When to Ignore What School Taught Us

I love the truism, “Rules were made to be broken.” Why? Because (tautology alert) it’s so darn true. And when it comes to writing prose, breaking the rules means challenging some of those quaint, rigid little dictums our English teachers drilled into our heads and then enforced with their nasty red pens. I find that when my writing is not jumping off the proverbial page, it’s fun to think back to all those draconian rules about good writing—and then blow them up and create my own.

Join me in my trip back to school, won’t you?

Teacher (imagine an extra-nasally voice): “Always write in complete sentences.”

Subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb is boring, boring, boring. Break out of the complete sentence habit and try to “stutter step” your prose a bit. What, you don’t think incomplete sentences can be dramatic and compelling?

Simply not true. (See?)

Incomplete, fragmented sentences contribute to sentence variety by giving you shorter, more impactful spikes amid longer sentences. And often, these type of sentences help to create a mood or help define a character. If you’re writing in first person or third-person limited, for example, using short and fragmented sentences can aid in a portrayal of a distressed or chaotic state of mind.

Pretty cool, huh?

Teacher: “Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence which introduces and summarizes the paragraph that follows.”


Again, boring! Ditch the school marm routine and consider leaving revelatory statements at the end of your paragraphs. I call these suspend paragraphs. Start out mysterious, vague, enigmatic, abstract, and then clobber your reader at the end with the truth. And when you think about it, it’s perfectly natural to leave the best bits for the end. Screenwriters know this: they use “suspend sentences” to increase the punch of their dialogue by leaving the most important part of a line at the end. “The butler murdered Mr. Smith behind the greenhouse!” is usually weaker than “Mr. Smith was murdered behind the greenhouse by the butler!”

Teacher: “Your paper must focus on one main point, and everything should be in support of that point.”

In fiction prose, organizing chapters or sections around single “main points” can be stifling. It can lead to a tedious kind of ask-and-answer, “paint by numbers” approach. Whether it’s exposition, characterization, subplots, local color, humor, or thematic material, find a way to chop up your material and sprinkle it throughout your book. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your reader! He or she does not have to be led by the hand. Add some variety, keep ’em guessing, and keep it interesting.

Have any other writing tips or things you think you can ignore from high school English? Please, share!

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2 responses to “When to Ignore What School Taught Us

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