I didn’t like high school. This isn’t news to anyone who knows me.
I love learning, but high school felt like a redundant, pointless waste of time most days. I’m still annoyed that I had to sit through 3 years of it (I graduated early) and left with so little understanding of “the real world.” The fact that’s it’s a cliche that high school doesn’t prepare soon-to-be adults to deal with the real world is not a good thing. Something needs to change.
In high school, I learned to pass tests.
That was what counted. I learned to readjust my efforts to get a good grade with each new teacher.
When you’re talking about math or science, there’s usually one right answer to each question. It’s not subjective. 2 + 2 = 4 no matter how you look at it.
English is not that way. English can be very subjective.
I once had an English teacher (who, to be fair, every student pretty much loathed) who gave me a lower grade because she personally didn’t agree with my stance on a persuasive essay, despite a pile of source citations for all my claims. She just didn’t agree with it. There wasn’t anything wrong with my grammar, spelling, citations, it checked all the boxes for the assignment, but she just didn’t agree.
The same teacher had us trade papers around a couple times so we could have someone else read our work. I had several students come up to me after class telling me how much they loved my paper – not just the “good job” stuff but something about it spoke to them. It was kinda a “who are you” essay. That same teacher gave me a zero until I added on one, 4-word-sentence to the end of the paper.
English is subjective. And is often subject to a teacher’s particular opinion. Most teachers I had were not as swayed purely by their personal beliefs as that one particular ray of sunshine, but I continued to adjust my writing style until I figured out a way to simply “get the grade” pretty much every time.
How to be a better writer:
A tip that will actually help you be a better writer, without squashing your personality and style for the sake of a grade, is not to overthink it.
I gave my little brother this piece of advice when I was helping him with English in grade school. He hated English and had no idea what to write. I asked him what he thought about the topic, he told me, and then I told him, “Good. Write it down.” And did that over and over again.
A big part of it is just getting it written down. Especially when you’re on a first draft.
Write down what you think, what you know, and stop staring at blank page trying to find the perfect words.
Then, if you’ve made claims, go research them to make sure they’re accurate. If your paper sounds too casual or awkward, well, that’s where the old guy in my head comes into play.
The old guy in my head
This is a technique that I made up sometime during high school. I found that it regularly earned me an A (along with checking the obvious boxes – grammar, spelling, citations, yada yada) on my papers. It was completely contrived, and to me, spoke to the absurdity of high school.
But it worked.
The old guy in my head was the character I used to write my essays. I’d imagine an old guy in an old-guy suit, sitting in a fancy leather armchair with a book in one hand and a pipe in the other, squinting down at the pages through his monocle. He had a British accent.
I’d think about how he’d phrase each sentence as I was writing, and I’d write it that way. It made it wordy and if anyone spoke to you like that in real life you’d probably slap them, but I guess it made my essays read well.
I continued to use that technique through college, and for work. It’s actually very useful when you need to write in a tone that’s different from your own.
Go ahead, try it out, find your own British man in an armchair.