5 Things Your High School English Teacher Didn’t Tell You

While we have a lot to thank our high school teachers for, sometimes the things they taught us about writing don’t always lead to the best adult fiction. In fact, I’ve encountered a lot of amateur writers who have been taught a lot of bad habits because they’re trying to apply what they learned in high school to creative writing. Here are five things your teachers didn’t tell you and that you need to know about the adult world of quality fiction.

Bigger words don’t mean better writing.
Remember all those vocabulary pumping exercises, where you underlined any big words in books and then were taught to use them in sentences of your own? It’s great to know those words like “loquacious” and “platitude”, but think carefully before you use them. The most powerful and effective fiction matches its voice to the voice and mood of its characters. And that often means using restraint and simpler, more powerful words than the long latinate ones.

You don’t need topic sentences.
For essays, you were trained to have a nice, clear sentence at the beginning of every paragraph explaining your argument and what you were about to say about it. If you include sentences like those in your fiction, you’ll usually end up killing the suspense. An essay is supposed to be the product of much thinking done in the past, but fiction should be unfolding in the present, right before your eyes, as if the story were being thought of just a few words before the reader’s eyes. A topic sentence will ruin that feeling of dynamism and plot.

After the jump: three more things you should know.


Your ideas need to grow and change.
Your english teacher taught you that you had an argument to make and that throughout your essay you had to stay “on message” — pounding that argument in paragraph after paragraph. Any variation or questioning of this argument would lead to a weaker essay. While that’s true to some degree in an analytical essay, it will only produce flat, two-dimensional fictional stories. Your story might start out by introducing an idea, but it’s no kind of story at all unless it challenges that idea and lets it grow and expand. Things have to become more complex and less generalized. Exceptions to a rule must be acknowledged. A good story often makes us realize that the world is a more subtle and complicated place than we first imagined.

Sentence fragments can be acceptable.
You don’t want to alienate your reader with excessively bad grammar, but one of the wonderfully liberating aspects of creative writing is writing ungrammatically. If a fragment is the best way to capture a haunting image or to faithfully reproduce a character’s speaking style, then by all means go for it!

The ending shouldn’t sum up everything.
Teachers probably taught you the basic rules of the essay like this: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Don’t do this in your fiction! The ending might be a time when you’re tempted to say outright all of the themes you’ve been exploring and the lessons learned, but really, your story should be speaking for itself. To step in with a heavy-handed voiceover would ruin the mood you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

So thank your teachers for the valuable lessons they gave you about writing in an organized, clear, and persuasive fashion. But don’t be afraid to let go of those old habits when it comes to writing creative fiction.

2 comments

  1. Belle says:

    Wow, I was taught exactly all of those points, to a CAPITAL T! Thanks for writing this enlightened post, it really takes the edge of having the “programmed” necessity of writing fiction in a structured manner. Although I most confess, I have used the word “But” at the beginning of a sentence as well as “And” not knowing that the former is considered a “no-no”. Thanks again for the post 🙂

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