How high school English class made me a better writer

One of the most important parts of my evolution as a writer was my high school English classes. Looking back, I’m not sure that the courses followed the provincial curriculum entirely–or at least the marking scheme didn’t. Throughout my five years of high school (I graduated before Ontario eliminated the final fifth year), all of my English teachers drilled us on writing techniques, style and grammar. The deductions for errors were severe.

For someone like me who enjoyed writing and wanted to be a writer, these were important lessons.

Some people have certain natural abilities. They can hit a baseball like no one else. They see numbers and can perform complex calculations easily. They hear a song and then can play the tune on an instrument.

These abilities are wonderful and incredibly important. However, in my opinion a person will never live up to their full potential without some formal training in the basics. They can certainly be self-taught, although constructive feedback from an experienced source is always helpful. But if a person doesn’t understand the rules of baseball, they’re never going to succeed as a player, no matter how wonderfully they swing the bat. And with a bit of coaching from someone who understands physics and technique, they could probably hit the ball even better.

In my high school English program, we read and then we wrote about what we had read. The usual format was the deductive essay. Not the most creative medium, but as we progressed, we learned to work within it. First though and most importantly, we learned to make an argument.

As a professional communicator, this skill is something that I use every day. I am trying to convince readers, clients, prospective customers to do something.

We learned different methods to communicate our argument–telling stories in narrative essays, comparing and contrasting, explaining the reasons for a particular situation in a causal analysis essay.

And we learned grammar. Oh the grammar. The marking rubric had 9 marks for grammar. Each mistake cost 3 marks. Make just three mistakes in a 1,000 word essay and you ended up with no marks. Ouch. I love rules–and I love marks–so I quickly learned to play by them when it came to grammar.

Grammar still matters even outside of high school English class. If I’m going to be taken seriously as a professional, my writing needs to be clean and correct, whether I’m writing an email, a blog post or a client newsletter. However, the beauty of understanding the rules is that you can sometimes intentionally break them to get attention or emphasize a point.

Most writers I know are constantly working to improve at our craft. We value an editor who can push us, a teacher who can guide us. For me, that foundation was established in high school and continues today.

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