Thursday, September 8, 2011

Soapbox Series #5 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "Writing Can/Can't be Taught"

Many of us have heard the argument that you can't teach someone to write -- or that of course you CAN teach someone to write. One thing I've learned is that, no matter the subject, if there are extensive, reasoned arguments plus a lot of people on each side, it's usual (not universal, but usual) that each side has at least a piece of the truth and neither is completely wrong or right. Some kind of harmonizing of the views is in order to get the full picture.

I've long been on the side that says, "Of course you can teach writing. If you couldn't, why attempt to do so in schools? Writing may be art in a sense, but it is also craft, with specific skills in composition, grammar, and story, that can be learned and practiced. Raw talent, in any field, must be trained. If I didn't believe writing could be taught, why on Earth would I be teaching it?"

You know there's a "but" coming, right? BUT...when people say writing can't be taught, I do understand what they mean.

Editors and agents touch on it when they say, "I can help a writer with plot, but I can't help with voice." Teachers can help writers learn to plot, to use POV correctly, to show rather than tell, to use sensory detail, to flesh out characters, and to identify theme. We can teach grammar and sentence structure. But we can't teach a facility with language. Or a lyrical style. We can't help much with a constant tendency to choose almost the right word. There is such a thing as basically competent yet tone-deaf writers. That there comes a time when we can't bring them beyond their innate language talent level is what writers -- it's usually writers -- mean when they say writing can't be taught.

In this way, writing is like any of the arts. To teach any sort of artist, you take a person with a measure of inborn talent and set them a program in which they explore and practice different forms, media, and techniques, helping them improve weaknesses and identify strengths. You can teach writing, because having raw talent is no excuse for eschewing a proper course of training. But, you can't teach the talent, and no matter what we say about desire, hard work, and perseverance going a long way, and they do, the talent's got to be there.


Laura Pauling said...

I agree. I think that holds true with anything. It can be taught and taught and taught but sometimes means nothing until someone learns to apply it with their natural style.

Miranda Paul said...

As someone who also teaches writing, I agree - on all points!

Anne Spollen said...

Talent is inborn. You can hone the talent that is already there, you can shape it, but you can't really create it.

Great post!

Jeff King said...

I think crafting a story from noting, is what can’t be taught. Either you have it or you don’t. I believe everything else can be learned.

Christina Farley said...

I really do agreee. I think I finally found my voice when I just started to write how I thought. Then it all seemed to fall into place.

Vijaya said...

Hmmm. I will have to disagree about even the BUT part. I think, like cooking, anybody can also write. Storytelling is in our blood -- even the smallest child knows how to spin a story -- they begin with nonfiction (but of course) and learn to embellish, and lie.

Even my weakest students have stories to tell, and with instruction, learn how to plot, add conflict, and even learn to bring out their voices. They discover it by reading and writing a lot. That takes perseverance.

Marcia said...

Laura -- Yes, you can teach and teach, but it's possible a student won't or hasn't figured out how to learn it. Or it's just not their thing and they need to move on to what is.

Miranda -- Thanks for coming!

Anne -- I agree. The inborn talent is up to God. Writers and their teachers and editors can identify it, instruct it, encourage it, and work hard with it, but we cannot create it.

Jeff -- I believe a sense of story is crucial. I remember reading an article on writing where the author put "a nose for a story" first on her list of what it takes to be a writer. The rest of her comment was, "Without that -- oh, dear."

Christina -- Yes, the voice has to come from within. The Bible says that the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. If the pen also writes what's in our hearts, then we're tapping into what WE have to offer.

Vijaya -- I'll bet you've read IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland? She also believed anybody can write if they tap into what THEY really have to say. And that certainly gives the writing energy. But I think more people know how to tell anecdotes, episodes, and incidents than full story arcs. Teaching and learning are two sides of the coin. Somebody said, "I don't think writing can be taught, but I think it can be learned."

cleemckenzie said...

You can become a better writer, but you must have that spark to begin with. Totally agree with you here.

Anonymous said...

I believe the talent has to be there first. I've read the writing of people who are fine with mechanics and go through the motions of things they learned, but the writing still falls flat.

Christina Farley said...
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