Can Good Writing be Taught?

I was rather surprised a few days ago when I stumbled onto Mark Nichols’ article over at called “How Do You Teach Someone to Write Well?” It wasn’t the question that surprised me so much as the answer: “You can teach writing, but you can’t teach good writing.”

I taught writing to secondary-level English as a Second Language students for six years, and during my last two years in that position, I was also pursuing a degree in writing. As a result, I have some insight into how writing is—and more importantly, isn’t—taught, and whether or not you really can teach good writing. My conclusion, as you’ll see, is pretty different from Mark Nichols’.

Most of the time, writing isn’t taught. I was distressed by the lack of writing instruction most of my kids received in other classes. Grammar skills weren’t directly discussed after 8th grade, and once in high school, essay writing seemed to be taught by trial and error—the student tried, the teacher gave a grade with a few comments, and then they started over. That may sound great, but without actual instruction, it’s a recipe for student frustration, because no one has really explained to them what the expectations are or given them a framework that can help them succeed. (Some may be brave enough to go ask for further clarification, but the thing about frustration, and feeling like a failure, is that the last thing a lot of us, especially teenagers, want to do is admit that we don’t understand a teacher’s comment or why our grade was so low.) Better instruction doesn’t happen for any number of reasons—there’s no time in the curriculum, the teachers aren’t given guidance and resources, the teacher’s own skills are shaky or they don’t feel comfortable teaching writing in detail, etc. If this is the way we teach writing, it’s no wonder someone might conclude that good writing can’t be taught.

I had the luxury of time, small class sizes, and a background and interest in writing, so I would sit down with my students and we would talk about how to set up a paper, what an argument was and how to make one, how to make an argument stronger, which words and phrases worked for them and which didn’t, and why. We would compare the strong verb to the weak one so they could hear how the stronger one made a better impression and did more work for them. We would also talk about the logic of their papers, and how the structure could be used as a tool for improving their work. There are plenty of ways of teaching good writing, but expecting students to get it by reading alone, as Nichols seems to, without discussion or critical thinking on how what they’re reading works, is like expecting to learn biology by putting the textbook under your pillow while you’re sleeping. You might eventually get lucky, just by accident, but you’ll get a lot further a lot faster with a good teacher who knows how to make concepts accessible and help you target your weak spots. If students who don’t even speak English as a first language can be taught to write well, there’s just no reason to believe the same can’t be done with native speakers.

I also know that writing can be taught because I saw it in my own writing as an MFA candidate (in fact, I wonder why anyone would offer or enroll in a writing program if the subject really can’t be taught). Within one semester, my new skills made a dramatic impact on how I worked with my students. I noticed that impact when reviewed a student draft and it ended up looking like something my advisor had done. That was in one semester, and without actual lessons—I had clearly absorbed enough nuance and concept by then through the semester process for major changes to appear. I didn’t even have to be conscious of how what I was learning about my own writing was affecting my perception of others’ writing; it just happened. The difference is that I was being taught to question my writing, to ask what made sense and what didn’t, to dig deeper for meanings intentional and unintentional. If I could learn that way, designing an actual secondary curriculum would not only be possible but desirable for our students.

Was the change in my writing the product of the quantity of reading I was doing as a degree requirement? Undoubtedly! But the key is that reading alone will not get you there. I had feedback not only on my responses to the reading but to the creative work I was doing, which were also vital parts of my learning experience. You can read a thousand books and still be a crappy writer if you don’t pay attention to how those books work by analyzing the writing style, the way a character is drawn, the choice of words, etc. Critical reading is the key, just as critical thinking is a vital part of setting up a good piece of writing and then making sure it works. Unfortunately, while our kids read plenty of books in high school English classes, they don’t analyze these elements of the work. They’re too busy focusing on what Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat “means,” or the larger theme of the book, or studying the author’s biography to spend any time actually taking apart the writing to see what makes it tick. Our teachers aren’t trained to teach that way because it’s not how they were taught themselves, with the exception of MFA grads—but even they are limited to curricular standards that don’t include making a direct connection between literary works and good writing.

I’ll grant that not everyone is going to be a great writer, just as not everyone is going to be a great engineer (certainly not all of my students became great writers, though they all improved). That said, engineers can learn to write, too. My father is an electrical engineer who moved into a management position and had to learn how to write reports, which was far from his favorite activity. The things he had learned about business writing were invaluable to me when I was drafting my grad school proposal for my employer (a fact he never ceased to find highly amusing—the engineer was helping the writer write!)

The fact that not everyone is cut out to be the next Victor Hugo or Sandra Cisneros doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to teach students to write well. You need skilled teachers and schools who are willing to let them use those skills to help their students, including giving them the time needed to work with students one-on-one, which is rare indeed in our secondary schools (even independent schools).  These are by far the larger problems we face these days, and the ones we should be targeting if we want to improve writing skills across the board.

See The Atlantic‘s excellent article, “The Writing Revolution,” for more on how writing not only can be taught but also impacts the way children and adults learn. It’s an investment of time and resources, but the results are well worth it!

8 thoughts on “Can Good Writing be Taught?”

