About a Billion Years Ago…

This past month I was busy editing and polishing my first book, The Prison.  Actually, I was learning all about the NEW way to write.  (This is worse than the “new math” educators have been threatening us with since the beginning of time.)  Apparently, back when Fred Flintstone and I went to school together and I chiseled my homework in a stone tablet, I learned wrong.

When I was in junior high (7th, 8th and 9th grade back then; nowadays called middle school and 6th, 7th and 8th grades), I went to a private Christian school.  Actually I went to private school from kindergarten through 9th grade.  My school was known for doing junior, senior, and freshman college work in the 7th grade.  We had eight classes per day as opposed to public school’s six.  And the grading scale was much tougher than other schools.  (95-100 was an A; 88-94 was a B; 78-87 was a C.  Anything lower than that, and we got in BIG trouble.)  Teachers paddled us with LARGE wooden paddles with holes drilled in for more velocity and less wind resistance, and they didn’t hesitate to bend our hands backward and smack us with rulers if they didn’t want to wait until after class to let us know who was in charge!

In addition to the strict curriculum, we had a severe dress code.  Each morning after the first bell, the boys and girls were divided and taken to separate rooms for inspection.  Boys had to wear slacks (never jeans!) with belts, and shirts with collars, and they had to be tucked in.  Their hair couldn’t touch their collar in the back.  They had to stick their fingers in their ears every day, and if their hair touched their fingers, it was too long.  Earrings were an absolute no-no as was any other man jewelry.

The girls had to kneel on the floor.  Our dresses couldn’t be more than 4 inches from the floor, and they couldn’t be sleeveless.  We couldn’t wear more than one pair of earrings, and they had to be a matched pair.  We couldn’t wear more than one necklace.  We were allowed only light pink or clear nail polish, and the same went for lipstick.  We were never allowed to wear pants unless they were a matched pant suit that was not made of denim or corduroy, the pants couldn’t have pockets, and the jacket had to cover our rear ends entirely.  (Can you say “old lady clothes?”  Seriously, I think my grandma had an acceptable pants suit… I did not.)  If we were out of dress code, we were sent home immediately and suspended for 3 days.  If it happened three times in a school year, we were expelled for the remainder of the year.

But I digress.  The point is, I KNOW what I learned about writing (though admittedly, I do, at times, still abuse commas).  I’m the only person my age that I know who ever had to diagram sentences (except of course my former classmates).  My kids don’t even know what diagraming sentences means!  My friends that went to public school only know what it is because their parents had to do it and told them about it.  In every class we had, including Geography, History, Bible, and even Math, we were required to write in complete sentences.  We were marked off for spelling as well as grammar, and we were docked for punctuation errors in any of those other classes, too.  I always made A’s in English.

By the 10th grade, I decided I needed out, and I finally convinced my granddaddy to allow me to go to public school where I could wear pants!  The curriculum and the grading scale were nowhere near as strict, and I still aced English.  Because I had eight classes a day in private school as opposed to six in public, I had enough credits to skip my junior year as long as I attended summer school for 11th grade English.  I aced that as well, and also my senior year’s English class.  (Over the years, people have commented that I must have been so smart, but the truth was I absolutely loathed school, so I was only smart enough to find a way out early.)

I was barely 16 when I graduated.  After that, I got pregnant with my daughter, took some time off, worked, then finally made it to college.  I aced my English classes there, and in fact did so well on my Essays class that my teacher asked for copies of all but one of my essays to use as examples to show other students.

Now, though you may not believe me, I am actually NOT trying to break my arm patting myself on the back.  What I’m actually doing is leading up to this:

I FEEL REALLY STUPID NOW!  Or old.  Or both.  Seriously.

In my lifetime, there’ve been a lot of changes.  I’ve gone from a rotary dial phone that the telephone company had to install to a touch screen cellphone.  I used to include 9 planets when I made a Solar System model, but now there are only 8.  When I was little, televisions were changed with a dial and only included 12 regular (VHF) channels (channels 2 to 13) and up to 37 bonus (UHF) channels (channels 14 to 51).  One of the two televisions in my house was a black and white set.  Car windows were actually rolled down manually, and many cars didn’t have seatbelts.  There were 7 continents and 5 oceans.  Later they changed it to 4 oceans.  Now, I think they’re back up to 5.  My first computer had a 4 megabyte (that’s MB not GB!) hard drive and was considered the top of the line at the time.  Oh, and we had to write in cursive.  They don’t even teach cursive in a lot of states anymore!

