The Worst Writing Advice People Received in High School

College Advice
For several semesters I taught a college first-year composition (FYC) course, where the students were required to write a variety of assignments focused on their own literary development.  Write about someone who influenced your writing/reading/language development, for instance. Or write about a problem you encountered with your literary development.  As a result, I’ve seen a lot of student perspectives on what makes a good or bad literary education.  Here are some of the worst things my students’ high school English teachers told them about writing.

Facts Don’t Matter

I am 95% certain this advice is meant primarily for standardized tests like the writing section of the SAT.  I assume the teachers meant to convey something like, “If you want to write about the American Civil War to make a point, don’t agonize over remembering exactly how many people died at Gettysburg. Estimate the number and move on because the test is timed, and you’re not being graded on your knowledge of history.”  Due to the way most standardized tests are graded, I can’t say this is wrong.  However, many high schools teachers were very unclear that they meant this only as a standardized test taking tip, and that it is not actually a good approach to writing or argumentation in general.  A surprising number of my first year college students were convinced that the content of their essays did not matter and that there was no need to be factually accurate, as long as their prose and overall structure were good.  Honestly, I wish high school teachers would skip the “facts don’t matter” line completely.  The harm it does to some students’ writing in the long-term isn’t worth the potential minor SAT score bump.

There Is No Writing Formula

On the surface, this is actually great advice: it’s true there is no single correct way to write a “good” essay.  Unfortunately, a number of high school teachers apparently took this as a cop out to say, “I can’t explain to you why you received the grade you did. There’s nothing particular you can do to get an ‘A.'”  Perhaps there is no exact way that every single person in the class can get an ‘A,’ but surely there is something each particular student can work on to improve his or her own writing.  There’s no formula, but last time I checked, individualized feedback certainly existed.  Acting hand-wavy and implying writing is a mystical art does a huge disservice to students, when generally there are concrete steps they can take to at least get closer to an ‘A.’  Good writing is not an inherited talent; it’s something students can learn from teachers who actually want to teach them.

There Is a Formula: The Five-Paragraph Essay

Five-paragraph essays are the bane of college instructors’ existence.  I admit I see something to teaching students this as a basic structure (though I should acknowledge many professors don’t like it even as a baby step).  Having an introduction, at least three points to support your argument, and a conclusion are all good things in an essay.  However, some high school teachers teach this form as a rigid fill-in-the blank exercise.  Every essay looks the same.  Nothing can deviate.  I got a number of college first years (and even upper division literature students) who were very, very good at five-paragraph essays.  But these students were often the hardest to teach because they struggled to unlearn this one form.  The structure is limiting and often doesn’t fit the type of complex arguments one should be learning to make in college.  Writing a solid five-paragraph essay certainly is better than writing something completely unformed and confusing, but it keeps a lot of students capped at B+ grades at the college level.

Grammar Is Worth Nothing/Everything

The problem with grammar is that everyone thinks it was someone else’s job to teach it.  High school teachers think students ought to have mastered it in middle school.  College instructors think students ought to have mastered it in high school.  No one wants to teach it because they have other material they’re supposed to be teaching .  However, failing to review grammar in high school does a disservice to students who didn’t fully cover it previously or don’t fully understand it.  Poor grammar will negatively affect them in all sorts of places, from standardized tests to college personal statements to actual college classes.  And, yes, most college instructors won’t cover it because it is distinctly not college-level material.  At this point, professors might just say “Go review commas” and expect a confused student to handle it on his or her own.

Alternatively, some high school teachers seem to value grammar far too much.  Every single mistake is circled or underlined in red.  Or one mistake means you automatically lose ten points on the paper.  This tactic might scare students into learning grammar, but it can be paralyzing.  Students might not experiment with new styles and sentence structures because they don’t want to mess them up.  Additionally, it keeps students focused on minor issues and not global issues like whether their argument is logical and their supporting points are the right order.  Grammar should be reviewed in high school, but it shouldn’t be the focus of composition education.

