21 Don’t Listen to Your Teacher

Casey Ferguson

Looking back to my sophomore year of high school, we were required to take a class for the “rules of the road” as we began our journey to be qualified drivers. The class required a handbook with the rules listed inside and we spent six weeks going over the contents to prepare us for our written test. Most passed with no issue, but as novice drivers turn into more experienced drivers, where do these rules go? To clarify, first-time drivers tend to be timid behind the wheel and strictly follow the rules solely out of fear. Coming to a complete stop, slowing down at a yellow light, and staying within the speed limit to name a few. But, as you get more experienced you tend to break these rules, especially if you are driving in New Jersey. These rules are often broken with no consequences or repercussions because they do not usually disrupt the flow of driving as long as you are smart about making these decisions.

Much like writing, we are taught specific rules and structures for writing that have to be followed to meet expectations. These rules of writing are burned into our brains to aid us in scoring high on standardized tests. Once you complete these exams, what happens to these rules? Writing takes a sharp turn in college and we are presented with more freedom. Similar to driving, once you have practiced and gained experience with the rules of writing, you can decide what rules can be broken. There are rules of writing that can and should be broken to make your writing your own. The clear-cut laws of the writing process taught to us through the span of our education diminish the unique traits and complexity of writing while also ignoring the fact that the process itself is ambiguous. Good writing does not necessarily need to follow the rules but it does require structure to be whole.

Through our years of education, we are presented with skills and strict rules about writing and its process to come up with a finished product. Always make sure your opening grabs the reader’s attention. Have a constant flow to your piece. Make sure you have at least five paragraphs. The list goes on. There is a fine line between arbitrary rules and the required structure of writing. It is important to have a flow and structural soundness to your writing, be grammatically correct, and in many cases to know your audience. But, there are rules like having a certain number of paragraphs or the idea of avoiding double negatives. Writing is a very complex subject to be taught. A subject that people like us created out of placing spoken words on paper. The rules have constantly been shaped over time becoming more and more strict and confusing to many people. Writing being such an unnatural action in many circumstances brings on the anxiety that surrounds the subject. Why must we continue to make it more complicated than it needs to be? In the classroom, some students develop writing skills much easier than others, which is why it makes sense for there to be such strict requirements in the curriculum. It also helps train students for what most high school and middle schools are designed to do, standardized testing prep. Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT have such a hold on high school curriculums that it is hard to break away from the rule-driven way of teaching, especially when it comes to writing. But, to develop a more productive environment for writing in the classroom, there needs to be a chance for students to break away from these forms of stressful writing.

The problem is that many outstanding teachers out there are brainwashed to believe that the writing commandments are the way to create good writers in the classroom. As mentioned by Monique Dufour and Jennifer Ahern-Dodson in Bad Ideas about Writing, “Rule-driven writing instruction may intend to make writing easier, but it often undermines the very skills it is designed to foster.” With such little time to teach each class, teaching rules make teaching easier. Grading becomes more clear and quick. You’re either right, or you’re wrong. This same method is used throughout all subjects of teaching because of its effectiveness. But is this method the most effective in terms of writing? No. Sure, some students might easily pick up on the strict writing guidance and easily write effective essays using this model of writing. Even if this is true, students should not progress in their writing careers believing that this is the only way to produce good writing pieces. These rules tend to calcify the process in the minds of the writers at hand. Students should be taught to turn their ideas in their minds into stories, to turn their questions into research papers, to turn the emotions and real-life scenarios into a meaningful narrative. Writing is and can be whatever you want it to be. This is what teachers should keep in mind before they stand at the front of the class and list a bunch of rules for students to stress over.

