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.

7 thoughts on “Your grade 5 teacher wasn’t qualified to teach creative writing

  1. Shredding teaching methods is something I did best in high school. I made english teachers cry on more than one occasion, and I am not sorry. I learnt to write from reading, and – as far as I’m concerned – academia can take the back seat on this bus. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, and grammar are all just tools for the canvas. It is up to the imagination where it all goes.

  2. EJ, you are so right. For instance, we are taught not to use a comma splice, but witness this sentence spliced and then repunctuated:

    The night was soft, she was beautiful.
    The night was soft; she was beautiful.

    I think the first one is more effective although officially “wrong”.That semi-colon really ruins the mood of the second version: a bit like spinach between the teeth of the person you were thinking of kissing. I always adapt my level of adherence to the “roolz” depending on who my audience is, and THAT is the cornerstone of effective writing.


  3. As a returning to “torturer of small children” (aka primary relief teaching….at least for the short term future)…if I have Gr 5…

    Check. 🙂

  4. “a bit like spinach between the teeth of the person you were thinking of kissing.”

    And that, boys and girls, is what we call a simile, a particularly effective one I must say :).

    My late and much lamented Grade 5 teacher taught me little in the ways of creative writing, beyond indulging my fondness for the bizarre. The odd relationship I now have with creative writing classes started at university, where I discovered that a seminar room full of Literature-with-a-capital-L snobs is not a fun place for an aspiring author of occult-laced crime fiction to be.

    Everything I know about the workings of my chosen genre I picked up from reading widely within and beyond it, going to weekend writing workshops at the WEA and (most importantly) hanging out with other people who have similar goals.

    I should also mention the influence of a book by the name of Grimoire, which reminded me at my lowest point that it *can* be done and I could do it too. Sometimes the best lessons are learned outside the classroom.

  5. Academia tend to want to kill creativity with its consistent need to correct the smallest things. While I have a firm grasp of the english language, a good vocabulary, and an understanding of grammar, if I tried to be grammatically correct with every sentence I wrote, the imagination, emotion, and that little piece of me, would be gone. (Sorry was that too many comma’s? Should I write in stacato?)

    I must admit, that my first MS suffered from the year 5isms. All of them! We all learn from our mistakes, however.

    I am so glad you bought this up, it’s got me thinking about my own writing style.



  6. mr tickle arms.

    ha ha ha.

    i hope this affects my dreams.

    should have been a toy or a WWF character.

    i was a grade 4 teacher, but i taught maths. don’t hate me.

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