And most importantly, paragraphs had to contain a proper noun and be able to stand independently and still be understood.  Quotes were required to have dialog tags in each paragraph.  Sentences absolutely had to have both a subject and a verb.  Even a list of three items required a comma after the second item before the word “and.”  Of course there were a billion other rules regarding punctuation, grammar and sentence structure.

After college, I was a paralegal for 14 years.  Working in a law office, I had to learn a new way to write.  For example, pronouns were never allowed, and the parties’ full names were always listed. (Also parties’ entire names were capitalized at all times.)  Additionally, there are a lot of run-on sentences in law, not to mention a lot of otherwise useless Latin phrases.

That being said, none of that matters anymore!  

For today’s writer, “minimalist writing” is the in-thing.  The only acceptable dialog tags are said and asked.  We’re supposed to avoid verbs like screamed, whispered, grunted, questioned, threatened, explained, exclaimed, begged, added, concluded, demanded, commanded, blurted,repeated, sang, and replied.  While those used to get bonus points for creativity, now they’re actually considered amateurish.

We’re also never ever supposed to use “said-bookisms” (now there’s a stupid word!) such as growled, hissed, or roared because supposedly those are animal noises, and a human doesn’t really growl, hiss, or roar.  (Whoever thought of this rule obviously never met my ex-husband!  Or the woman who gave birth to me!)

We are also never supposed to use adverbs to describe how something was said (“Don’t go!” he yelled angrily.), but we are supposed to add actions to show that he is angry and that he yelled without actually saying it.  (His face turned crimson, and the veins in his temples throbbed methodically.  Flecks of foam flicked out of his mouth, and he flailed his arms, then in a loud voice said, “Don’t go!”) (I don’t know about you, but the word yelled means a lot more to me in this instance than all the superfluous description followed by the word said.)

Also, we should avoid dialog tags altogether as much as possible, plus we should use pronouns almost exclusively.

The reason for all these new rules is so that the reader feels as if they are a part of the scene and not simply reading a book.  (I wish you could see me roll my eyes waaay back into my head right about now.)  Call me crazy, but I’ve always been able to get engrossed in the scene even though I was always cognizant that there was indeed a book in my hand and I was actually not on a prairie in 1854, not really on a spaceship in 2243, or not literally listening to a thumping heartbeat coming from my floorboards to remind me that I was a murderer!

Considering this is called “minimalist writing,” it added about 3,000 more words to my manuscript.

At any rate, I was off to a slow start when I started editing, but I think I’ve finally got it now. Good grief!  If I would’ve learned all this a year ago, I’d have saved myself a lot of time at the editing table.  But, I guess we all live and learn.  At least we should.  (And the truth is, I actually don’t mind the changes.  I’m actually confident that my work seems more polished now.)

Now, I can’t wait to be done editing everything else and start writing my new stories the “right” way.  Hopefully by the time I’m finished, the powers-that-be won’t have changed the rules on me again.

Well, thank you for listening to my rant.  I’m off to feed Dino…

Talk to me:  Did you ever have to diagram sentences?  Did your school have a dress code?  Are you familiar with The Flintstones?  Who do you like better, The Flintstones or The Jetsons?

68 thoughts on “About a Billion Years Ago…

  1. Fascinating insight – you are rather clever young Rachel. As to school – the one I attended was so very rough the only code we had was ‘die or run for it’ – not a good place at all!

  2. I had to diagram sentences.

    My parents had a dress code for me, then it was just peer pressure that took over.

    It was my job to feed the dinosaur.

    It is tough when the world changes the rules for you, Rachel, when the rules you have operated with for so long are still perfectly good. Hey, some people would even think they’re better, wouldn’t they?

  3. I had to teach students to diagram sentences in one of the private Christian schools where I taught. None of those schools were as rigid as yours. Interesting bit of history there!

