Teaching Writing


Can it be done?

This is an old question, especially with the explosion of writing courses and online resources. The simple answer is ‘yes’ and it is also ‘no.’

Here, I look at the advantages and disadvantages of teaching writing and learning writing. What can be taught? What can’t be taught. What are the outcomes? Will it turn a hopeful writer into a brilliant writer? Or is it all a waste of time, effort and money?

I’ve been asked many times if writers can be taught. So have my writer friends, especially those who teach writing. Quite a few people come down heavily on one side or the other of this question. Yes, you can teach people to write. No, you can’t teach people to write. Sometimes, people come down in the middle. I believe you can, but with reservations.

First, let’s look at ten advantages of learning to write.

1.       Writing is both a profession and a skill. There are techniques, trends, methods, fundamentals. All can be taught.

2.       Writing is not a mysterious, muse-inspired art, it is work, slog, tedious and takes determination.

3.       Writing has to conform to conventions, especially if the writer hopes to publish or earn an income.

4.       There are basics such as grammar and construction. Rules – which can be broken, but only if you know what they are in the first place and do so with intention.

5.       Just because you learned at primary school the execution of putting letters on a page to form words and sentences, or learned to type them into a computer, does not mean you are now a writer. There is more to learn, and teach.

6.       Often, you need to unlearn things you had to accomplish at school in order to pass your exams.

7.       You will be challenged and led into writing you might not otherwise attempt yet could turn out to be your niche.

8.       The feedback and creativity of your fellow writers and teachers will feed your own creativity.

9.       You are not in a vacuum, you can discover how others handle similar problems, ask questions, get answers.

10.     It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn how to expose your writing to others, to read it aloud to an audience, and hear what they have to say; why they like or don’t like something; how they think it might work better.

Now, let’s look at ten disadvantages of learning to write.

1.       You will have to focus on more than your own writing.

2.       What you write might be unfairly criticised and even fair criticism is hard to take.

3.       There will be exposure to bad writing and you will have to find a way of critiquing it, not just say it stinks (even if it does).

4.       You want to write short stories but you have to learn how to write novels, or vice-a-versa.

5.       There’s a qualification at the end, but what does that matter to a fiction writer?

6.       It’s a waste of time, money and energy that could be put into writing my great novel that will make you rich and famous.

7.       You know how to write. You don’t want to be led down false paths.

8.       You have a good imagination and you can spell. What more is there to know?

9.       The teacher will make you read and write things you’re just not interested in.

10.     You always got A on your English essays, so you are already a writer.

Of course, there are more advantages and disadvantages of learning to write than I have included here, but overall, depending on what you want from the experience, I believe there is much to learn from being taught how to write, one of which is discipline. It takes discipline to achieve writing.

Many writers want to write for children or write romance because they see it as easy and lucrative. Both are far harder than you might think. In fact, they are harder than just about any other writing.

Let’s take a closer look at writing for children. First, you have to decide the age of child you are writing for. It is vastly different targeting two year olds to 10 year olds. Are you targeting stories at girls, boys or both? What is appropriate language to suit their developmental stage? What are they interested in? Should you include a moral? How do you avoid talking down to them? Might your story overwhelm – or underwhelm them? Will your book include pictures? If so, what type of pictures,? Cartoons, paintings, photographs? Who will do them? How much of the royalties must you share with a book illustrator? Every book for children has been written, how do you go about making your book the one they want to have? Or that the adult wants to buy for them?

With romance, are you writing to the Mills & Boon format? If so, what is the Mills & Boon format? How do you achieve a suitable story that meets the word count, the page requirements, the chapter numbers, the story imperatives? If you get the structure right, how do you avoid robbing the story of interest? Develop the characters? Ensure the plot and style and voice all meet the publishers demands as well as what it is you want to write? Do you know you must write under a pseudonym which belongs to the company? If you leave, someone else can write under your pseudonym. Do you believe in romance? Many who want to write it don’t.

I’ve met student writers who have come into courses with just these intentions, believing both will be easy and lucrative. Neither is true. It’s harder to write for children than adults. For example, you must understand what a child probably knows or doesn’t know, whereas with an adult, there are many givens in what they know or will understand. It is also very easy to talk down to children, to patronise them or just make a fool of yourself trying to use their lingo when you don’t really know it.

One final point in favour of learning to write is dialogue. Whether it is for children, romance or an adult novel, dialogue must reflect the character even when you don’t put an attribution. When a character opens their mouth, the reader needs to know who is speaking as much by what they say and how they say it as by you putting she/he said. How do you do this without getting ridiculous? Especially with dialect. How do you accomplish broken syntax, which is how people talk, whilst still getting across what (you) the character wants/needs to say? How do you ensure all your characters don’t sound the same?

There are many, many aspects, tricks, techniques, tried and true methods of writing which can be taught.

However, a final word for the negative. If you aren’t creative on any level, prepared for the fact that writing is hard work, and understand that all writing needs to be worked and reworked before it is ready for someone else to read, then you aren’t meant to be a writer and no writing teacher can teach you or turn you into the next feted novelist. Writing can be taught, but if you aren’t destined for fame, you aren’t destined for fame.

All that said, if you are meant to be an accomplished writer/novelist, you will write and you will learn through doing as well as learn through study, and you will be determined and persistent – or you will have to learn to be.



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