Can Writing be Taught?

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a fine screenwriter in Hollywood who voiced the opinion, “Writing workshops are a waste of time. Writing can’t be taught. I tried it for four years, and none of my students ever got any better.”

His attitude is pretty common among novelists and poets, too. He imagines that writers are sort of like fish, which are born knowing how to swim, and writing can’t be learned. In fact, he would tell you that nonwriters are sort of like centipedes—with lots of squiggly legs that slow them down and get in their way so that they can never learn how to swim gracefully.

I, on the other hand, look at such teachers and merely suspect that they don’t know a thing about teaching. In short, they are what we call “unconscious competence.” They know how to write—well enough to publish at will and even win awards—but just have no idea how to explain the process well enough so they can transmit their skills to others.

Being a great writer doesn’t confer upon a person any teaching skills, and great teachers don’t have to be great writers. In college I had a science fiction writing teacher, Doc Smith, who was a gifted instructor. Dozens of his students went on to be published, but I don’t know that he ever wrote a single story himself. He just learned the subject matter and then taught it.

Now, to be perfectly candid, there are some people who are born with certain writing gifts that just can’t be taught, much in the way that there are people born with perfect pitch, which can’t always be taught. No one comes to this craft being a fully formed writer. If you read Shakespeare’s early plays, it is easy to spot his genius—but it’s just as easy to spot his weaknesses.

Personally, I believe that most people are “gifted” writers—they are just so new to the craft that they don’t know their own gifts. For example when I was asked to help choose a writer to push big for Scholastic many years ago, I chose J.K. Rowling. When the president of the company asked why, I told her “because on the level of audience analysis, she’s one of the all-time natural geniuses.” That was her gift. It is what sets her apart as a writer.

Shortly thereafter, I was grading the papers of one of my students at BYU and noticed that she had a marvelous gift of voice and thought, If this young woman ever finds a story she loves, she’ll be dangerous. A few years later, her first novel series was a breakout success that made her hundreds of millions of dollars. Many critics wondered how she got so huge because her gift was hard to recognize.

In the same way, every writer seems to have their own little talents. One friend of mine does a fine job of creating archetypal characters. Another has a gift for developing very funny opening hooks, while a third writer can easily transport her readers into a whole new world.

So part of learning to write is to discover what your own gifts are and then play to your strengths. But unless you overcome your weaknesses, you probably won’t get far. For example, the great comic might need to learn to control his pacing, or perhaps the world creator might need to learn how to develop lovable characters.  It seems that no matter how much you excel as a writer, there are always new skills to develop.

Many of those new skills can come pretty easily. As an instructor, I find that if I describe a problem well, suggest solutions, then give the writer an exercise, the writer can almost always gain new writing skills pretty easily. In fact, about 1/3 of the time, I’m amazed at how well the writers do. They almost seem to grow magically.

It’s very much like a friend of mine in high school.  He was a kinesthetic genius. He could run faster than others, jump higher and farther, and throw a discus and a javelin farther than others. He was gifted in so many ways it was incredible, but it wasn’t until he went to a track and field training camp at a local university that he really took off and began breaking state records in event after event. I asked him about it once—what had he learned that let him suddenly set records in the 100-yard dash and 400-yard dash—and he explained about how he had not been placing his toe right on the starting block when he was younger and he had needed to improve his breathing techniques. In short, a couple of world-class runners had given him the little pieces of advice he needed to join their ranks.

So even people with natural talent can be shown ways to improve.

More than that, there are things about writing that absolutely have to be taught. No one is “born” knowing how to read a movie contract—I’ve found that even if you have a gift for reading a contract, a crooked lawyer will figure out ways to hide little “gotchas” throughout.

I know of some fine writers who are terrible business people and are always falling on hard times. They have no idea how to manage a career, or they make stupid investments. I’ve talked to these people, and usually they don’t feel that it is “worth the money” to go to a workshop where they can learn how to do business in their field. So a workshop like the Superstars Writing Workshop—where New York Times bestsellers share business advice—don’t interest them. Somehow it isn’t worth their time to find out how to work with agents, editors, and movie producers. They don’t think they need to know how to do their taxes. Such writers seem doomed to make fortunes and then lose them just as quickly.

As a writing instructor, I sometimes feel that one of the most critical things that you can offer a student is inspiration. Brandon Sanderson has often pointed out that when he took my writing class at BYU in 1999, he suddenly understood that his dream of becoming a writer really could be reached simply because I—as a writer who was making a living at my chosen profession—looked him in the eye and told him, “You can do this. You really can make a living as a writer.” Millions of sales later, he seems to be doing all right.

So, back to the original question.

Can a person be taught to write?

As a teacher I can offer inspiration, point out the writer’s natural gifts, and help develop new skills. In fact, I’ve found that I can help most people learn to write to a publishable level and in many cases I can bring them to the point where they write at an award-winning level.  At this time in my career, I’ve trained dozens of authors who have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers, and I still have to wonder: How much can I really help a new writer, and how much of what they do is innate ability?

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