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!

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