Don’t know about you folks, but I’m still digging the back-to-school vibe. Never mind that Target’s glorious school-supply displays have long since given way to ghouls, goblins, and other Halloween finery. For me, the month of September will always mean crisp notebooks, fresh pencils, and fond recollections of my days at St. Pius X School in New Orleans. No matter how old I get, I’ll always cherish those memories, and no matter how far I progress in my career as a content writer, I’ll always remember the lessons from my 8th grade composition class.

Our teacher was Kathy Campbell, and she was a holdover from the 1960s — complete with long, stick-straight blond hair, clogs, and paisley minidresses — but she was able to make it work with her own retro-cool vibe.

And boy, when it came to writing, girlfriend knew her stuff, and she knew how to teach it.

It tickles me just how often I harken back to the gems of wisdom I gained from Mrs. Cambell’s class. No gimmicks, no cutesy acronyms, no guru-sponsored “paradigms” — just good solid advice for good, solid writing. Here are a few I come back to over and over again.

1. Learn How to Outline

One of the biggest problems I see in the content world today is Meandering Post Syndrome. You know the blog posts that start with a decent opening paragraph (or, y’know, not), then meander over to a tangentially related story, sprinkle in a few statistics, maybe paste a quote from a guru or two, and then just kind of … stop? Even if the reader has stayed with you all the way through to the end (and we all know what the odds are of that happening), it’s like getting stuck with the restaurant bill when you’re still hungry. Yes, you’ve shared information, but how well have you served that reader?

To quote the old iPhone ad, there’s an app for that. It’s a little thing Mrs. Campbell taught me called outlining. If you’ve never done it, now’s the time to learn.

What I love about outlining is not only does it help ensure a tight, focused finished product, but it saves me a ton of time in the process. If you’ve ever felt the pain of fleshing out an entire section of content, only to have to throw it out because you realized that it just didn’t fit, you know where I’m coming from.

Outlining helps you take all the ideas you have for your piece and arrange them in a neat, logical order. And if there’s an idea in there that just doesn’t gel with the rest, you’ll find out before you spend a ton of time developing it.

I won’t get into the mechanics of outlining right now, but if you’re ready to learn, a quick Google search will uncover a plethora of sources. Use them.

2. Learn How to Diagram Sentences

Oh, man, if you thought outlining was serious word-nerdery, just wait ’til you meet sentence diagramming. I can still hear the head-smacks of my fellow eighth-graders amid groans of “Whyyyyyy do we have to lea-a-a-a-arn this?”

Diagramming isn’t a skill you’ll use every day, but it’s insanely useful to have for two purposes:

  • Fixing problematic sentences
  • Winning grammatical arguments

You think I’m kidding with that second bullet, don’t you? Heh.

Diagrams simply let you see a visual representation of a sentence, broken down into the parts that we all learned about in grade-school grammar: subjects, verbs, objects, adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, clauses, … (cue your favorite Schoolhouse Rock tune here). Here’s a simple example: a diagram for “The pug ate my homework.”

5 Timeless Content Tips from Mrs. Campbells 8th Grade Composition Class

Of course, diagrams can become as complex as the sentences they describe, and that’s what makes them so useful. If you’re ever flummoxed over whether a verb should be singular or plural, a quick diagram will clarify its subject and therefore yield the answer.

And yes, there’s nothing like a hastily sketched sentence diagram on a whiteboard to shut down certain grammar-focused arguments. It’s a great power. Use it wisely.

3. Don’t Waste Words

It was in Mrs. Campbell’s class that I had my first encounter with brevity as the soul of wit. I’d been an avid reader from an early age, and my parents had instilled in me a deep love of words — big words, small words, words that hit you like a bolt of lightning and words that meandered like a lazy river. Writing for me was like wandering the aisles of a beloved curiosity shop, and I gleefully filled my basket with whatever bons mots struck my fancy.

Occasionally, I went overboard.

In Mrs. Campbell’s cinderblock classroom, I learned the true beauty of simplicity and restraint. Adding all those extra words was like heaping additional blooms onto an already beautiful bouquet. To see this principle in action, look at some of the great opening lines in literature:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984

“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“All children, except one, grow up.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

True, we’re writing blog posts and white papers here, not novels, but language is language and story is story. Less is more.

4. Never Use a Complex Word When a Simple One Will Do

I come from a big family of attorneys, so words like heretofore and inasmuch were as likely to be heard around the Thanksgiving table as “pass the cranberry sauce.” I liked those fancy words. They sounded smart. So it should stand to reason that using them would make me sound smart, no?

As I learned in that eighth-grade classroom, the answer is no. Why? Because anybody can pick up vocabulary, but it takes a real writer to express complex ideas using plain English.

I raised this point a few months ago in my analysis of what content writers can learn from the Gettysburg Address. Upon running the speech through a readability checker, I discovered that the average number of syllables per word was just 1.33, and that of the speech’s ten most frequently used words, only one has more than two syllables:

5 Timeless Content Tips from Mrs. Campbells 8th Grade Composition Class

So if your goal is to prove to your readers that you have a Word-A-Day calendar in your office, then by all means, sling your perambulates, your polyhistors, and your anathematizes to your heart’s content. But if your goal is to create engaging content that keeps readers coming back — no matter how well educated they are — keep your word choices on the simple side.

Know the Rules (and When and How to Break Them)

I’ll be forever grateful to Mrs. Campbell and her colleagues for pounding the precepts of good writing into my head. Don’t know how it is today, but when you graduated from St. Pius, you knew the rules of grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation as well as you knew the Ten Commandments (yeah, we learned those too).

Any time I tweet about grammar and the importance of knowing the rules, I can always count on some lively conversation ensuing — usually a barrage of “preach it, sista”s peppered with some cries of protest that over-reliance on grammatical rules stifles creativity and free expression.

And I don’t disagree. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that any true grammar Nazi would have a field day with my own scribblings. But here’s the rub: We need to know the rules so that we can break them thoughtfully and strategically.

There’s a huge difference between a writer having fun with language and one who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or who doesn’t care. As long as we’re grounded in the proper use of language, we can twirl, leap, pirouette, and even twerk to our hearts’ content. Try to do all that without a solid foundation and you’re just flopping around.

And so, Mrs. Campbell, I tip my proverbial hat to you. Neither of us knew it at the time, but you were helping a budding content writer lay the foundation of a darned satisfying career, and maybe inspire a few others along the way. Thank you.