Can Writing Be Taught? (if So, Why Aren’t I Better at It?)

Can Writing Be Taught?-2

(As I begin to teach a new class of fiction writing, I find myself coming back to this old essay, which argues that teachers of fiction need to focus on two things above all else: “story” and “telling.” I still believe that, I think. But how, I now find myself deliberating, to actually teach those skills in a classroom?)

Can Writing Be Taught?

Here’s a story:

Imagine a man, a distant friend of yours. He’s a professional office worker, in his late twenties, who lives in London: one evening he wakes up in hospital, his face bruised and cut, his right cheek swollen.

From the doctors, he learns that on his way home from work, he was mugged by two guys and beaten up. They took his wallet and phone and left him unconscious in the street.

He immediately makes a vow: he will never be vulnerable like that again. He is going to devote himself to becoming an expert hand-to-hand fighter, so that if he is ever physically threatened in the future, he can hold his own. As soon as he gets out from the hospital, he looks around for a self-defence class. He does some research, finds out about a well-regarded martial arts dojo not far from his house. It’s supposed to be one of the best in London.

However, when he walks over there, he gets the address slightly wrong, and he instead arrives next door, at a basketball school. And perhaps because he’s still confused from his injuries, he doesn’t realise his mistake. He believes that the basketball teaching school is a dojo for learning hand-to-hand fighting. After all, the men and women in the basketball school look muscular and athletic. They are busy lifting weights and skipping rope. So our imaginary friend signs up for classes, diligently studying basketball three evenings a week, hanging out with his new friends at the gym on weekends.

It’s true, the other students notice that our friend really likes to talk about fighting. But he seems harmless, and nice enough.

And, after a couple of months training at basketball, he feels a lot tougher than he did before. Why wouldn’t he? He’s been working out four times a week. Basketball, he confidently feels, is a great way to learn to defend oneself from robbers. One night, when he’s out with his new friends, a trio of lads seem to want to start something, and the tallest guy on the team stares them down. Our Londoner is overjoyed: he’s learning the real deal!

He watches Youtube clips where LeBron James gets in a court-side scuffle, shoving someone in the chest, and he thinks: “That guy is so good at fighting! Look at him!”


Thank you to everyone who read my post about Jane Austen, writing workshops, and programming languages.

As people left me comments and replied to each other’s comments, I noticed a particular topic come up. It’s an old question in writing circles: can writing be taught? And the question is a big deal for a blog like this, because, if writing can’t be taught, why bother discussing the tricks and tools of famous authors. Why share methods for improvement?

This topic has been discussed a lot, and maybe you’re tired of hearing people talking about it. And I don’t have a definitive answer. However, I think I can frame the question in a way that makes it worthwhile to ask — both for teachers of fiction writing and for aspiring authors.

The question feels so tired out because it’s usually posed in terms of one or other straw men, both of them basically meaningless. Either writing classes are held to a standard that is impossible to satisfy, or one that is pointlessly easy.

For instance, if by “teaching me to write fiction,” you mean “make me one of the greatest novelists of the last few centuries,” then clearly, you are likely to be disappointed.

It’s certainly true that tastes change over time, both in the general public and in academia. And marketing matters a great deal in getting books on shelves. However, biographies of the really famous authors are usually a sobering, frightening experience. Those men and women really do seem great.

Take, as an example, James Joyce. According to Joyce’s biographer, by the age of nine, the young Joyce had written a satirical poem about Irish politics which was read with pleasure around Dublin. By the age of seventeen or eighteen, Joyce had written a commentary on Ibsen which the prestigious journal Fortnightly Review had published; Joyce had also taught himself enough Norwegian to write to Ibsen, causing the playwright to write back, congratulating Joyce on his insightful remarks. By his early twenties, Joyce had written “The Dead,” widely considered the best short story in English, a technical and visionary masterpiece.

James Joyce

Mr. Joyce is not interested in your workshop critique.

What sort of MFA program could have helped Joyce?

And this is not simply a point about artistic prodigy. I imagine that a biographical account of literary late-bloomers like Wallace Stevens or Toni Morrison would leave the reasons for their artistic greatness equally opaque.

