One of the most fun, yet annoying things I’ve ever done for my oldest daughter is to undo the writing “rules” her teacher taught her in the 7th grade.
“Paragraphs have to be 3 – 4 sentences long. Don’t use contractions. Don’t start sentences with ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘or.’ Don’t end your sentences with a preposition.”
When she was in the 7th grade, I had told her not to follow one of her writing rules “because,” I said, citing my full 20+ years of experience, “it’s stupid.” She did, and when the teacher corrected her, she said, “My dad told me not to do it, and he’s a professional writer.”
“They shouldn’t be rules in the first place,” I started to tell my daughter, but my wife stopped me.
Now that my daughter is home schooled, and writing (especially blogging) has become a central part of my daughter’s education, I’m able to teach her the right way to write, and not the school way to write.
And yes, there’s a difference.
This is What Happens When You Focus Too Much on Math
I was more than a little annoyed and disheartened to read John Warner’s “Said Is NOT Dead” article on InsideHigherEd.com.
Recently, the most disturbing news I’ve heard in a long time came across my Facebook feed. It was supplied by Matt Bell, a writer and creative writing teacher of my acquaintance who had heard this very troubling thing from the students in one of his classes.
They told Professor Bell that when it comes to tagging dialog in their fiction, “said is dead.” He inquired where they learned this, and they answered, “school.”
This is what annoys me about our educational system. We have people who don’t write teaching people how to write. We make science teachers have a background in science, history teachers have a history degree. And yes, I know English teachers have an English degree, but they’re usually readers, not writers. Or they’re not very good writers, otherwise they wouldn’t be telling students to use “enthused,” “squealed,” “chortled,” and “shrieked,” instead of “said” and “asked.”
That’s not good writing. That shows you have a thesaurus, and it’s actually very distracting. The whole point of dialog is to relay a conversation, not show how clever the author is. I want to hear the people speaking, I don’t want to see how many different emotion words the author knows.
To paraphrase Warner’s friend, Jim Ruland, “A tag on a line of dialog is like a tag on a garment: you’re not supposed to notice it and it’s slightly embarrassing when you do.”
By teaching “said is dead,” these teachers are violating two other important rules of writing:
- Don’t use adverbs. Don’t describe a verb, use a better verb.
- Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me she’s enthusiastic, describe it through her actions.
Good dialog should flow like a good TV show. When you have good actors doing good dialog, you don’t need a lot of visual fluff to go with it. When you’re writing dialog, you don’t need all that pap and fluff to tell the reader what to think. You show it with the rest of the narrative or the other character’s reaction.
Teachers Need to Learn to Write
Writing is easy. Writing well is hard. And the better you get, the harder it gets. But people who teach grossly incorrect ideas like “said is dead” are making it harder for people who actually want to write for a living.
Anyone who has to unlearn a bad habit is at a disadvantage compared to the people who learned good habits early on. Teachers who tell their students “said is dead” — or any of these other grammar and language myths — are doing their students a horrible disservice. And employers like me end up with an entire generation of students who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag without a quiver full of adjectives.
Teachers, if you want to help your students be good writers, start writing yourself. Write essays and short stories. Don’t just read them, produce them. Invite professional writers and college writing professors to your class to talk about what the writing life is like. Start reading blogs from professional writers and creating writing teachers to see what kinds of advice they’re giving and what ideas they’re teaching.
Give them sound writing advice that every professional writer is following in the real world, and not something from the Pollyanna School of Saccharine Pap.
(Update: As my friend and published novelist, Cathy Day, said in the comments below: If any K-12 teachers find their way to this post and feel inspired to focus on their own identities as writers, this is just what they need: The Indiana Writing Project (or if they don’t live in Indiana, many states off similar summer institutes).)