn’t make sense. I suppose you think Algebra is a waste of time too? Maybe, just maybe, this attitude is a reflection of the kind of student you were and the kind of teachers you had rather than an accurate reflection of writing instruction that occurs in schools.
Diva of Development says
This is a post I will be forwarding to my colleagues and future classmates. I received this same post from another classmate. You are so correct in giving this information. People want to read something that they can identify with and they don’t have time to read an “ENCYCLOPEDIA” of information. Make it big, colorful, picturesque, add a video or podcast and we are good.
EXCELLENT! EXCELLENT! EXCELLENT! post.
I find it interesting that those who learned the rules went on to be good writers. Could it be that one must learn the basics in order to master a skill? That one must know the rules before one can effectively break them?
Yasir Khan says
This post could not have come at a better time.
I have been in the SEO industry for 1-2 years now. Being in school for a long time now, I used to write dull, boring and formal blog posts, which NEVER used to gain any traction.
Now, by being interesting & a little informal, I am seeing much more interest from the readers.
Coming to think of it, I am not really applying most of the stuff I learnt in school to my business LOL.
gazillion of gratitudes Jonathan Morrow!
Tom Johnson says
Great article, the last part resonated with me. I have been a writer for a while now and I still have to remind myself that I will never find the “right” way to write. I just have to sit down with a blank page and figure out the right way for me.
Great topic for freelance writers.
Hayley Huong says
I agree with you in terms of writing for web.
Writing academic assignments is totally different.
The point is that we write for different types of audience.
The writing style, therefore, needs to be flexible to come up to their expectations.
I love this article. I’ve been teaching writing for 11 years, and yet, when I started writing and editing for the industry, I realized, academic writing is just academic writing — well, people in the industry are sooooo busy, and they have no time for looooooooong essays with APA, Harvard, or MLA citation. Really. Writing is knowing the audience first, and academic writing isn’t fit for the industry… 🙂 I think learning academic writing gives us a chance to “know the rules” and writing for the industry teaches us to “break the rules”. If we wanna be read by people in the industry, we better break the rules sometimes. . .
Scot Combs says
I couldn’t agree more. Would you be willing to send a DNA sample we could rub on some of our clients? Many of them dread writing anything in their own company blogs because they’re afraid of violating any of these “rules”.
We spend a lot of time educating clients about their ‘voice’ and authenticity. It’s a real struggle. But with the rise of content/social marketing company blogs often play the central role in story telling. This article may become required reading for both our clients and our internal staff.
Michael LaRocca says
I have some thoughts. I write them down. In a different time and place, you read my words one time and know exactly what I was thinking. That’s good writing. All else is crap.
Not just possible to understand. Impossible to misunderstand. And, in fact, easy to understand. That’s good writing.
By the way, have you read Willie Nelson’s book? It’s pretty good.
Hammad Saleem says
I agree with the writer. Many people just read about all the good advice to get mastery on any subject. The real change happens by practicing.
Edvin Lofgren says
Really got me with that writing police coming to get me…
I like to write down a lot of titles during the day. Then when I sit down and write, I pick a good one and go. Otherwise I tend to get really stuck on the topic.
Very interesting article, thanks for sharing!
James Stucky says
This is the only column that I read today that gives me inspiration and help me to move forward. I really agree in every bullet points you mention in your piece.
I really love that thing “No one but you is an expert on your writing.” I write essays about how I felt every day and I felt like Yes, I am an expert in what I am writing but I am definitely don’t have any idea if people around that bumped on my column would love my write-up.
I definitely see to it that what I felt are expressed and direct without going into circles like some of the novels, (“I won’t name any, I might get flamed :)”) But it what I observed oftentimes. All in all, this is great guidelines for a change. Thank you so much,heading off to share this in my twitter and will follow you as well. Please allow me that. Thank you.
Tim Ludy says
Great post Jon! I see a lot of these when we give our college interns a writing assignment (and I know I was guilty of them myself). The first blog we’d get back from them would be a five paragraph summary or paraphrasing of some other source article on the same subject. It wasn’t until they’d written a lot more that their own voice and opinions started to poke through. That’s the stuff that’s really worth publishing.
Well said. When I started writing as a freelance writer, I was having just a few customers to pay my utility bills and that was because my writing was beautifully tailored toward what I was taught in High school. The story changed when my writing style changed to the way I just wanted it to be without following any convention. I now get more work than before.
Ray William says
Great post…I hope that, the above tips might help me come with a good content. Thanks for this useful post.
Min Yon says
Great article! This helps marketers and brand managers to develop customized programs for their loyal employees. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Min Yon says
“Ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you good writing is grammatically correct. They’ll tell you it makes a point and supports it with evidence.” This is truth, i have heard it every time in my school. However, your article is completely right about writing habits. I have a friend, he is not good grammar, not good as a point and supports but he has a innate creativity for content and i remember that the first time he wrote a simple status on Facebook, his post go viral in a few hours.
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