Can Writing Be Taught?

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My last post about the bloodsuckers who prey on writers stirred up some interesting discussions on writers’ forums that I frequent. One writer, Cammy May Hunnicutt, agreed that paid reviews and submission services exploit naive writers and provide no real benefit, but she questioned my assertion that the one thing worth paying for is education, learning the craft.  “People,” she wrote, “are dying to think they can spend some money and become ‘good’ writers.  Not really so.”

This is an interesting statement; and based on 15 or so years of teaching fiction writing, I have to agree with it, if by “good” we mean extraordinary, publishable. To get to that level,  there has to be some natural ability in the mix. But talent isn’t everything; it isn’t even enough. Writers need craft, too. We don’t make it all up from scratch each time we start a story. We learn stuff and build on what we’ve learned to do more, the same as in any art. Just as painters need to master perspective, so must writers master point of view. Just as musicians must learn structure to write fugues, so must writers  learn to structure their stories for maximum effect. These techniques can be taught to any reasonably literate, motivated person, so I believe that nearly everyone can learn to write better; and that is something most writers aspire to.

But Cammy, bless her, was not convinced. “‘[You say] ‘You can’t learn to be good, but can learn to be better.’  Let me ask you how much that counts for.  You see writers who are really sweet and don’t get published, others who write junk and make millions.  If I can use athletics as a metaphor, I’ve seen the workshops and camps and coaching.  And being ‘better’ is seldom good enough at the level that the average person can access.  I don’t see it as an investment that will return, but a money drain.”

Cammy asks tough questions, but fair ones. It’s true that all the training in the world isn’t going to get a mediocre hoopster onto the Knicks. Writers who study with me are strongly motivated—they have to be, to participate in my strenuous workshops—and over the years, quite a few have gone on to publish.  I take enormous pleasure and pride in  their success–but they are a minority. The hard truth is, many of my students will never publish unless they self-publish. The bar to trade publication is extremely high, and even for the most talented, there are numerous obstacles along the way. So what is the point of writing classes for those who won’t achieve that? Could teaching itself be exploitative?

I don’t believe it. People deserve a chance to strive for their goal, however difficult it may be. Besides, you can’t always tell who will and who won’t end up getting published. I’ve been surprised more than once. Sometimes a genre gets really hot and the bar is lowered a bit as publishers scramble for material, so that agents and editors may be willing to take on a manuscript that needs more work than they’d normally invest. Other times I’ve seen students who start out with major deficits learn really, really quickly—just soaking things up because they’re ready for them. (See Mika’s story.)Where a writer starts isn’t necessarily an indication of where she’ll end up.

Some of my students are going to end up self-publishing their work–a statistical certainty these days. In those cases too, I think they’re doing a good thing for themselves and their books and their eventual readers if they learn all they can about the craft of writing. Doesn’t have to be through classes, either. A detailed critique by an editor or writer with serious chops (scroll down on this page for a list of things to look for in a writing teacher and editor) can be an eye-opener, serving not only to improve the work in question but to provide the writer with tools they can apply to everything they write thereafter.  If that’s not in the budget, there are excellent books on writing available, and libraries where they can be had for free.

To me it seems self-evident that writers, like painters and musicians, need to master the tools of their trade; but, as Cammy was brave enough to point out, I have a vested interest in believing this. So let me ask the writers among you to weigh in with your thoughts and experience on Cammy’s challenging question: Can writing be taught?

 

My purpose here is not to tout my classes; in fact, I’m taking a hiatus from teaching and editing for the next 4-5  months to work on a book. If, however, you are interested in taking one of my workshops when I resume, the best way to get in is to get on my emailing list, which you can do by emailing me at www.nextlevelworkshops dot com.

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
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17 Responses to Can Writing Be Taught?

  1. s.p.bowers says:

    I don’t believe education is ever a drain. Even if we never attain trade publication what we learned, about writing, about ourselves, about publishing, and about people in general, will benefit us. Unlike paying someone to edit it for us, learning to do it ourselves is worth the money. Some people may be able to learn the tools they need in places outside of a class, conference, or university but for others that is the best way to do it.

  2. I taught composition at a university for two years. Some of the concepts being discussed here are so vaguely defined! Can writing be taught? Sure. As a tutor I helped university students’ essays go from C level to A level in quality. The craft–that is, making sure you don’t use “it’s” when you mean “its,” is eminently teachable, and–quality of story aside–I guarantee you books from someone like Stephanie Meyer don’t contain spelling errors or grammar problems.

