I hate “listed” blog posts…10 ways to please your man…8 things men hate about women…it’s just corny. So I’m not going to count these things out. But since people like numbers I did use it in the headline. Catchy huh?
There are lots of pieces of advice that get floated around–whether from writer to writer or by well-meaning teacher to writer. Obviously, there can be no real right or wrong about many aspects of writing, but that won’t stop me from sharing my opinion.
Here are some of my biggest advice pet peeves (I’m sure more will come in later posts).
Use commas where you would naturally pause in a sentence. Where who would naturally pause? You? How am I ‘pose to know when you would pause? This is bad advice all around. Punctuation usage isn’t like word usage. Words usage is flexible, punctuation has purpose. Would you put a question mark at the end of declarative statement just because you felt like it? Commas have purposes that I think are worth learning. Depending on what style guide you’re using there may be some variations, but here is a simple post on commas that I really liked.
Don’t begin sentences with “And.” Better advice is to think about why you’re beginning a sentence with ‘and.’ Beginning sentences with conjunctions can make your writing choppy. You’re essentially taking something that’s meant to connect and disconnecting it from its relative. There are many reasons to do this–to draw a contrast, to be ironic, to set up syntactical juxtaposition…take your pick. Overdoing it is bad. And doing it just because you can is also bad. Or is that what I just did?
If you can’t spell a word or don’t recognize it “sound it out.” This one is ruining lives. Every time I see someone on twitter say “minus well” instead of “might as well” or “waist” instead of “waste,” I note that they’re probably a victim. Sounding out words probably only works in Spanish and Latin when it comes to spelling. As it pertains to usage, it may not work in any language. Any linguists out there?
The person who decided to start telling people this should be taken the entire fuck out of life.
Here’s a hard reality: There is simply no substitute for reading. The best way to learn English (including spelling) is to read. To embed the look of words into your brain. To note the different usages. I still remember when I found out how that facade = fah-sod and epitome = e-pit-oh-mee. Who knew! So much of good language use is simply a product reading over time.
The problem is, especially in urban and rural schools, kids are not reading up to their grade level. And when you read slow, you read less. I mean, if it takes you 10 minutes to read and comprehend one paragraph, are you going to read a lot of books? Who has that kind of time?
Anyway, when kids find words difficult to pronounce when they’re reading, I think teachers should tell them what the word is and move on. I’m no expert but I can’t see how “sounding it out” is doing anything beyond embarrassing people on social networks. Plus it makes kids lazy because they think that they can go through books just sounding things out and never stopping to grab a dictionary and look at the phonetic spelling. Children (and adults) need to be encouraged to commit language to memory. Plain and simple.
Oh…and in case you’re wondering how people can use words and phrases and not realize how they are written (for example, saying for all intensive purposes instead of “for all intents and purposes” is because we learn language through a variety of means and people draw inferences. Language doesn’t have to be written to be shared. You can hear something once and know how it’s (or at least it’s sound) is used without ever seeing it on paper.
Writing makes you a better writer. I suppose this advice is not wrong…but it’s certainly incomplete. Writing alone doesn’t make you better. You can write and write and write and get worse and worse and worse. Getting better at writing requires you to supplement your actual writing. Supplements include reading more, taking classes, getting feedback from friends/blog readers, and learning how to self-assess. In other words, practicing writing is great, but you need to think what else you need to do to improve.
Don’t Change Your Writing Style for Anyone Girl what? This is one of those pieces of advice that I mostly hear from people who receive some feedback they don’t like. It’s usually followed by some statement akin to “if people don’t like what you’re doing, then EFF them.” Well…it’s okay if you feel that way. Just don’t expect to make a living off of your writing if you do.
Listen, as much as writing has deteriorated in the mass market from a content standpoint, for the most part the most successful writers and columnists are really, really good. There are not a lot of hacks at even the smallest newspapers and magazines. If you want to be competitive you have to consider the criticism you get. Sure some writers will make it because they have a following and publishers need to move units, but those people are the exception–not the rule.
Altering my writing style is something I do from project to project. I don’t write the same way on Media Strut that I do for my other blog Player Perspective. I don’t write the same for Player Perspective as I do when I’m speechwriting or writing a training guide or any number of things that I have to write in a day, week, or month.
When you get that kind of criticism resist the urge to dig your heels in the sand. Quick story: When I was in high school, I was ALWAYS complimented about my writing. I was the best writer in all my classes–I was also one of the only people that took classwork seriously. When I went to college I quickly found out that my writing had potential e.g. I had a great ‘voice’ in my writing, but it actually wasn’t very good.
I had two professors that pretty much ripped my work to shreds. I was devastated, because at that time my intellectual and academic identity was wrapped up in my writing. I felt like if I wasn’t a good writer then I what was I good at, if anything? I sulked for a bit, but then I took a look at the comments my professors had made and began to implement them. By the time I was a sophomore in college I was writing scripts for a political campaign, making As on all my papers, and working as a writing tutor. During that same time period I ghostwrote manuscripts and edited dissertations.
I came along way, baby.
And you can, too.
The point of this anecdote is that there is a point in all of our careers where we realize we might not be as great as we thought we were. Those moments should be viewed as opportunities to become greater –not excuses to maintain the status quo.
Feel free to comment on these gems I dropped (hahahah) and add your own advice pet peeves for discussion.