Ah, high school. Long may the memories of our idyllic youth reign. Care to ride a bus down memory lane?
Right now, you’re back in that big cafeteria, with its unmistakable aroma and stratified seating arrangement (including the categories “Talk of the town,” “Varsity athletes,” and “Stephen King die-hards”).
Or, you’re ecstatically celebrating your sports team’s victory, which validated your school community’s decision to tell the rival campus to, in essence, stick it.
Cool memories. So how come you didn’t go with “My English teacher rocks?”
Maybe it’s because you made your English teacher cringe. Like, a bunch of times.
How so? It was probably the bad writing habits that tend to pop up at that stage in our lives. Like acne and mood swings, such habits are inevitable. Perhaps your memories of your English teacher aren’t so rosy because they took pains to nip these habits in the bud.
The question is: are these habits a thing of the past? High school is so yesteryear, but can we say the same about our bad writing tendencies?
Having taught high school English for seven years, I’d now like to present a list of five bad writing habits that I have seen manifest in hundreds of student papers. I invite my professional adult audience to study each of these missteps, then pause to reflect. Perhaps you, dear professional, have learned to correct such errors. Or, you can take this opportunity to realize some flaws in your writing game and work towards overcoming them.
As for my young readers who are in high school right now? Take this as your set of cheat codes from someone who’s been in your shoes. I have, literally and figuratively, been on both sides of the classroom. The educator in me wants nothing more than to accelerate your growth in the craft.
All I ask is that you keep an open mind. Just as there’s a difference between correct and incorrect grammar, there’s a line that separates good writing from great writing. To cross that line, you have to outgrow these cringeworthy writing habits.
Bad Writing Habit #1: Kilometric Sentences
What was I thinking? This was high school, so we may have entertained the notion that size doesn’t matter. In other words, sentence structure (or syntax) is not a thing. To wit, I have read many student essays that were heavily populated by kilometric sentences. The dealbreaker: a kilometric sentence at the very beginning of the text. Yikes.
I’m not sure why we held a grudge against short sentences when we were younger. Did we judge them as inferior? Did we feel that we were shortchanging the reader by coming up short on substance, thereby short-circuiting their comprehension?
I’m running out of puns. In short: the short sentence has gotten a bad rap. For some reason, it’s wearing a dunce cap on the corner of our consciousness.
How to un-cringe: Now, I’m not saying that we flip the switch and turn the majority of our sentences into short ones. Though it’s on the other end of the measuring stick, the problem is the same: the dullness of the reading experience because of the monotony of sentence length. In particular, a text overflowing with short sentences looks and sounds choppy.
To fix this, let’s think of sentence structure as an art. And the artistic concept at play here should be variety. Instead of spamming long or short sentences, let’s strive to achieve a nice mixture of the two types. The rhythm of short sentences and long sentences is pleasant to the eye.
But, in 9 out of 10 instances, the first sentence of a paragraph should be short. Like a bad first impression on date night, a long-winded lead sentence can spell doom for your reader’s interest.
Bad Writing Habit #2: Highfalutin Words (Like “Highfalutin”)
What was I thinking? The era of the thesaurus was upon us. We thought that we’d earn high marks if we juggled complicated synonyms like balls at a carnival. The more obscure we could get with our vocabulary, the better. Like kilometric sentences, this is another one of those assumptions about writing that we wish we could run back.
Yes, we’ve all made the mistake of scrambling to find “alternative” verbs and adjectives. I once mistook “besmirch” as a synonym for “glorify” and ended up saying, “The name of the Lord was the very name the saint besmirched.” Linguistically and spiritually, it was a dreadful thing to say.
How to un-cringe: We can reach a wider audience with our writing if we keep our vocabulary at a reasonably comprehensible level. Of course, if we are writing a highly specialized or strictly formal text (such as an academic report or a thesis), we need to speak a certain tongue. But, for the most part, we can make ourselves better understood by more people if we use words that are generally accessible.
Occasionally, sublime vocabulary words (such as “sublime”) are welcome, especially if they are demanded for accuracy or context. Nonetheless, the terms that are simplest to understand should be at the forefront of your writing vocabulary. And even if you’re wary of using the same verb or adjective in close proximity, you can usually find synonyms that do not predate Harvard.
Bad Writing Habit #3: Twisted Tenses
What was I thinking? Apparently, verb tenses are interchangeable. I’m not going to lie: this is a particularly painful one. My head would spin every time I encountered a student narrative that incessantly flipped simple past, present perfect, and present progressive tenses.
