January 16, 2023

Unlearning Your Bad Writing Habits from School (Part 1)

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Unlearning Your Bad Writing Habits from School (Part 1)

“Throughout history, there have been a plethora of societies with many perspectives, philosophies, and ways of life that have affected countless generations of people.”

If this opening line sounds familiar, it’s probably because you wrote something very similar in one of your essay assignments in high school or college.

It’s definitely familiar to me, as I constantly saw some variation of it emerge in the stacks of papers I graded as an adjunct English professor before my time with Passport Admissions.

And in case you’re wondering, this opening line is terrible.

Sure, it’s free of grammatical errors and says something that everyone would agree to be true. But here’s a short list of all the reasons it stinks:

  • It completely fails to grab your attention or make you want to read more

  • It states something so obvious and trite that it essentially says nothing

  • It gives zero indication of what the essay will actually be about

  • It starts at the very beginning of everything (“chronological point zero”), which is actually the least interesting point to start  

If you’ve written an opening line like this, I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault. I guarantee I was guilty of the same word crimes at some point as well. 

You see, the secret is that our schooling–whether consciously or inadvertently–trains us to be crappy writers.

And that’s a big problem for anyone who needs to write in a real-world context, whether for an application, a cover letter, a journal submission, or just in everyday life. 

So, I hate to say this as a former academic, but if you want to be a successful writer, you’ll need to unlearn all your bad habits from school.

I could write a whole treatise on this subject, but let’s focus on one of the worst writing habits you developed in school and discuss how to fix it.

#1 Bad Writing Habit from School: Everything is So Loooooong

This is probably the biggest problem with academic writing, and as you’ll see, it permeates into most of the other bad habits on the list. 

Think back to all your writing assignments in school. They probably had minimum length requirements like 8, 10, 15, or even 20 pages. I bet you’ve even seen syllabi with “learning outcomes” revolving around the total quantity of pages written for the course. 

Even something on the shorter end for academia, like 5 pages, translates to about 2,500 words or 12,000 characters. That’s quite a lot considering that most real-world writing scenarios (like a cover letter or personal statement) limit you to 500-1,000 words or 1-2 pages.

And so, as a result, students spend most of their time figuring out how to take up space, rather than focusing on the quality of the content itself.

This leads to horrible “throat-clearing sentences” like our opening line mentioned earlier, but it also encourages bad syntactical habits that make sentences needlessly long.

This problem commonly manifests in passive voice and helping verbs:

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve as co-president of the student club. 

Versus a much shorter version with active voice and simple verbs:

I served as co-president of the student club.

Another major culprit is the abuse of the “not only, but also” construction, which students tend to beat to death in their assignments:

This experience not only allowed me to act as a leader, but also offered me the chance to help my community.

Versus a much shorter version with a simple conjunction:

This experience allowed me to act as a leader and help my community.

These might seem like minor differences, but they add up over the course of an essay and make your writing more convoluted and unwieldy.

Perhaps the worst part about this habit is that it subconsciously ingrains the idea that longer = better and complex = intelligent, which makes it even more challenging for students to write concisely and clearly in the real world.

Okay, now that we’ve covered the ways that school has hindered your growth as a writer, I challenge you to counteract those bad habits with some good new habits.

Click HERE to find a quick assignment where you can give your writing a total makeover that will instantly make it more readable, original, and enjoyable for the reader!