Did you ever receive horrible writing advice from a teacher? What was it?

Briana

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29 thoughts on “The Worst Writing Advice People Received in High School

    • Briana says:

      The one thing I really remember my high school teacher emphasizing is that you were always supposed to open your essay with a quotation or fun fact fun/statistic or anecdote. If you did not, he docked points. I was skeptical of this even at the time because I was a weird child who read literary criticism for fun, and I couldn’t find any actual published scholar who did such a thing! (I’d say it’s more common in journalism, but really not in academic writing.) I legitimately made up a few quotes for my opening sentence just to please him, and he never noticed. :/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Darque Dreamer Reads says:

        That is really weird, and sounds like his personal preference. Totally not cool on his part! I don’t remember having a teacher who tried to influence us like that. It’s been 12 years since I graduated though.

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        • Briana says:

          It was definitely a weird personal preference he had, as he thought it was a foolproof way to have an “interesting” introduction paragraph. It’s not a bad idea in theory, but it can actually be kind of hard to come up with a relevant quote/story/fact depending on the topic of your paper. I’ve taught students who seem to come from the same “open with an anecdote” school, and numerous times I’ve had to give feedback like “This anecdote is interesting, but it has nothing to do with your topic.” Or “This story seems to contradict your argument.” I’d rather have a straightforward introduction paragraph that makes sense than a forced “catchy” opening.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Darque Dreamer Reads says:

            Yeah it seems like a nice idea if you apply it to the write type of piece, but I can also see how it could hold someone back if they get used to it and then go to school for something in the medical field and they have to start using APA style with all facts. Sounds like you were giving great feedback though! ❤

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Paula Vince says:

    I remember some of those. They seem to be contradictory. Either don’t worry about formula or stick to this plan, with beginnings, middles and endings all in the right place. And you’re so right that teachers tend to assume we’ve learned about grammar from others.

    Some of the bad teacher feedback I remember was for fiction stories or essays. They’d tell us to use more descriptive words, including lots of adverbs, and also to vary our speech tags, to include far more variety than plain old ‘said’. The result was lots of unnecessary padding words which added nothing, and we had to wean ourselves out of it later 🙂

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    • Briana says:

      Yes! I think a lot of my students struggled with contradictory advice, too. After years of schooling in which no teacher seems to agree on what you’re “supposed” to do in writing, some of them just throw up their hands and give up, convinced there’s no way to satisfy anyone anyway, so there’s no point in trying. I think the very least teacher can do is try explain things like “Now, you’re teacher may have told you a thesis sentence can only be one sentence long but that’s because you were in eighth grade and the papers were shorter. In AP English, we’re writing longer, more complex papers so your thesis might be two sentences, and that’s fine.” At least make it look like there’s some sort of logic to changing rules!

      I agree to that also! I don’t think we did tons of creative writing in school, but flowery writing and convoluted prose does seem to get rewarded. It’s like some teachers think “Wow, it’s so impressive this ninth grader used these big words and long sentences” and don’t look too much at whether it’s actually occluding their meaning. Or the students who do this DO tend to be the “stronger writers” of the class, so teachers just let it go and focus on helping other students.

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    • Briana says:

      I’m glad you found it relevant! (Or, well, also sorry you apparently had some strange high school writing teachers, as most of us seemed to at some point or another!) I honestly think it would be really helpful if college and high school instructors had more open dialogue about what they’re looking for in writing, so there’s some consistency, and college teachers aren’t always feeling like they’re “undoing” things students learned in high school. Or at least clearly explain things like “The five paragraph essay is one form of writing you should master, but you will be expected to write in other forms eventually” or something.