That said, such extreme cases don’t devalue the point of a training program. In other disciplines, many of us pay huge sums to learn Javascript coding or Mandarin Chinese, without ever receiving the promise that we will one day become the next Bill Gates, or the Chinese language version of Amy Schumer.

It’s okay to study coding at Hack Reactor if it merely leads, three years later, to my getting a lavishly well-paid job at Google. I shouldn’t blame my instructor if I never get a missile-destroyer named after me.

We might also note that the great writers often behaved as though writing can be studied and taught. The writing exercises and craft lessons that Flaubert gave the young Maupassant sound pretty much what you would expect, requiring his pupil to try out specific skills, encouraging attention to detail. During his Paris years, Ernest Hemingway, who for some peculiar reason is our culture’s model of the solitary, ultra-masculine loner, made sure to learn everything he could from Stein, Fitzgerald, and others. And among the poets, Keats maintained a rigorous regime of practice and skill training.

It would be odd if Maupassant, Hemingway, Keats and countless other well-known authors were wrong to believe writing literature was something one could get better at.

That said, the “can writing be taught” argument is often phrased in the opposite sense, one that is only marginally more useful. If, when we ask, “can writing be taught?” we’re really asking “is any improvement at all possible?” then we aren’t really saying anything, either.

You hear these sorts of arguments made when people defend MFA programs but don’t seem to have their hearts in it: creative writing classes “give writers time to write;” they “introduce students to new books;” they “give you an audience for your work;” they “give you permission, in our cold capitalist world, to be an artist for a few years.”

I’ve never found these sorts of arguments convincing. Just because a student benefits from a training program does not at all prove that the program is a good one. It does not even prove that the program is teaching even vaguely the right skills.

Let’s return to the story of our imaginary Londoner, the guy learning to play basketball. A year has now passed since he was mugged. He still hasn’t worked out that he’s not studying martial arts. But he remains just as enthusiastic about his basketball training. And when you meet him for the first time in over a year, you are struck by how much stronger he looks. His clothes hang on him differently; he seems taller, because he doesn’t slouch like he used to.

When he talks to you about his “fighting class,” you assume that this must be a great martial arts school. Look at the results!

However, this impression only lasts until the evening when he invites you to come along to “fighting class.”

When you get there, you instantly see that he has made a terrible mistake. It’s just a bunch of men and women playing basketball! You’re stunned. You even take a few minutes to visit the Thai Boxing studio next door, the class he had been supposed to take that first evening. You watch one pair of Muay Thai students smash their fists, elbows, and shins into their partners’ boxing pads. Another pair are duelling in the ring, and a third group is learning to grab someone by the head and knee him in the face. Those people are really learning how to fight.

One method is patently — obviously — so much better than the other.

(Anyone reading this who is an afficionado of a different martial art than Muay Thai, and who feels that this other school or art would have been a better example for this post, should feel free to mentally substitute it in all the examples that follow.)

Now, this argument is leading to the point where I explain my idea of how a class in fiction writing should work. And I’m obviously less confident about this than I am with the example of Muay Thai vs. basketball. Writing fiction is a very complex thing, and different for everyone.

But I do think that as teachers of fiction writing, we should try not to teach the writing version of “basketball.” We should not merely give students the time and opportunity to get better: we should accelerate that process as much as possible. There may be no reward in doing so: just as our imaginary Londoner loved his basketball classes, our writing students may absolutely love ways of studying writing that aren’t very effective. We may also be working in an administrative environment where “basketball” fits much more naturally into the system than “Muay Thai” does. So, for us teachers, the challenge perhaps is to increase the “Muay Thai-ness” of the class as much as we can.

Similarly, as students, we either need to find a class that is actually teaching us what we need, or we need to be supplementing, with our own work and research, what the available classes aren’t offering.

I’ve written elsewhere about teaching methods that I think are not so effective at improving students’ fiction writing. And to be clear, I think these approaches do have a place in a fiction curriculum. I believe they can be worthwhile and rewarding, just as learning basketball really has made our London friend tougher and stronger. The problem is not that they are bad, only that they can take over a syllabus, and leave the essential training necessary to good fiction invisible, undone.

What are some of these “basketball-ish” teaching methods?

