5 writing principles your third-grade teacher botched

Forget what your teacher told you about long outlines, big words, and editing. She was wrong.

My third-grade teacher was wrong about how to write—and I didn’t need a therapist to say that. Think about the first time you had to write a composition about what you did over summer vacation. How many pages of blue, lined paper did you ball up after scrawling only a few words at the top of the page?

If you still face demons from elementary school that keep you from writing, you’re not alone. Many teachers, despite good intentions, teach their students writing habits that prevent many of them from communicating effectively.

Here are five writing principles your third-grade teacher was wrong about, and how to overcome them to take your writing to the next level.

1. “You must have a carefully detailed outline before you start.”

Though an outline can guide your writing, you could spend all your time creating it without writing a single word. Don’t hold your writing captive to your outline. Can you see the major points of your argument in your mind’s eye? Jot them down before they vaporize.

Shape your thoughts in whatever way works best for you. It’s important to know where your writing is headed so you don’t spend time on irrelevant detours.

2. “You must start at the beginning.”

This is why people write and rewrite the first sentence. Instead, start writing where you have the energy. Are you excited about the middle section? Then start there.

In my experience, forcing yourself to write in the order it will be read isn’t the most efficient approach. Sometimes you need to just start writing; the rest will flow and fill itself in.

3. “You must get it right the first time.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Strong writing requires rigorous editing and rewriting. You might not have time to finely polish what you wrote if you’re on deadline, but you can print it out and go through it once to get rid of awkward sentences and extraneous words.

4. “You must use the biggest word you can find.”

You need the most descriptive word, not the fanciest. Never use a five-dollar word when a 10-cent one will do. Your writing shouldn’t be like that of one particular classmate, who had to read his papers aloud because the teacher couldn’t pronounce all the words he had stuffed into them.

Plain, simple words that your audience understands are the most effective. If your readers don’t understand the words, they’ll miss the meaning of your writing or skip it altogether.

5. “Your writing must be neutral.”

Did your teachers tell you to remove emotion from your writing? Simple, declarative sentences where there’s a clear subject are the most effective. The more specific you are, the better.

If you cleanse your writing of anything that makes you sound like a real person, it fails to engage readers. Specific writing is more universal and accessible to your audience.

To write effectively, have an idea about where you want to go and start writing wherever you find the energy in your piece. Stick to simple, descriptive words that your audience understands to get your points across. Add a point of view and emotion. Last: Edit, edit, edit.

What other lessons from elementary school have you found to be wrong?

Heidi Cohen is president of Riverside Marketing Strategies. Follow her on Twitter @HeidiCohen.

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