    It seems to me, though, part of the disagreement is about whether quality writing can be taught. I think it can, but quality is not measured by sales, clearly. As the author you quoted points out, there are lots of crap writers who are very successful, and lots of great writers who don’t sell much. “Success” in the form of sales includes luck, connections, perseverance, reader trends, story type and many other factors that are often out of a writer’s control. That doesn’t make the author any better or worse as a writer. What makes a writer better are things like reading, workshopping, discussing stories and other such interactive activities. There aren’t a whole lot of published authors achieving any sort of success who haven’t been in workshops (yeah, logical fallacy of vague attribution, prove me wrong). All of the authors I know have workshopped. And if there are those who haven’t, they’ve all still had to deal with editors to improve their story. All are avid readers, and they read both to enjoy and to learn what worked for the author they’re reading.

    Yes, one certainly can improve their craft in a workshop. No, a workshop doesn’t guarantee one will get published. Yes, working on one’s craft with others improves the chance that one can get published.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      What I’ve seen in my classes is that virtually anyone can learn to improve their writing; to how high a level depends on their native ability, learning curve, and motivation. The people for whom classes make the greatest difference are those who are on the cusp of writing publishable work–raise that work a notch and they’re across the threshold.

      Don’t know if your made-up stat (about published writers workshopping) is true or not. It didn’t used to be. Writing was a more solitary profession when I was coming up (no internet and not so many writers nearby)– but those barriers no longer exist. I’m all in favor of workshopping finished drafts, as long as you can get a group that’s rigorous enough. But I’d be a bit wary of workshopping an unfinished draft. The clay is still very soft then, and you don’t want to end up with a novel written by committee.

      • Fair enough, I don’t know the writing history of most writers in the past, but I’m sure about other interactive processes such as reading and interaction with other people, particularly other writers. You have to have input in order to be able to, umm, put out, so to speak. At least in my very limited experience as a writer, what I’ve acquired/learned in terms of craft and ideas via reading and via discussion with others who write, provide me with what I need to write more effectively.

        Workshopping can be a success when everyone’s interested in improving each others’ work, agreed. I’ve been in college classes where a few disinterested students could drag the process down, but most of my experiences have been positive.

        And to me, workshopping an unfinished story is often another way of saying, “hey guys, I like how I started it, but you write the rest,” at least in my experience. Time to put it down and move on to one with more personal investment attached.

        • [[[And to me, workshopping an unfinished story is often another way of saying, “hey guys, I like how I started it, but you write the rest,” at least in my experience. Time to put it down and move on to one with more personal investment attached.]]]

          I’m with you on that. I don’t let anyone read my early drafts except, when pressed, my editor and agent—which is sort of like getting undressed in the doctor’s examining room: not the same as appearing naked on the street. I used to have a critique workshop for novels in progress. Quit offering it because it fed into some writers’ insecurities, making them feel they needed everyone’s approval. Who can write with a critic peering over your shoulder, judging every word?

  3. Teas Harding says:

    I agree with you both, I think. I believe great writers are born of talent and genius. But we do not all possess genius. However, even a genius needs craft.

    Genius cannot be taught, but craft can. The vast majority of us do not possess genius, but we can work at our craft and by doing so become better writers.

  4. Claire G says:

    Having had a few years at the helm of the Writers Exercises section at the Compuserve Forum, I find myself on the fence with this one.

    Almost anyone can write. I’ve seen people begin at the beginning who can barely punctuate a sentence correctly, or (more commonly) those who make classic mistakes in grammar or basic writing technique- over time, with practice, it’s a rare person who *doesn’t* improve those issues. So yes, absolutely, writing can be taught.

    On the other hand, one thing that I’ve seen go almost 50/50 is the *story* behind the writing. After years of watching people start, stop, grow and change, my opinion is that you cannot teach instinctive storytelling. You cannot teach someone how to make magic. But- a fairly significant but- you can see people evolve over time given enough exposure to other writers and other books, and given enough practice writing their own. I say this having watched myself make at least part of the same evolution. I don’t believe it’s something you can fully learn in a class- I really do think there’s no substitute for time, practice and experience. However, I do think classes and self-help books can cut away a lot of the hardest parts about learning these things. I think they can take you from years of stumbling around in the dark to far less time practicing in the light to perfect what you already have.

    I personally never believed in the value of classes until I took a couple, and then I realised the major benefit is not necessarily that you’ll be given the magic formula to make it all work, but that you’ll get to look at the problem a different way. Or if it happens to be the same way you already see it, you’ll get confirmation and more practice. I’ve never yet come out of a class and felt that it was anything but an essential part of the journey I’m taking- I’ve always learned something new, and I think we’re all learning all the time- or we should be!