  1. It surprises me that such a debate exists. Of course you can teach someone to write, as long as they aren’t disabled in some way that prevents learning. I even had a special needs student that went from nonsensical collections of misspelled words to “See Spot run” type of sentences in a few months. However, I do wonder if the same applies to creative writing. Structuring an essay or research paper is a different type of writing than creating a poem or novel.
    BTW, I am very impressed with your blog! I’m inspired.

  2. Hi, Maria! Thanks for stopping by!

    I was sort of surprised that the debate exists, too, though this was not the first time I’ve heard the question raised. I suspect it’s most often raised by teachers who don’t have the experience, expertise, or resources to teach it well and wonder if they’re just beating their heads against a wall. It’s a shame that one of the most important skills you can possibly learn is given such short shrift by the school system—and I include private schools here, since I taught at one!

    You’re absolutely right that the two forms are very different. I think the key with creative writing is that you have to have the passion for it. But with non-fiction writing, everyone can improve, to see how one sort of phrase works better than another, or to hear the way the sentence flows, etc.

    (And thanks for your comments on the blog. I’m glad you like it!)

  3. Writing like the art forms is and can be taught. We don’t ask dancers if dance can be taught, we don’t ask artist to stop listening to their art instructors. We ask if writing can be taught because unlike the other art forms nearly anyone can partake while few excel.

  4. Hi, Anthony!

    You’re certainly right that we don’t ask this question about the other arts. I’m not so sure about your conclusion, though; I think anyone can partake of music, art (I draw stick figures!), dance, etc., but with the same limitation you mention. More people probably think of themselves as good writers without justification than think of themselves as good dancers, certainly. But I hear this question a lot from educators, and I have to wonder if the difference is that writing is part of a core academic subject, where the other arts generally are not, and so there’s more pressure to produce good writers even though it takes more time and energy to teach because, at a rather basic level, you’re teaching students to think at least as much as you’re teaching them to write. That’s daunting to a lot of teachers, especially if they have 30 kids in a classroom, and my suspicion is that that’s ultimately where the question comes from. Perhaps it’s not so much “can good writing be taught” as “how can I possibly teach this many students to write well, considering all that has to go into that process.” (And I’m not including here the English teachers who don’t write well themselves. I’ve known a few of those in my time!)

    Just thinking out loud…

  5. This is exactly why I’ve always been on a mission to get teachers writing! It’s one of my agendas when I teach teachers, and even when I do school author visits. People feel insecure about writing. They think they should already be good at it, while they know that you need lots of time to become proficient at art, music, etc. It amazes me how many teachers feel insecure about sharing their writing with their students, and yet, they want the students to share writing with them.

    Good writing has voice, and when we apply structure but not support students in developing their unique voice, the writing is stagnant. Students learn to write for the teacher, to do only what they need to do, to make it “correct” instead of taking risks. And writing is a risky business!

    Over twenty years ago, my master’s project was on teaching writing and I’ve done it ever since. I loved it when parent would tell me “my son/daughter is a reluctant writer” at the beginning of a school year. I loved getting them writing. You are spot on here, Nancy. You must read to write, and you must write to better your writing. And hopefully more teachers like you will begin to write themselves!

  6. Students learn to write for the teacher, to do only what they need to do, to make it “correct” instead of taking risks. And writing is a risky business!

    Oh, Deb, this is so true!! And certainly some of this is the current culture of, “Why can’t you just tell me the answer?” that discourages our students from thinking for themselves, but a lot of it has to do with the way writing is taught. I landed in the position of writing teacher somewhat by accident, since I was the only one in the department who had a background in writing and was comfortable teaching it, and I loved it because I got to see my kids gain confidence in the most difficult piece of the “communicating in English” puzzle. (That’s not well-phrased, but I’m tired and can’t think of something better right now!) There’s something magical in that moment when it starts to make sense for them and they realize that they really can do this.

    The downside, or one of the downsides, of students writing for the teacher was that some of my students’ English teachers had some bizarre ideas about how a paper should work, so I would have to say, “Okay, you do it that way for Mr. Jones, but I need you to understand that you never do that for anyone else because that’s not how the rest of the world does it.” Tough to do that without it sounding like you’re undercutting another teacher, but especially in ESL, it always seemed like my obligation to make sure they got what was a weird quirk and what the norm was.

    Now that you have me thinking about it, you’re absolutely right that people are insecure about their writing, and I think it’s because they know that everyone has to sit down and learn to paint or cook or fix cars, but we all learned the same language through osmosis (or close enough!) so the pressure to get it right is higher. Speech is no big deal, but when you get to school and you find out there are all these rules when you want to put those words on paper, well, that’s a whole new ballgame, and this language you thought you knew seems completely alien. It’s no wonder that that approach unsettles a lot of people, really. It’s a bit of a necessary evil, but there must be ways to mitigate the effect.

  7. Hi, Robert,

    I hear what you’re saying—when I decided to go for my MFA, being forced to write like a cookie-cutter MFA student was a major concern (and is a major part of why I was so glad to be at Goddard). But here I’m not talking about creative writing; I’m talking about the sort of writing you learn to do in high school and as an undergrad. Issues like structure, vocabulary, word choice, tone, how to make a strong argument, etc. Those can most definitely be taught, and done without issues of personal opinion on the instructor’s part getting in the way, because they’re the tools any good writer needs to be able to wield in order to do his or her job, whether that writer is paid to write for a living or is an engineering manager writing a monthly report or a bartender writing a love letter.

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