an ear of corn in a field

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Corn? Or, The Best Writing Lessons I Learned in High School

I may not be the best writer in the world, but I’m pretty darn good. I have a lot of amazing teachers to thank for that, but this post is about the lessons I learned from one high school teacher in particular that continue to influence my writing to this day. If you’ve somehow managed to find your way to this post, Mrs. Hoye – thank you.

Lesson one: Corn? Whenever a student would write the word “thing” in a paper, Mrs. Hoye would circle it and write “Corn?” above it. Or some other random word, but usually it was “corn”. The point she was making was that “thing” is a terrible, lazy word that’s vague at best and confusing to the reader at worst. Whenever I catch myself writing the word “thing,” my brain automatically whispers, “corn?” – and 90% of the time, I change it to a more descriptive word. Go ahead and ctrl+F my posts and check for instances of “thing”, I dare you. 

Lesson two: Understandable and Believable. On the first day of class, Mrs. Hoye taught us that there are two goals of effective writing: to be understood and to be believed. It sounds pretty simple and intuitive, right? And yet, ineffective writing exists. When I’m presenting to new copywriting clients, I always start with this lesson, framed in terms of audience and authenticity. You need to write to your target audience and relate to them appropriately in order to be understood. You also need to write authentically in the voice of your brand (and cite reliable sources, when applicable) in order to be believed. 

Lesson three: Reading Doesn’t Have to Be Fun. I was a total bookworm throughout high school and college (the death and rebirth of my passion for reading will be covered in another post someday, maybe). I read everything I could get my hands on, fiction and nonfiction alike. Back then, my measure of a “good book” was how much I enjoyed reading it. Mrs. Hoye was the first teacher who stated plainly that not every book is written to entertain, and in fact entertainment value is a poor measure of a piece of literature. With Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she introduced me to the concept that there are books you read for fun and then there are books you read for enlightenment and growth. I began to study the architecture of literature the way film scholars might analyze the components of a summer blockbuster. I also learned that I wanted the experience of reading my writing to be fun, and that for me personally, combining meaningful content with entertainment was important.

Lesson four: Why We Practice. A significant component of an AP English class is preparing for the AP exam at the end. This is a standardized exam that all students in AP classes in all the different schools take, and it is a BEE-YOTCH. One super fun (see: hideous) part of the test is timed essay-writing. If you were a serial procrastinator in school and wrote countless essays fifteen minutes before the bell, that probably seems like no big deal. I, however, was used to being a superstar student, but timed essays literally had my number. During one practice test, I started out making one argument, and then somehow got turned around and started arguing the opposite view about halfway through. I crossed out a whole paragraph, dove back in, and got turned around again, all while the clock was ticking maliciously away. I decided to change my thesis statement, then I think I may have changed it back. I ran out of time. My paper was a hideous mess of smudged erases, cross-outs, arrows, and probably a tear-splatter or two because I was an emotional little beast. Mrs. Hoye was a really expressive teacher, so when she came around to collect my paper, I fully expected a loud reaction of horror. Instead, she quietly said, “That’s okay, that’s why we practice.” After class, she coached me through overcoming a mental tangle like that. I learned that part of the reason we practice anything, writing included, is to encounter as many different potential snares as possible and build the skill set to deal with them, so that we have a better chance at overcoming the unexpected. Her grace and compassion in my moment of teenage devastation was another lesson I carry with me, in writing and elsewhere.

Lesson five: Cacophony. Okay, this one is just silly, but I learned the word “cacophony” (a harsh or jarring sound; an incongruous or chaotic mixture) from Mrs. Hoye. I freaking love that word. It makes its way into a lot of my writing, as my partner loves to point out. I’ll give up a lot of my pet words in favor of plainer language that doesn’t make me sound like a pretentious twat, but not cacophony. That baby is here to stay.

What were the best lessons you learned in high school? Educate me in the comments!

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[Photo credit: Christophe Maertens via Unsplash]

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