    • Interesting, Claire. It’s hard to put one’s finger on the talent part of the equation, as opposed to the teachable part. But as I think about it, it strikes me that one of the rarest qualities I see in the writers I work with is a feel for language, including things like a sense of its rhythm and how different rhythms can be used to enhance the storytelling; a certain playfulness; and a freshness in expression. Those are hard things to teach.

  5. Ella Quinn says:

    I believe craft can be taught. I don’t believe voice can be taught.

    • Ella, great point. As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve never even found a decent way of explaining what voice is, let alone how to teach it. It seems to me something that emerges from a body of work rather than something the writer consciously creates and imposes on the work; attempting to create a voice would lead to writing that’s mannered and too “writerly.” So I just leave it alone — can’t teach what needs to come naturally.

      • All of my university writing courses contained at least a week or two at the start of the semester reading, reviewing and critiquing a number of short stories (usually eight or so a week) for plot, theme, voice, setting, all that good stuff.

        I don’t think you can teach a person how to develop a voice, but you can provide them examples of what a voice is, so they have an understanding of the concept.

  6. Interesting subject, definitely close to my heart and daily life as a freelance editor and writing teacher! Oh, and did I mention, also as a writer.

    The words and concepts behind “talent,” “genius,” “good,” “quality,” “voice,” and “craft” have been used in this discussion and are all part of the dialogue.

    I think that talent and genius exist along a continuum, as does what is deemed good and quality. Voice can be freed and cultivated to improve style, but voice itself cannot be taught. Most writers have styles (inextricably a part of voice) that sound a lot like others or is indistinct from a social norm.

    Techniques exist to help writers connect with what is their eternal well of originality that corresponds with existing as a person unlike any other.

    We writing teachers coach/teach knowledge about writing, how-to skills and techniques for improving craft and accessing original voice and cultivating style. It can all be learned.

    What gets published? Just about everything along the continuum.

    • [[[I think that talent and genius exist along a continuum]]]

      Thanks, Elizabeth. This is not nearly as dramatic a statement as “Either you have it or you don’t!”…but has the advantage of being true: it is a continuum.

      [[[What gets published? Just about everything along the continuum.]]]

      Like I said in the piece, sometimes I’m surprised by what sells and what doesn’t. But I’m not sure I’d agree with this. Leaving aside self-publishing, the students I’ve seen go on to publish were definitely from the more talented end of the spectrum. Not true of yours?

  7. deniz says:

    I really do think craft can be taught, but it’s true that the writer has to be open to learning. Even for myself, I wonder sometimes if I’m not repeating the same sentence structure and voice that I was writing in back in high school. I hope I’m learning with each new round of editing!

    • Author David Madden once wrote: “Writers make the same mistakes all their lives. Each day they learn how to write all over again. But the process gets faster.”

      Couldn’t agree more. I teach writing, yet I’m constantly picking cliches and junk out of my own first drafts.

  8. I am inclined to agree with you to some extent.

    Writing technique can be taught and is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. In particular, you mention structure and point of view, to which I would add choice of vocabulary and sentence structure. These are the tools with which the author manipulates the reader’s emotions and reactions to the story, and they can be taught. Unfortunately, a lot of the writing courses I have looked at haven’t even covered these areas. They deal with keeping a notebook, etc. Well yeah, but not really very useful as the basis of a writing course. In short, they often seem to try to teach potential writers to find their creativity rather than teaching them the craft.

    I guess that sums up my view. The craft of writing can be taught but I’m not sure that the creativity necessary to produce an exceptional piece of fiction can be. For that reason, and bearing in mind the nature of the courses I’ve encountered, most of the useful advice I’ve received has been picked up from books rather than courses.

    I don’t mean to suggest that your teaching is of the type I’ve mentioned, it’s just that nothing that is available here in the UK is particularly useful (not that I’ve encountered anyway). In fact, I’ve found that courses in reading English Literature are more useful for me as a writer.

    Moan over!

    • Reading really good books is a great way to learn, especially if you read like a writer rather than a reader. By that I mean that when a novel makes you cry or laugh out loud or worry about the characters even when you’re not reading, that author has done something effective; and it’s possible to go back and analyze how. E.g. At what point did you start caring about the character? What was the scene that did it? What happened in that scene?

      As for classes, there are all types, including some, like mine, that concentrate on the nuts and bolts of constructing fiction. Many workshops are now available online, so where you live doesn’t matter. I just read the self-published book of a person I know, and found myself really regretting that I didn’t have him in a class; because the writer clearly had talent but was making so many easily correctable mistakes–his book could easily have been far better than it was.

      Thanks for stopping by and the interesting comment.

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