How Your School Papers Messed Up Your Online Writing

Most of us eventually realize that the things we learned in school don’t always apply out in the real world. This fact is especially true in terms of our writing habits.

I have been a private writing instructor for close to six years now. Most of my students are college students, though I’ve also taught middle and high-schoolers. Public education is a stressful and often thankless field, and I am not criticizing the many wonderful, hard-working teachers of the world. Rather, I’m pointing out that the average English teacher’s job is to teach you the grammar and rules of academic writing, generally in preparation for standardized tests and college. While these are undeniably important skills for that context, they don’t all transfer to the real world. Here are three things that worked for your school papers school that you want to avoid online:

* Pointless Elaboration
If you’ve ever found yourself tempted to refer to Webster’s dictionary while struggling to write an introduction, you’re not alone. Similarly, if you’ve ever wanted to use something like “For the entire history of [insert field here], man has sought [insert value here]” to open a paper, you were probably doing so to fill up the assignment’s minimum page count. By requiring you to fill up a certain amount of pages, your English teacher unwittingly taught you to use a lot of words to say very little.

In online and business contexts, being concise and clear are your top priorities as a writer. Avoid summarizing to fill space: it tends to be redundant, especially when you can link to whatever you’re referencing. Think about your audience, and assume that they know the basics of your subject. Avoid jargon, and link relevant words if you’re referencing something that might be too specialized for an educated general audience.

* Terrible Document Design

Most high school and college papers require the same recycled format: 12-point, Times New Roman font, double-spaced. Usually you will have to have a header. The double-spacing is practical in this context. For a teacher, it’s much easier to make notes and corrections in the spaces between lines. However, this practice also leads to many students never understanding the importance of white space.

Though subtle, white space is one way that you know this paragraph isn’t about the exact same topic as the one just before it. The space between paragraphs and headers helps the reader visually navigate a piece of writing. This visual cue is especially important online, where people tend to skim writing for its most interesting and relevant pieces. Headers and lists serve a similar function, though if your teacher was an MLA style purist, you probably never had occasion to use them in school.

* Wordy, Excessively Formal Prose
“Don’t write how you talk” is a common mantra of the grade-school English teacher. In the age of text-speak, most kids need to be told not to use acronyms and abbreviations. But often, this point gets driven home to hard, causing older students to try to “sound smart.” A common side-effect of this is using unnecessarily long or obscure words: “utilize” instead of “use,” “equilibrium” instead of “balance,” etc. Rather than making the writer look smart, these verbal gymnastics make the writer seem pompous. (Ironically, someone who does this can be described as “sesquipedalian.”) Avoid verbose or confusing terms by choosing the simplest way to say what you need to say. Don’t say “due to” or “in lieu of” where “because” or “instead” will get the job done.

As a rule, online writing–whether on a blog, social media, or message board–tends to be informal. Context is the key to making decisions about mechanics and grammar. Avoiding contractions may be appropriate for a research paper, but in blogging that’s simply not the case (see what I did there?). A sentence fragment would be out of place in a literary analysis, but can offer emphasis and style in conversation or story-telling.


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