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10 Lies about Writing You’ve Told Yourself

Working one-on-one with writing students, I’ve been shocked by the misconceptions they reveal.

Some of these misconceptions were passed on by teachers who either don’t appreciate the craft of writing or don’t have the patience to work with students who require extra help. Other misconceptions are simply lies that lazy students tell themselves in order to avoid the hard work that writing requires. In this post, I describe the 10 most common lies that students have told themselves about writing. Have you believed any of them?

1. You can’t write. I’ve had teachers tell me, in the least constructive ways possible, that writing just wasn’t my forte. Luckily, I was able to discover my passion for writing independently of school, and I honed my skills until I was able to find teachers who could help and did believe in me. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t write. With practice and patience, any person can learning how to write effectively; the learning is a life-long process.

2. You need to use “big” words to sound smart. I’m guilty of it! When you don’t feel confident writing about your subject matter, you may be tempted to mask your uncertainty with “big” words that don’t necessarily mean anything. Choose a topic that makes you feel comfortable and be sure your sentences mean something. Using five-dollar words, you’ll only impress readers who are too lazy to figure out what you really mean.

3. You should never begin a sentence with “because,” “and,” or “but.” Whenever I tell a student it’s okay to begin a sentence with “because,” he or she looks at me as if I’ve insulted a close family member. “But my teachers always told me I couldn’t do that!” The student will protest. Your teachers told you to avoid these words because it’s easier to advise a student to avoid “because,” “and,” or “but” completely than to explain situations when the use of these words is acceptable. Instead of avoiding these words, use them wisely.

4. If you can’t get published, your writing sucks. The publishing market is competitive, and publishers only take chances on books they think will be sure-fire hits. I know many talented writers haven’t published books. Don’t judge a writer based on his or her publishing history and, most importantly, don’t get discouraged if you haven’t been able to publish your work. Consider the lack of opportunity as a chance for you to become a better writer!

5. You can’t write without inspiration, or you have “writer’s block.” Writer’s block does not exist. It’s a figment of the lazy person’s imagination. Many times, I believed I had nothing to write, but once I committed myself to brainstorming or free-writing, the ideas started to flow. The trick is to start writing, not censor your ideas, and allow your inner idea-machine to generate steam.

6. The “rules” of grammar are inflexible. If you ever have a chance to study the history of English grammar, you should do so; armed with the knowledge that the “rules” of grammar have changed tremendously since the 16th century, you’ll think your English teachers were crazy for being such sticklers about comma usage. It’s true that grammar is a set of rules the writer should follow in order to make him or herself understood. However, some rules regarding comma usage are negotiable.

7. The main goal of creative writing is to be as descriptive as possible. I used to think that in order to write creatively I had to employ as many descriptions as possible. I was so caught up with my ability to create new images that I neglected how bored my reader would be. A well-placed image in an otherwise not-very-descriptive story is more valuable than a plotless story filled with dozens of images. Choose your images wisely or risk losing the attention of your reader.

8. Writing is a solitary act. When writing an academic essay, college students will usually retreat to some dark corner in the library where they can work alone the night before the assignment is due. The physical act of writing, which involves the writer typing or handwriting his or her thoughts, may be a solitary act. However, writers should actively seek feedback; the writing process requires the writer to ask questions and make conversation.

9. Constructing an outline is annoying, so why bother? If I had a quarter for every time a student tells me that an outline isn’t required because he or she has been writing successfully without an outline for many years, thank-you-very-much, I’d be writing this blog post on my diamond-encrusted MacBook. An outline is an extra step that requires time. However, students who don’t invest the time in making an outline usually receive poor marks when it comes to organization. I myself do not enjoy making traditional outlines, but I had to learn how to make a traditional outline first before I could come up with an outlining system that works for me. Yes, I outline.

10. Revising and proofreading are the same things. Changing spelling errors, adding a few commas, and correcting a run-on sentence are great examples of proofreading, but they do not qualify as revision. Revision is a process that requires the writer to distance him or herself from the work and then come back to the work with courage. When revising, the writer may cut or add whole paragraphs, rethink an argument, or reconsider sentence structure. Proofreading is a final step, done after revision.

(Photo by karindalziel)

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