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  2. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Wow gotta be honest, I’m genuinely shocked this advice was ever given out in schools!! Facts don’t matter?! That’s plain weird. I do remember the whole “you can’t be wrong in English as long as you back it up”- which to me is bad advice cos it can be easily misunderstood, because people can come with weak evidence that falls flat under scrutiny and then say “but you said I could say whatever I like”. I just think it can be valuable for people to know that they can be wrong (rant over 😉)

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    • Briana says:

      I would have passed off the “facts don’t matter” thing as a huge misinterpretation of something one of her teachers said by one student…except then I heard it from MORE THAN ONE STUDENT. So apparently either some teachers are saying this, or they are saying something that multiple students are hearing as “facts don’t matter.” I’ve also gotten very surprised reactions from students that I comment on the content of their essay or point out when they say things that are just factually untrue. I know other teachers with the same experience. It’s very weird.

      I also totally disagree with the “You can’t be wrong in English” thing, and it drives me nuts. Yes, you have a lot of leeway, and I want people to feel free to take intellectual risks and disagree with interpretations from other people but you can definitely be very, very wrong with an interpretation of a text, and I’ve seen it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        That is so so crazy!!! I just can’t even… I literally don’t know what to do with that- I’d just be tempted to throw my hands up in despair and say “oh go away you cretins, enjoy your F” (which is why I’m not a teacher 😉 no patience 😉 )
        Yes!! I know right- I’ve seen people say all kinds of nonsense (the most obvious one being “Darcy never liked Elizabeth” even though he *literally* says he loves her halfway through the darn book- when I said that the person just said “read between the lines” *facepalm*)

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        • Briana says:

          I honestly think the year I worked retail before I taught really helped my teaching skills. I got used to addressing bizarre or obvious questions with a straight face. 😉

          Yes! I have a friend who thinks to a serious degree that Jane Eyre has a Catholic message (while Charlotte Bronte’s opinions on Catholics are well documented and not subtle) and that Jane is frigid (apparently unaware that the book was considered fairly shocking for its passion in its time). And I have lot of students who think Grendel from Beowulf is a perfectly good guy, based on a couple lines that do imply this, while ignoring lines that are all “Oh, yeah, he’s basically the devil and won’t pay weregild.” So, yeah, you can be wrong about a lot either based on not understanding the historical context of the book or just ignoring scenes that contradict your argument,.

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  3. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    Just my personal experience, my high school taught us grammar almost all four years, and I eventually came to be so grateful for it. Especially since I eventually ended up majoring in mass comm, and the university I went to had a grammar entrance exam you had to pass. Then you had to take a class that was focused on grammar and writing for a semester, then take an exit exam. And you had to do that before you could take a lot of the required classes for the major. I still had to study for the entrance exam, but I think it definitely helped that I had the high school knowledge to build upon. The more I learn about other schools, the more thankful I am for that my schools actually taught us the things they did.

    But ugh, I think 5 paragraph essays were the bane of *everyone’s* existence lol. I think the worst advice was the way teachers constantly told us to be descriptive of everything. Like, adjectives galore.

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    • Krysta says:

      I have a strong background in grammar from elementary school and it’s certainly helped me. I think the issue is some high schools teachers ONLY mark grammar or else suggest that a comma splice and a weak thesis somehow hold the same weight in a paper. So you get students who believe they can make up facts, have poor organization, write a confusing argument, or whatever, and it’s all good as along as the grammar is correct. Which is clearly a problem. :/

      I personally can’t stand the five-paragraph essay and wish teachers would stop teaching it. I don’t agree it’s training wheels. Far too many students can never manage to take the wheels off and it’s just harmful in the long run because they can’t get the same amount of complexity into their arguments.

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  4. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    Great post, as always! I was very lucky to have an amazing teacher in high school. He was hilarious, intelligent, and helpful, which I think is a really good combination for a teacher.
    I’ve thought about grammar a lot, and I genuinely don’t think grammar mistakes should lower your grade at any time, unless it’s specifically a grammar test. I’ve just come to the conclusion that grammar is incredibly overrated. I mean, my university essays get a lower grade if they contain grammar mistakes, and I think that’s ridiculous. A strong argument and nice writing style are so much more important, at least in my opinion.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the dilemma that teachers face is that the majority of students will not correct something if no points are taken off. It’s a reality that grammar does matter when you are applying to jobs, representing a company by writing documents for public consumption or on social media, or even online dating. The general public generally equates correct grammar with intelligence and a typo on a resume could cost you a job if someone thinks you can’t spell or were “too lazy” or “careless” to proofread. So while teachers often want students to feel free to write without worrying about whether they are adhering to the intricate rules of standard English, they also realize they are preparing students for jobs and the “real world.” Employers don’t want to hire someone whose work they have to keep proofing and correcting if they can hire someone who will do it correctly the first time and save everyone time.