      • I don’t think life overall sucked, just diagramming sentences. The bit of structure we had didn’t hurt us at all. My HS parking lot had guns in every pickup, and no one got so much as threatened. Today, growing up without rules, look at where we are. We griped about the dress codes and demerits, but they didn’t kill us. I may have suffered a minor stroke diagramming a sentence one time.

  4. hahaha- yes I too went to school “back in the day”. Barney was in my homeroom throughout high school. Such a heart throb. Fred and Wilma were home coming king and queen.
    We certainly did diagram sentences and spelling always counted- even in history and Lord have mercy Latin. DO they even offer Latin anywhere anymore- didn’t in my daughters’ high school.
    I’d have to say I preferred Flintstones- so much more down to earth…sorry couldn’t resist. But I admit the conveyor that dressed them and the robot maid seemed a good idea. (I erroneously thought that surely my mom chose to not have a maid (a mistake I would not repeat….right.), never once realizing we were in hand-me-downs and rummage clothes for reasons other than environmental or charitable (the fundraising rummage sales.). Really didn’t catch on until I was closing in on 9th grade. Suddenly ,it was evident to me that we had been surviving and that had been a triumph. ANyway…

  5. Fabulous post Rachel! Sometbing else you’ve ‘aced’ today…well done! Your school sounds decidedly Irish…or should I say Catholic lol! Thanks for making me laugh out loud today!!!

  6. Maybe you can settle an argument for me. I was pretty sure that we used to use an apostrophe to indicate possession as in her’s, their’s and it’s. Am I just dreaming that?
    Diana xo

  7. Yes to this post! 😀

    All those times people say don’t use adverbs or only use ‘said’. My word, if I have to write 2 sentences describing the actions of someone, instead of saying ‘angrily’, then how is that any better. Sometimes, those words just get across something quick and easy, which in the end, is what a reader wants 😀

  8. I diagrammed sentences, still use a comma between the second item and the ‘and’ in a list, and will forever use ‘creative bonus words’ and give myself points for it! This ‘minimalist writing’ is merely an excuse to churn out uncreative drivel that will dull the world and create even MORE of an issue with students and their reading habits. I don’t care if I am being superfluous…because I YELL angrily with my cheeks turning red at the idiocy of these new rules.

    So happy that I am self-published. I don’t think I could handle having to do those edits! You are a stronger woman that I.

  9. I’m a sophomore in college, and I did diagramming too. But then, I was homeschooled. 😉 So, have the standards gone up or down in public schools? Hmmm…
    But then, being homeschooled, I generally think outside the box and as long as it isn’t bad grammar, I will probably use it from time to time.

    • I homeschooled my son, but we used a virtual school program, so he did not diagram. But I definitely think the program we used was far superior to that of public schools. 🙂

      • Yes indeed. In the suburb where I live, standards used to be higher, until we were annexed by the city; then they dropped, and that’s part of the reason why we homeschooled. At college people think I’m ridiculously bright, but I think that it’s really that being homeschooled taught me more efficient and logistic and sensible ways of thinking. 🙂 Public schools teach you stuff; homeschooling teaches one how to think. I think that’s the biggest difference. 😉

      • I agree. Plus getting more individual attention for your specific needs helps as well. Public schools focus too much on teaching standardized tests that get them government funding and not teaching students anymore.

  10. I’ve never heard of diagramming sentences (I googled it), but then, even though I remember “The Flintstones”, I was educated way before they appeared on the scene/screen. Nothing wrong with bad grammar provided it makes sense, he screamed recklessly. Great posting thanks, even though it’s made me depressed.

  11. My school did have a dress code (a uniform, actually), and one of the English teachers made students learn to diagram sentences (I never had that guy, and the other teachers thought diagrams were a waste of time and often said so).

    As for all the writing rules you mentioned, the prohibitions against adverbs and dialogue tags and so forth, I like to think of these things as traffic laws. Yes, traffic laws exist for a reason, but we all know it’s okay to go a few miles above the speed limit and sometimes, for safety reasons, you have to cross the double yellow line even though you’re not supposed to. So long as I don’t cause a grammatical fender bender, I figure my story will be okay.