I understand that this is not the most interesting topic in the world, but we all need to nail it. In order to undo this tension with tenses, I’ll do my best to simplify matters. The last thing I want to do is to sound like a living, breathing grammar book.
How to un-cringe: In my experience, simple past tense was the key to most writing assignments. This makes sense when you think about the volume of personal reflections and life stories that students are asked to write about. Fast forward to our adulthood, and we’re still writing regularly about events after the fact. Simple past, then, should be the go-to tense for narrating events that already took place. Simple as that.
When appropriate, you can go for present perfect tense, which consists of has/have + the past participle form of a verb. Present perfect is used to narrate actions that recently took place. You will often find it used in tandem with the word “just.” As in, “I have just explained two verb tenses like a pro.”
Don’t forget about simple present, though. This tense is used to convey habits, present truths, and general facts. I’ll settle for “The principal makes announcements every morning.” I don’t really need “The principal is making announcements every morning.” Every word counts, and using the right verb tense can help us avoid those unwanted additions.
Bad Writing Habit #4: Rampant Run-ons
What was I thinking? Want to stitch together two complete, independent thoughts in one sentence? Care to do so by just separating them with a comma or with no punctuation at all? No problem! This phenomenon is known as a run-on sentence. Honestly, they’re no different from those chewed pieces of gum underneath armchairs. At some point in our teenage lives, we thought we could get away with them.
How to un-cringe: Time to start scraping. Run-on sentences are definitely NOT acceptable. They were monstrosities back then, and they haven’t gotten any prettier now. We adults can hardly claim to be flawless in this regard; I can still spot run-on sentences published by professionals.
See what I did there? All it takes is the right punctuation to separate two independent clauses. In the sentence above, I used a semicolon. But, as writer Terence Denman rightfully proclaims in his entertaining book How Not to Write, “The semicolon is a full stop with an identity crisis.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I’d take the period over the semicolon any day of the week, twice on Sundays.
Proper punctuation helps you with syntax as well. If you use periods properly, you achieve better control of your sentence length. By eliminating run-on sentences, your syntax becomes grammatically correct and aesthetically pleasing. (Tip: practice writing correctly structured sentences everywhere. Formal articles, emails, social media posts…even your notes can become easier to read!
Bad Writing Habit #5: Tragic Endings
What was I thinking? We care about having a strong introduction and a detailed body, but we falter when we get to the last part. Who cares about what happens in the end, right? You did the heavy lifting in 90% of the paragraphs, so you can just drop the remaining 10% like rusty dumbbells on the gym floor.
Certainly, every writer knows the struggle of wrapping up a piece. There is no excuse, though, for the conclusion of an otherwise excellent write-up to suck. The ending deserves as much effort from you as the parts that preceded it.
How to un-cringe: I would even argue that the conclusion is more important than the introduction. After all, it’s the last thing that your readers will lay their eyes on. Notwithstanding the quality of content in the first two sections, there is a lot riding on your finale. Whether you like it or not, it’s the last impression that your reader will have of your piece. It’s the final chance for you to get your point across.
To explain the importance of the conclusion to my students, I used a food analogy. I’d tell them, pretend that you are eating a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken and (for some reason) broccoli. If, towards the end of your meal, your plate was left with a morsel of chicken and a whole piece of broccoli, what would you do? Would you be content with broccoli as the last sensation in your mouth? Or would you consume the vegetable first so that the finger-lickin’ taste lingers?
The conclusion is the last spoonful of your piece. Let it be sumptuous.
We Grow Up so Fast… or Do We?
Here’s one juicy tidbit: I graduated high school in 2007.
At the time I received my diploma, I had a flip phone, a Friendster account, and a fascination with John Cena.
Fourteen years later, I have a couple of Androids. Friendster has long been defunct, and I can’t see my Cena fanhood resurging any time soon.
My point? Some things were meant to be left in high school. Bad breakups, poor test scores, and questionable tastes in music deserve to be distant memories.
So you should leave behind your misconceptions about writing, too. Realize that syntax and punctuation matter. Be accurate with your verb tenses. Adapt your vocabulary to your target audience. Make your ending count. Only when we embrace a more mature approach to writing can we truly say that we have, well, grown up.
Oh, and the next time you come across your English teacher on Facebook, send them a celebratory GIF and thank them for all that they did. Remember: while you were cheering wildly in that state championship game, your teacher was dotting your i’s, crossing your t’s, and cringing like crazy.