      I can tell you from experience that you can spend months repeating over and over again that a student should remove their comma splices, redo their MLA so it’s correct, etc. but if you do not deduct major points, almost no student will “waste” their time correcting it. This is a shame because I do know people who have refused to work with students who cannot follow simple instructions or format things correctly the first time around, because they don’t want the extra work of redoing everything the student did. Not having correct grammar or formatting can quite literally have devastating effects on a person’s career.

      So while I am a pretty vocal proponent of focusing on content over form, I also recognize that instructors are in a real bind. Unless you make grammar 20% of the grade, you’re not going to have many students who take the initiative to figure out grammar rules because they can do the math and they’re going to take a 98% over a 100% in most cases if it’s going to save them twenty minutes.

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      • Ravenclaw Book Club says:

        Yeah, I can see the problem. I guess I just wish grammar wasn’t such a big deal in real life as well, not just in school. This is obviously a huge and complicated debate, and I’m not gonna go into the details of how things would work without set grammar rules. I simply think that if a typo can cost you a job you would be good at, there’s something wrong with people’s priorities.

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        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I agree. I would never give up a really qualified candidate because of one typo! Then my competition would have Super Candidate and I would be left alone with the knowledge that at least I…really love grammar? I don’t know!

          I do think we sometimes over-emphasize grammar and I get frustrated when students and teachers fixate on it over the content. But I also realize that students and teachers are often responding to people whose understanding of “good” writing is limited to form. 😦

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          • Ravenclaw Book Club says:

            Yep. Unfortunately it seems like a sentence that is well-constructed means more to people than one that is actually saying a lot. I’ve seen people on TV trying to express their ideas, and what they had to say was important, but you could clearly see that their lack of good grammar and “style” was limiting them, and the audience wasn’t impressed. Stuff like that makes me really sad.

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  5. RAnn says:

    Grammar was the focus of my high school English composition classes. We diagrammed sentences galore. We didn’t write five paragraph essays, we wrote one page hand written essays (I’m 56). I know grammar like the back of my hand and can deconstruct very convaluted sentences to determine which subject and verb need to agree with each other. However, our high school essays were graded strictly on grammar. I didn’t particularly like to write and my writing was weak. Over the years I’ve done a lot of writing for work and had a lot of bosses revise it, and have become a much stronger writer.

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    • Briana says:

      I did a lot of sentence diagramming in middle school, and I think that’s a huge part of the reason I know so much about grammar. (I’ve seen studies say that diagramming and grammar worksheets are horrible ways to teach, but they worked for me at least!) I found it really valuable, but I agree that an essay being graded only on grammar is generally unhelpful. It’s just one part of writing, and good grammar doesn’t get you far if other parts of your writing aren’t working.

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  6. Lara @ Another Teen Reader says:

    I think the most annoyed I’ve ever been with a teacher was in a Year 8 (I think the equivalent of 7th Grade?) literacy-based English class, when she stood in front of a class and announced that, in order to make our action writing ‘more exciting’, we were going to do an exercise on inserting adverbs. The more appropriate adverbs we could fit into the piece, the better.

    At that point I’d already been geekily interested in modern fiction for a while, and I remember thinking something along the lines of ‘do you even know what the word exciting means?’. Maybe that was a little harsh, but the writing that resulted was some of the most padded-out, slow and BORING writing that I’ve ever had to peer-review.

    Okay, that’s off my chest now. *wipes brow in relief*

    Like

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