  12. I didn’t have a dress code, but you better believe I had to diagram sentences *chills*…. as for your last question, the Jetsons, of course! When asked to choose between a flying car that fits neatly into your briefcase or a big boulder you have to push with your feet, is there really any contest? :Ob

  13. Rachel, this is a great post! I am a paralegal/restitution advocate for a district attorney’s office and it’s very difficult to transition between legal writing and fiction writing. (On a side note-my oldest went to a school for three years where they had to wear uniforms (khaki pants & button up dark green shirts) and as a parent, it was sooooo easy to buy school clothes! :))

    • Yes, it’s quite different to transition between writing. I sometimes still want to write the name several times per sentence as opposed to just saying “she”. LOL! 😀

  14. I don’t remember having a dress code in school or having to diagram sentences, but I love reading this post about your experiences. I really like the Jetsons, but if I have to pick between the two, I will say Flintstones!

  15. Screw that. Write the way YOU want. The hell with some idiot’s so-called “rules” on how they think we should write. And minimalist, my foot. They can go watch a darn movie to get that “condensed” fix. BTW, this is NOT directed at you, Rachel. I’m just irritated because of the aforementioned malarkey. It’s just another way to be lazy (the minimalist crap). They want minimalist? Have them give up all their precious “things” (and by things, I mean EVERYTHING) and go rough it out in the wild for the rest of their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Seriously, who the hell comes up with this crap? The people who drool all over the screens on their phones because that’s all they do 24/7 and wouldn’t know what a real book was even if someone walloped them upside the head with a hardback copy of “War and Peace”?! Just sayin’ … lol.

  16. I had to diagram my sentences in grade school…it was such a bummer…Oh and we had dress codes too. I actually liked the dress codes though lol. Lastly..I love the Flintstones!

    • LOL! Yeah, I hated diagramming, though I did okay at it. I probably wouldn’t have not minded had it only lasted a week or two, instead of an entire grading period. But I still loathe that our dress code was so severe. 😀

  17. My middle and high school education had some big gaps – the largest was grammar. I actually learned the most about grammar while I was taking German in college, as articles change depending on dative case, subjunctive, direct object, subject… It all made my head spin, especially since it was a foreign language. :p

    • Yes, that’s always what stumps me in foreign languages. German is especially difficult, so more power to you for learning it! I liked the public school English classes where we had to read a book, do a book report, then got to see the movie version in class. My favorite was Lord of the Flies. 🙂

  18. This is very good. I have many thoughts on the issues you raise but can’t fight this portable device to express them. I don’t know what ‘diagram’ a sentence means, have never heard of the Jetsons, but used to like the Flintstones. I think I must be foreign!

    • LOL! Thank you! If you don’t know what diagramming a sentence is, consider yourself lucky! 😉 Basically it’s where you have to dissect all the different parts in a certain structure, you know, subject, verb, adjective, adverb, etc. UGH! The Jetsons were a Hanna Barbera cartoon, just like The Flintstones, except for instead of being from the past, they were from the future and lived in outer space. The two cartoons had one or two cross-over episodes and/or a crossover feature movie. 🙂

  19. Thank you for explaining things. I think we may have done something similar to diagramming, but the diagram was based on Latin, which is very different from English.

    And we couldn’t have three alternatives because the Latin word ‘alter’ meant one of two.

  20. Hi. My school was quite strict on uniform, though not as strict as yours by the sounds of it. I loved the Flintstones. Fond memories! As to writing rules, I think its better to write from the heart than to focus too much on rules and regulations. A bit like strict uniforms minimalism stifles creativity, and that can’t be good!

  21. In answer to your questions…

    In my country, there are only uniforms. There are no schools you can just wear your own clothes to.
    Why would I prefer one to the other? They were both awesome.
    But I’m a spec fic author, so if you really push me, guess which one I’ll pick ;-).

  22. Yes. I had to diagram sentences, and I teach it – minimally – to my students in 7th grade.
    I don’t believe the schools I went to had a dress code, but my parents did. 😉
    The Flintstones were funny. Dino rules. I love the Jetsons, too.

  23. Ah, yes, the relearning…
    I’m becoming aware that I’m re-learning things all the time. The process never seems to close. You know, like those junky web pages with all the toggles and stuff that take forever to load.

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