Schoolhouse Crock

In the wake of my previous post on “taboo” words, I came to a horrifying realization: writers are going to put Lolly’s, Inc. from Schoolhouse Rock out of business!!!

A three-generation family business…I just don’t know if I can live with the guilt!

I therefore reemphasize what I said last time about still using the supposed no-no words like adverbs—just do so within reason—and I think dialogue or 1st-person narration deserves some leeway as well if it’s authentic to how a person would really speak.  So I guess I’ll still be unpacking my adjectives, too, but with discretion.

Working through this experience has introduced me to writer rules that *gasp!* I wasn’t necessarily teaching my high school students…when it came to dialogue tags, I confess I’d tell them that “said” is boring, so their characters should “exclaim” or “sneer” or even “smirk” something—I gave them a worksheet, in fact, that listed up to 50 different tags!  Gah!  And in looking at said worksheet, go figure the examples I used for dialogue punctuation:

I asked, “Did you see the monkey fall out of tree?”
Did you just say, “The monkey fell out of the tree”?
I screamed, “The monkey is going to fall out of the tree!”
He had the nerve to ask me, “Why didn’t you catch the monkey when it fell?”!

I will say this in my defense (not of subjecting my students to endless monkeys in their grammar examples ;), but of how I taught descriptive language):

– First of all, children and adults alike who are not naturally expressive in their writing do benefit a great deal from first learning what vast options their language provides them so they can later practice restraint when making more sophisticated stylistic decisions.

– Second, I certainly wasn’t teaching them that more words are better, merely that each of the words they are using should pack a punch.  It’s not about being redundant, it’s—for example—saying that someone “saunters” rather than “walks” or that the fish in the garbage smells “putrid” rather than “bad.”  These one-to-one swaps are sufficient in themselves to strengthen a sentence.

Thus, in their revision workshops, I’d ask them to comb through their writing and seek out any general nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs and replace them with more specific ones.  They were also to identify which senses their descriptions appealed to and strive to address all five at some point.

“Writers with style never just eat breakfast.  They munch on granola, wolf down hotcakes, savor Frosted Flakes, or gorge on jelly doughnuts.” – Art Peterson, The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose

I must say it’s very fun, let alone ironic, playing the pupil and trying to follow my own and others’ lessons, and I’m grateful for the new perspective I’ll eventually bring back to the classroom.  I’m not only strengthening as a writer, but also as a teacher.

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

8 responses to “Schoolhouse Crock

  • Glen

    You should be ashamed of yourself if you put those nice people in the video out of work! How do you sleep at night?

  • Sharmon Gazaway

    Oh my. Most of my most remembered grammar lessons I learned from Schoolhouse Rock! And sometimes it feels like I’m trying to write my novel w/ both hands tied behind my back. Sometimes I rebel and write a whole string of adverb/adj.- laden passive sentences–then hit backspace repeatedly as I realize that, yes, I have written dreck. Why do those pesky agents and editors have to be right so often? I used to love my adverbs and now I see them for the fly specks they are in my MS.
    But there is a place for them. And. I. Will. Use. Them. : -)
    You sound like a great teacher!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Use them, Sharmon! Use them like the wind! I know, it’s been so funny for me to realize how ridiculous my usage of adverbs has been, scattered all throughout my ms. There are definitely some that I’m keeping in, though—they do serve a grammatical function after all! They just also happen to cater to the obvious and redundant 🙂 I remember when writing my first draft, though, thinking that this sort of advice was all a crock (especially since I’d been teaching almost the opposite sometimes!), but this revision stage has definitely been my “Oh…I get it” moment.

      Aw, and thanks for the compliment! Am feeling a little rusty after a couple years out of the classroom, but I know this writing process and upcoming editing work is going to inform my instruction tremendously when I return, for which I’m so grateful. Will be teaching writing so differently in the future…

  • Milo James Fowler

    Good advice. As with adverbs and adjectives, dialogue tags can also be overdone. But we shouldn’t toss out the poorly animated baby with the bathwater. There’s always room for a well-chosen adverb, just as there’s always room for a “yelped” or “screamed” — in my opinion.

    • thefallenmonkey

      I concur, Milo, and I’m glad to hear it from you who is both a writer and teacher (makes me feel a bit better that my instruction didn’t totally misguide those kids :)). How is your new creative writing course going?!

      • Milo James Fowler

        Great — the kids are polishing up their submissions to Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul, and we’ve been round table critiquing their first attempts at flash fiction. I ordered “The I Love To Write Book – Ideas & Tips for Young Writers” by Mary-Lane Kamberg, just in case I run out of material! So far, the Internet has afforded us a vast array of cool activities.

Pick my fleas!

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