Your grade 5 teacher wasn’t qualified to teach creative writing

Okay, perhaps that’s a little harsh. Perhaps your grade 5 teacher went on to win the Miles Franklin. But in general terms, you need to be careful of those things you learned a long time ago at school. I am always surprised and amused by the resistance I meet in some creative writing classes, from students who still hold firm to what they were taught when they were nine. It’s really quite sweet… until a sentence gets hurt. Here are the most common grade-5isms you need to shake.

Vary speaker attributions. I remember doing this one in class, where we all had to suggest a different word to use rather than “said”. The blackboard was duly covered in lists of words: asked and replied, whispered and shouted, laughed and ejaculated (I contributed that one because I’d read it somewhere; I wonder if my teacher was giggling on the inside). But in fiction, there is no better word than said. Said is as invisible as the quotation marks around your dialogue. Sure, you can vary it from time to time: it’s a verb, after all, and it’s nice to pop a fresh one in if you want to¬† show off. But too many variations make it difficult for the reader to follow the dialogue. If you really want to achieve variety, pare back the speaker attributions and slot in some tasty little beats of atmosphere or description instead.

Don’t put a comma before “and”. Pah! The serial comma is a beautiful thing: clear, bright, and sparkling (there’s one! right there!) It creates lightning-flash clarity in sentences that try slyly to mislead. Use it, love it, and don’t feel a moment’s guilt.

Vary your sentence openings. This little gem is responsible for a billion mangled sentences, twisted on their syntactical spines so that they are looking at their own arses. “Closing the door behind him with an ominous thud, he inched down the dark hallway to the candlelit back room.” There is SO much wrong with this sentence. (1) he can’t close the door and inch all the way down the hall to the back room at the same time unless he has Mr Tickle arms; (2) because the subordinate clause has moved to the front of the sentence and we’re trained to read through subordinate clauses to get to the “meat” of the sentence, the ominous thud loses its impact; and (3) it sounds clunky and amateurish. “He closed the door behind him with an ominous thud, and inched down the hallway…” is just fine. If you want to break it up a bit, add a tasty beat: “He closed the door behind him with an ominous thud. The sound rattled through the silent house. He inched…” and so on. But avoid contortions; be kind to your sentences and they will repay you with years of good service.

Intensify your sentences with adverbs. I remember writing lists of adverbs on the blackboard too, but adverbs can be the enemy of tight sentences. Good verbs are the key to good sentences, and piling on the adverbs tends to undermine good verbs in two ways. First, because adverbs make you lazy. “She hit him violently.” Adverb indicating violence? Check. My work here is done. NOT SO FAST! Change the verb instead. “She gut-punched him”. Much better. Second, adverbs are often unnecessary additions to a sentence, and dilute the value of your good verb. “She moaned mournfully.” Erk! Caveat: adverbs work best if they are unexpected or beautiful or rhythmic. I’m actually pretty fond of them; but I always aim to use them prudently, carefully, and lovingly.

If you are a grade 5 teacher by any chance, pass it on.