On The Writer’s Toolbox, I had written a series of blog articles on a matter that I called the Myths We Learned in Grade School English. As its title implies, this series of blog articles attempted to introduce, explain, and debunk writing myths that many people are taught as children by well meaning teachers.
For example, the prohibition “Do not use contractions in serious writing” is one such rule that most “serious” writers ignore completely. Consider other writing myths learned in the classrooms of childhood–myths such as “Don’t begin sentences with conjunctions like and or but” or “Never use the first-person pronoun I in serious writing.” Or how about this one: “Never begin a sentence with because“? How do skilled writers manage to violate these rules, while most average writers feel bound by them?
The Myths blog series answered that question as it delved into a number of grade school writing myths. My readers were definitely interested–and they still are. While glancing at the traffic on my WordPress account, I have noticed that many visitors to my (still) humble blog have been reading the Myths articles. Nothing could please me more.
Well, I have good news and bad news for my dear readers. I’ll start with the bad news: I have removed the Myths series from the blog.
The good news is the reason I have removed the Myths blog articles: I am publishing Myths We Learned in Grade School English as a book!
Myths We Learned in Grade School English will be available for purchase through Kona Publishing and Media Group in August, 2013. Although Myths is being marketed as a college composition textbook, it will be available for individual purchase on Kona’s website. If you are interested in purchasing this book now (whether for your own reading or for teaching a course), then feel free to order a copy using the directions posted at the end of this article. In the meantime, I thought my readers might want a small taste of this book, so I have included the book’s introduction and table of contents below. (Go on–check it out!)
I appreciate your support, your feedback, and–most of all–your readership.
Myths We Learned in Grade School English: Contents
Myth 1: The Myth of the Run-on Sentence—“Don’t write long sentences.”
Myth 3: “Do not begin sentences with because.”
Myth 4: “Never use the pronoun you in serious writing.”
Myth 5: “Never Refer to Yourself Using the Pronoun I.”
Myth 6: “Never write sentence fragments.”
Myth 7: “Don’t—um . . . Do not use contractions in formal writing.”
Myth 8: “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Training Wheels for Young Essayists”
Conclusion: “The Real Rules Practices of Effective Writing”
Does this sound familiar?—
You sit down to write a cover letter for a job application. Your plan is to write a detailed yet convincing interpretation of your work experience and education. But in a sad twist of irony, your education is the very experience that is halting your progress on this cover letter. You pause at the third sentence, unsure how to proceed. As the cursor sits there blinking at you, all you can hear in your mind is the voice of your fourth-grade English teacher, telling you what never to do when you write:
- “Do not write long sentences. Those are run-on sentences.”
- “Never begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like but or and.”
- “Never begin sentences with because.”
- “Do not use the personal pronoun you in serious writing.”
- Do not use contractions like don’t in your writing.
- “Never write sentence fragments. You must always write complete sentences.”
You’re paralyzed. Your train of thought has derailed completely, and all you can think about is whether you’re being “grammatically correct” when you write. (And you still feel that you are just as much of an outsider to the Grammatically Correct Club as you were in the fourth grade, staring blankly at the comments scribbled on your essay.) It’s enough just to worry about one concern—like run-on sentences—but since your fourth-grade teacher demanded that you obey all of these rules, you wonder how on earth you can obey all of them and still manage to say what you want to say in this letter. After all, if you were judged as a fourth grader for making these errors, how much more severely will you be judged as an adult? What will this employer think of you when they see these mistakes? How could you make such mistakes anyway? Who taught you how to write? How can you expect to call yourself a professional with improper, illiterate writing like this? The end of the second sentence still sits there, the cursor sitting in front of it like a wall, taunting you, daring you to write further without embarrassing yourself.
You do manage to move on with the letter, but you move on in defeat. You write only short, choppy, but safe sentences. You think to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction to create transition—in the same way that you would pose a sentence in spoken conversation: naturally. But you kill your natural writing for a sentence that has no transition and flow, one that you hope that the reader will simply grasp as stemming from the previous sentence. You are playing it safe, and instead of really expressing your passion for this position, you end up writing just like you always have: you write a letter that is dull and formulaic—and, even then, you are still afraid you made mistakes you could not detect.
Most children begin their development as writers by being given lists of rules. If you learned these rules, you probably learned them from trusted teachers, most likely during grade school or middle school, but perhaps you learned them as late as high school. If you are still trying to follow these rules, you probably get the sense that following them is often unrealistic—and even damaging—for your writing. You feel a profound sense of relief whenever you write informal, personal prose, if only for the reason that you are able to ignore these rules and write like yourself. You get the sense that journalists and award winning authors have found some secret way around these rules, for such expert writers break these writing taboos quite frequently—and to great effect. You have an overwhelming sense that there is a bigger, better world of writing, but you have an equally large sense that you can never enter that world.
Fret no more, dear reader. I write this book to free your writing process of these rules, learned from those who are trained to teach writing to children—not to adults.
You might think, then, that I have written this book to make these rules simple—to teach you easy ways to follow all of these rules. But what if I told you that these so-called rules aren’t really rules at all—that most of them are false rules that no longer apply to our writing as adults? What if I told you that most of these rules that hijack your writing process are false, and that the best step you can take to improve your writing is to drop those rules completely?
At this point you might be thinking, “Are you saying that these rules—taught to me by trained, trusted educators—are lies?”
Not quite. I call these rules myths (and not lies or untruths) because, like myths of old, they contain some truth, although they are not to be considered wholly or absolutely true. Consider the ancient myths of Western culture—for example, the myth of Achilles. Of course we know that Achilles is a fiction: that there was never a man who was invincible with the exception of his heel. That said, we do find some truths within this fiction. Achilles’ story teaches, among other things, that overestimation of oneself leads to loss, and that everyone—no matter how great—has some weakness. This same lesson persists today, in other narratives. Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite is a modern retelling of Achilles, while Samson losing his strength with the loss of his long hair is a Judeo-Christian telling. Speaking of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the oft-told tale of the Garden of Eden expresses a truth about humans’ desire to seek knowledge, even (or perhaps especially) when it is forbidden. The myth of Icarus communicates the devastating consequences of arrogance and overreaching ambition. While none of these stories is true, they do express truths.
Similarly, the myths we learn about effective writing in grade school English class contain some kernel of truth. However, these myths are too often considered absolutes, and instead of being instructive, they become stumbling blocks to effective writing. Although perfectly acceptable for eight-year-old children, many of the writing practices we learn from the teachers of childhood should change—or perhaps disappear altogether—as we develop, both as writers and as people. To stay in the confines of these pseudo-rules is the equivalent of a thirty-four-year-old man entering the Tour de France on a pink kiddy bike with training wheels and handle tassels (white-and-pink-striped handle tassels, no less!). Like the hindered (and somewhat curious looking) cyclist, you will not go very far in your writing if you continue to practice the conventions of childhood.
Are you interested in knowing the truths to be found in these rules and why so many grade school teachers express these rules as absolutes? Would you like to drop these myths from your writing process so that you can write with a liberated, unfettered mind?
If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes,” then this book is for you.
Interested in ordering Myths We Learned in Grade School English?
Here’s what to do:
1. Send an e-mail to Kona at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Include the book’s ISBN number: 978-1-935987-44-4
3. Specify the number of copies you are ordering. Multiple purchases (for classes) and individual purchases are both welcomed.
(I will post a link to the book’s page when Kona makes one available. Stay tuned. . . .)
Click below to return to “All about Commas”:
Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. Mr. Altman writes a blog entitled The Writer’s Toolbox, and he also produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York.
Mr. Altman is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York.