  1. As I’ve written in the essay “Sentence Anxiety,” it is unlikely that removing “boring sentences” from your prose will make your writing “good”: plenty of famous stylists have written many ‘plain’ sentences. No one notices.

More generally, all instruction based around avoidance of error or artistic faux-pas is probably just “basketball.” Learning to avoid crude words like “suddenly” or “very,” omitting adverbs and split infinitives, skipping “he unfeelingly sneered” or “she cleverly whispered” — such an awareness is good to learn, but plenty of popular and even great novels have contained similar examples of bad prose. The Great Gatsby, for instance, is something of a scandal in this regard.

  1. This next one makes me uncomfortable to mention… but… if I was willing to write this argument for Roxane Gay, I had better link to it here: the “typical” fiction workshop, where in a class of twelve, three students bring in novel chapters, and two hand in “experimental” flash fictions, and six bring in more “traditional” 10-15 page short stories, and another submits sections of a memoir, with the teacher doing her very best to respond to each student in turn, offering craft guidance on each example… I don’t know if I can honestly say that’s “only  basketball.” I’ve gained so much from such classes and recommend them to every aspiring writer. And I love teaching them myself. Plus, the reality is that such classes make a lot of sense in a university Creative Writing environment, and for that reason alone, probably will be with us forever.

Yet I still don’t think you can call them the “Muay Thai” of fiction writing, particularly for aspiring novelists (they work much better for short story writers). Once you’ve had a few terms of general purpose workshops, the lessons they teach seem to start repeating themselves, and usually not in a productive way.

  1. Classes based on the premise that you need to change your personality. Any course or method that starts from the idea that you aren’t already creative enough, or that you are imprisoned inside tedious literary conventions — as I suggest in my essay “To Those Poor Souls Who Dwell in Night”, this simply isn’t true. You don’t need to become more creative. You’re fine as you are. Plus, given that many famous artists from the past seem to have been horrible, blinkered, or simply rather boring people, it seems unlikely that becoming a better person is the defining step between being an aspiring novelist and being an accomplished one.

Now, any prompts or exercises or freewriting sessions that help you come up with more stories should be enjoyed and relished. These are cool, fun, useful ways to spend time. I owe the inspiration of my current novel to a writing prompt that I heard about through some writer friends. The problem, rather, is that having more ideas will not turn you from a poor novelist to a promising one.

  1. The standard “MFA novel workshop,” where everyone shares the first chapter of their novel, hears feedback from classmates on that chapter, and then the cycle repeats for the second chapter, and if there’s time, the third chapter — that’s also, most of the time, just basketball.

As Cathy Day points out in her brilliant, seminal essay on MFAs and novel-writing, “The Story Problem,” a chapter of a novel only makes sense as part of a larger work. The advice anyone can give you on an opening chapter, if they haven’t read chapter two (especially if chapter two hasn’t been written yet), isn’t going to help you that much. Their feedback is certainly nice to have, but it’s just basketball.



So. If all the above is “just basketball” — all nice and good to do, but not really the right thing — then you are probably thinking COME ON DANIEL HURRY UP AND TELL US WHAT THE THAI BOXING OF FICTION WRITING IS.

Now, I’ve yet to write a wildly success novel, so this is just my opinion. But it does seem to me that there is a skill, or set of skills, which is, on the one hand, pretty much essential to everyone who wants to write novels or long-ish stories, and which is, on the other hand, only very rarely a natural gift for aspiring writers. Most people can’t do this without training or years of slow, hard practice.

You can build up a charming prose style, and an inventive mind, and a ear for realistic dialogue while still having very little ability to do this, and yet it is the thing that most readers, and most agents, look for first. And it often not taught explicitly in creative writing classes.

I would call this skill simply: story-telling. When I teach fiction, that’s the direction I try to guide the curriculum towards, whether or not the outward structure of my class is a workshop. And I’m hypenating the two words because I suspect that story-telling is really two (inter-related) skills, the “story” part and the “telling” part.

The “story” part is about plotting. Plotting is really hard and most aspiring writers do not really know how to do it. On a grand level, this certainly includes outlining, and it includes studying story structures like the three act arc, or “the hero’s journey,” or the map of plot twists that Larry Brooks describes in his analysis of Gone Girl. LITERALLY ONE OF THE HARDEST THING INVOLVED IN WRITING A GOOD NOVEL IS WORKING OUT WHAT IS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN AND IN WHAT ORDER.

