Three ways schools mess up our writing

Schools suck at teaching writing. That seems problematic – they’re meant to teach us to write well, aren’t they?

Actually… no.

Schools are there to help us pass exams. They do that by teaching us to write in a way that’s functional, but not… well, good.

(And I know by writing about writing I’m opening the goddamn floodgates for nit-picky comments and suggested edits. BRING IT!)

(Please don’t actually bring it. I’m a delicate flower).

Here are three ways that schools mess up your writing:

1) Schools teach us that longer = more difficult (and better)

We expect schoolwork to have word counts. After all, people are lazy and would always hand in the shortest piece possible otherwise.

A word count forces people to write more. To dive deeper. To work harder.

At least that’s the theory.

The reality?

A longer piece doesn’t always mean a better piece.

Why this is a bad lesson

Firstly, writing with word counts at school conditions us to add filler to our writing. “It’s” becomes “it is”, “I think” becomes “it is my humble opinion that…” (we’ve all done it).

School trains us to be less efficient editors.

In the real world your writing should be as concise as possible (especially marketing). Your work will be better. Readers (and prospects) will thank you.

Secondly, writing to word counts teaches people that longer pieces are tougher. And if they’re tougher, they must be more valuable.

The reality is usually the opposite – the hardest pieces are the shortest ones.

Mark Twain once famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

In business terms, I’m sure “Just Do It” or “I’m Lovin’ It” were way harder to write than a 20,000-word thesis on corporate ethos would be.

So if you think you’re getting the most value for money asking writers for an arbitrary word count, odds are you’re actually short-changing yourself.

(This is why you should never go for pay-per-word copy. You’re not only giving the writer a financial reason not to edit, you’re actually incentivising them to add more bloat to the post).

2) Schools teach us that the ‘correct’ way is the only way

At school we learn important rules for writing.

We never end sentences with prepositions. Our infinitives remain firmly unsplit. We never start a sentence with ‘and’, or ‘because’, or ‘but’, or…

This is how English works. Any other approach would be madness.

Why this is a bad lesson

Mistakes, typos, grammatical errors and whatnot are obviously bad. They stop us really trusting the person we’re reading.

After all, how can someone be an authority if they don’t know how to use an apostrophe?

(It might seem unfair, but it’s true.)

So of course, there is a wrong way to write.

But there’s no ‘right’ way.

Writing is about conveying meaning. Rules help with that. But when a rule gets in the way of the meaning, the rule is wrong. Always.

The rule might be “the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put”. Occasional double negatives are actually OK (not unlike this one). And of course, there are times where it’s perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with “and”.

If that means breaking some of those rules, then so be it. It’s better than sounding like a stuffy-old-corporation that’s behind the times.

3) Schools teach us to show off how smart we are

At school, the person marking knows the topic way better than we do, (hell, they probably set the question).

That means we aren’t writing to teach them or convince them of anything. We’re writing to show off how much we know. How smart we are.

But being seen as smart isn’t necessary the best outcome.

Why this is a bad lesson

Let’s think about how we might write at school:

  • Pretentious words? Chuck ‘em in.
  • Gigantic paragraphs? Just shows you have a lot to say.
  • Famous quote you’ve memorised? Don’t exclude it for a silly reason like ‘being completely irrelevant to what you’re talking about’.

We do all that to show we’re smart – and then we get a better grade as a result.

Generally, marketing pieces tend to work best when there are fewer things for the reader to take away from it.

And, sorry to break it to you, but wanting the reader to think you’re clever is another takeaway.

Let’s take an example. One I’m not proud of.

I recently had the momentary urge to include the phrase ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ in a piece.

(What does it mean? Mostly that I was *not* popular growing up).

I didn’t put it in (I’m not a monster). But I wanted to, because in my head it would have made me sound smart. And I like sounding smart. Because of school.

So, what does this mean for our marketing?

When we write a piece, we need to have an outcome in mind. And we need to fight the urge to overload the outcomes in an attempt to show how smart we are.

“Oh we show off that great video we made. And link to that other incredible eBook we put together. And get them to sign up for our webinar – those are always great. Plus we could…”

Yes you’ve done some incredible work. Yes you’re proud of it (and rightly so).

But adding everything in to try and show off how smart you are is just a short step away from being that dweeby guy wanting to add Latin phrases he had to Google to spell correctly.

Cut your ego. Cut the outcomes. Your marketing will be much better for it.

Then you’ll really look smart.

Unlearn your education

Schools are incredible places. But they can really mess up your writing. And they can mess up what we all expect from writing, too.

Good writing gets an idea from one person’s head to another in the simplest way possible.

It can have charm, personality and wit, but none of those things should come at the expense of the message.

So forget school, and be a better writer for it.

Want to tell me all the little mistakes I’ve made/edits you’d recommend? Why not send abuse get in touch on Twitter?


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