We are taught to write straight and to the point when we really should be taught the ambiguity of good writing. Checklists should be seen as mere suggestions to the minds of young writers. Make writing experimental with the teachings of useful techniques along the way. For example, an anecdote at the beginning of a piece of writing could be a more effective way to boost your writing than just using a hook to grab your reader. But, at the same time, both work! There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to writing. Keeping the writing process open-ended allows for less mental stress for young writers overall. As a former premature writer myself, I used to struggle with getting my ideas out onto the paper or second guess myself because I couldn’t understand or relate to the prompts, and being so confined made me anxious. The first time I started to enjoy writing was my freshman year of college. Which is so backward, isn’t it? Why should our first years of writing be so restricting and challenging but when we move on to college we are given more leniency to find our voice? This is why the system has it all wrong. Students, like you, should be given writing freedom from the get-go to develop helpful skills and techniques as well as find their voice through writing.

Good writing takes time. The strict rules for “good writing” you have learned may have been useful for timed essays or testing as I mentioned earlier on but are these pieces considered good writing? Some maybe, but it tends to be unnatural. Setting a short time limit on writing is like forcing someone to finish a 500 piece puzzle in 30 minutes. Unless you are a skilled puzzle master leaves you with an incomplete piece. The same goes for any piece of writing. I used to be overwhelmed by due dates. But then I had a teacher who presented us with the chance to not only analyze the writing process but also write at our own pace. We, of course, are still presented with due dates but as long as we vocalize our need for more time there is no penalty as long as they are completed by the end of the semester and in our portfolio. This is a rare opportunity that I feel should be a more common rule in writing courses. Short-term deadlines create stress on the writer to have a completed piece in a small amount of time. You are expected by teachers to have a detailed outline before starting and completing a full first draft just to go right into peer editing and then taking all those revisions to fulfill and put together a final draft all in two weeks. Drafting is a great tool for the organization but when you have timed deadlines the process of letting your ideas flow as you write gets thrown out the window. In Bad Ideas, they agree that “When we think of writing as an opportunity to use and develop our repertoires to make and express meaning, writers can define the problems and needs before them and draw on their resources to solve them with creativity and aplomb.” One of the most important parts of the writing process is letting your ideas develop and change as you get deeper into your writing. When you shorten the length of time that it takes you to produce a draft or final product leads to writers who are less likely to revise and take commentary since they are so focused on just completing the assignment. With the opportunity to develop ideas along the way as well as recognize your own mistakes it becomes less of a painstaking chore and turns into a learning experience.

 All this being said, it is important to point out that not everything your teacher tells you about the writing process is necessarily wrong. There still needs to be structure and rules to fulfill your piece. Certain aspects of writing cannot be changed such as grammar and sentence structure. Mentally, young writers need to realize that many of these rules are up for interpretation and can be played with. Teachers need to realize the stress that writing can put on a student and how they can change their approach to teaching it. I will say that it is important to teach the process of timed writing, but I do not think it should be the primary focus of writing classes in terms of curriculum. Middle school should be a time that introduces and focuses on the fluidity and complexity of writing so that young writers like you can being to develop the necessary skills they need to advance. This is while also maybe adding units that focus on timed or condensed writing. In high school, they reinforce basic writing skills as you build an understanding of how you choose to go about writing. Which at this level teachers can help you as a writer continue to grow and add new skills to your writing and still present a sense of freedom in the classroom. Providing a course in high school to develop timed writing skills will still provide a sense of security for standardized testing and assessments.

Writing should be a development of skills within a writer and not just shoving a list of rules and outlines into the minds of young writers. Following up with the idea of driving, young inexperienced driver is never going to truly advance and develop skills if they aren’t allowed to take the wheel on their own. Skills and techniques of writing are developed when you practice them on your own time. Once you find comfort in writing, your skills will grow and flourish to create truly good writing pieces. Teachers will continue to teach techniques that are useful to the process and development of writing skills but making them requirements takes away from the experimental process. This is why with a subject as ambiguous as writing it is important to remember to not fall into the trap of letting your teachers tell you how you should be writing. Instead, take what they teach you and use it to explore the ambiguity of writing in your way.


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Good Ideas About Writing Copyright © 2021 by Casey Ferguson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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