But it also includes lessons in the smaller scale work of plot. Perhaps even more important are the scene-level techniques like repetition, foreshadowing, escalation, pace, character desire, conflict and so on. How to build to an ending that feels like it means something. It also involves learning by models and genre analysis (“how does Woolf manage different points of view in To The Lighthouse?” or “What sort of things happen in a mystery novel like my one, and around what page numbers do those things tend to occur?”).

Many of these formal concepts about plot either descend to us from Aristotle’s Poetics or have been developed by the latter day Aristotleans, the screenwriting teachers like Robert McKee. As a result, textbooks like McKee’s Story offer some really good instruction on plotting.

Yet there’s more to gripping, engaging fiction than plot. Gone Girl wasn’t so immensely popular only because of its twists. When we read fiction, before we are even conscious of the plot or the setting, we are aware that we have made contact with a voice, that of the narrator. We don’t keep reading Harry Potter only to find out if Harry manages to defeat Voldemort. We keep reading because the world of those novels is so much fun to be in.

Sonny had the blues. But Sonny's readers never do.

James Baldwin may have given Sonny the blues. But he gives Sonny’s readers something else.

The “telling” part of story-telling is about how you, the writer, manage the relationship with the reader. It includes the thing we often call “voice.” But it also includes things like point of view, exposition, narration, “reader management,” and the texture and feel of the prose. Where the information is coming from, how the story is being presented.

It’s firstly what makes the reader captivated from the first sentence, and secondly what enables the reader to know what is happening as the story gets more complicated.

This second skill is actually harder to figure out how to learn. I’ve personally picked up a lot from reading the Chicago School of scholars, in books like Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. The Chicago School developed (and continue to develop) a theory of fiction that frames storytelling as an act of persuasion between author and reader. But because the screenwriters don’t have to worry so much about this, ultimate handing over the production of their stories to directors and actors, they have never needed to codify these sorts of skills, and so their textbooks are less useful here.

It’s also the case that for the past century and more, “serious” or “literary” novelists in the English language tradition have often tried to hide or downplay this aspect of their craft. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, often gives the impression that one is reading chaotic, random thoughts from a succession of characters — while this isn’t actually the case, and the novel is in secret guiding the reader carefully through its pages, the subterfuge make it harder to learn from Woolf’s example.

One has either to go back to the Victorians to see these techniques out in the open, to Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, or Great Expectations or turn to the contemporary practioners of YA fiction, in order to go to this particular school.

To conclude. There are lots of ways to learn to write better. Even if “talent” is real and important, we can still see many of the great writers of the past trying out training methods, seeking out advice, learning from exercises and prompts.

Now, it’s perfectly fine to read all this and decide that you would rather not get instruction, and instead learn organically through writing on your own. In that case, I would recommend writing a lot of pages, fast. If you can draft three new novels a year, after two or thee years, you’ll have figured a great many things out.

However, if you do make the decision to seek out writing instruction, the question to ask is not “what will improve my writing?” because lots of things will improve your writing. Better to ask “what specific assistance do I most need, given my goals?” The question is similar if you are the teacher of a class: what do my students most need to learn?

I am assuming here that you, dear reader, are involved in fiction, and that your goal could be loosely described as being able to write the kind of novel that, if someone reads the first ninety pages, they will be eager to read the rest of it.

If you are a flash fiction writer, or a poet, or another kind of artist, I might give different advice. But for us “conventional” fiction writers, I think a fiction writing class has to come to focus itself, one way or another, around the teaching of story-telling skills. And it may have to omit the teaching of lots of other useful techniques simply because time is limited.

The goal, in the end, is to not be teaching, or learning, basketball.

Notes: I’ve focused here on college-level creative writing courses, as that is what I’m most familiar with. I’m aware that there are many other ways to learn fiction, some of which seem more in line with what I’m talking about, such as Larry Brooks’s website and the courses that Donald Maas offers, as well as the genre writing schools at Clarion West and elsewhere. If you have experienced this sort of thing, I’d be curious to know what it was like.

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