Can writing be taught?*

In my life as an editor and occasional writer, I’ve found there to be two basic types of people who write.

The first group call themselves “writers.” They know the rules and tricks and processes and take great pride in exercising their facility therewith. They really like to talk about punctuation and the proper — or more often, improper — uses of common language. They will write about anything, regardless of whether they have anything to say about it. All of these skills, they acquired through instruction.

The second group fears the name “writer.” They’re often, I believe, the victims of uninspiring English teachers, who are themselves unfulfilled “writers.” They can never remember all those rules and tricks. When do you use a semi-colon? [Never; if you can help it, and most of the time you can.] What’s the difference between nauseous and nauseated? [Just look it up, on the rare occasion the difference might actually matter.] Nevertheless, they can’t help but write. They know things, make things, and do things. Frankly, they only want (need?) to know enough about writing that they can communicate with clarity and accuracy. I think they can be taught too, perhaps not to be “writers,” but surely to write.

A lot of writing instruction is built around acquiring knowledge of rules: dangling participles, oxford commas, five-paragraph essays. We should all know all these things (and more!), but not as rules, but rather tools. In fact, we should know so much about how our language works that we know when and how to bend or even break the rules in service to our subject.

I hesitate to define this distinction as the difference between writing and communicating only because part of what I’m advocating is not just clear communication (which I have no doubt can be taught) but writing that is so original, inspiring, and just plain good that reading it is in itself a pleasure, distinct from its ability to communicate any particularly worthy thought or conform to any norm. 

I’m not sure that can be taught, but if it could. . .

I think there’d have to be two pedagogical paradigms.

The “writers” amongst us don’t need to be taught any more new multi-syllabic words or grammatical tricks or literary forms. They first need to liberate themselves from an aspiration to conform, and then be inspired to dive headfirst in to the messiness of life, using their deep knowledge of punctuation to create bridges and handholds for their readers to cling to between irregular concepts and experiences; otherwise, why should a semi-colon possibly exist?

[There also is the problem of narcissism, writing for and about oneself, which must be overcome.]

Those who simply write because they can’t avoid it, need to be assured that there is no club of writers that they can or should aspire to join. Nor is it possible to clearly communicate an original thought wrongly (i.e. if most of your readers understand what you write, it frankly doesn’t really matter whether you wrote it in the most standard way.) They need to claim their facility with language to whatever degree it exists, and then play with what might be possible and effective, not simply right.

Both groups should of course be conversant with some basic rules of grammar. Everyone should know how simple and complex sentences work. We should all have diagrammed a sentence, and be ever looking for patterns, consistency, and flow.

Can we teach these things? I don’t actually see why not, and I believe we do. But too often, in practice I’m afraid, teachers confuse the pursuit of a [nauseating] heavily-punctuated, five-paragraph essay about flim flam, with the inspiring, experimental, original discoveries that good writing should support.

Have I made any writers nauseous?

* I’ve grown w(e)ary of sourcing blog entries from the events of my own life, and so am turning to arbitrary questions sourced from elsewhere with which to engage. This one first appeared in the “Book Ends” section of the NYTimes Book Review on Aug 24. I don’t presume to write with any authority, only curiosity.

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