Like it or not, English teachers have always been the authority on literature and language. If you tell anyone you’re an English teacher, you’re going to inevitably hear two things: my grammar is horrible, so don’t judge me, or I love literature—my favorite writers are Edgar Alan Poe and Stephen King. It is a truth universally acknowledged that English teachers give the best advice when it comes to the art of writing. I have received many pearls of wisdom from English teachers past, so much so that I feel like part of who I am as writer includes them somehow. Their voice helped shape my voice.
We are all writers. Every single one of us construct meaning in a creative way and attempt to convey those meanings. Language is as alive as we are. The best advice I could give any writer would be the collected wisdoms I have received in my journey as a writer and a lover of words, the sage advice of all of those other English teachers who came before me and who somehow speak in unison with my voice (so is the ultimate objective of an education):
- Anything you write has to “hold water.” My 6th grade English teacher told me this in response to a short story I was writing, but it applies to any genre of writing. If a piece of writing does not hold water, there are holes, inconsistencies—things do not “add up,” and as a result, your reader won’t find validity in your writing.
- A piece of writing is like a dead fish; the longer it sits around, the more it stinks. Again, this is applicable to any genre of writing. Resist first-drafts-only! Allow whatever you’ve written to sit around for a few days, and go back and look at it with a fresh eye. I’ll give you a million dollars if you don’t find one thing you want to change J My playfulness is exacerbating the fact that you will find things you want to edit in your papers. You’ll think to yourself why did I say that? Or what in the world was I thinking? Going back and revising anything will make you a better writer—I promise.
- If you describe a gun hanging on the wall at the beginning of a piece of writing, it better better be “shot” before the end. This is an astute way of saying to watch the verbosity and the irrelevant details. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an academic paper or a creative piece—every word has to count and factor in somehow to the overall premise or tone of a piece. As we grow as writers, we tend to realize that concision is key in good writing.
- “Show; Don’t Tell.” This is the apex of English teacher advice. Do not tell your readers what is happening or what to think—show them—let them construct the meaning by your sensory details. For instance, don’t say “it was a cold December day.” Instead, say “the morning had an arctic vengeance—even the colored balls on the pines held on to their shattered visages amidst the howl of that storm of ’76.” The same information was conveyed, but in the latter, the reader could envision that—not just be told what to think.
- For the creative writers, the best advice I have received from an English teacher was this: when you’re writing, look down at your hand; write with that hand, about that hand. Your hand is like no other. Write about your own experiences, and naturally, it will be better writing because it comes from experience and from the heart.