How Do You Teach Someone to Write Well?

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Why is the craft of writing in such a dire state? The best writers of our time create magnificent prose, and additional tiers of talents do a fine job of communicating. But the vast majority of people seem competent at best, and many of those who are paid to write — or for whom writing is at least part of their job description (and, these days, that’s just about everybody) — frequently demonstrate a lack of understanding of, or concern about, the most basic rules of grammar and usage.

How can this be? High school graduates spend part of virtually every day of school for thirteen years learning, and relearning, and then learning again, the fundamentals of the English language, from letter recognition to critical essays. Why, then, do many colleges and universities have remedial writing courses packed with students who earned exemplary grades in high school English?

Most people, at least in developed countries, spend at least a couple of years in college, which involves completion of many writing assignments. How is it that many employers bemoan the poor writing skills of their college-graduate workers and toss so many ineptly written resumes in the trash?

Here’s a radical response to those questions: You can teach writing, but you can’t teach good writing. As a former public school student, and as a former public school teacher, I know that much of what passes for instruction in writing is dull and bereft of context. But I also know that many teachers succeed in devising and/or employing imaginative ways of helping students develop their writing skills. As a student, I experienced much of the first approach and little of the second. As a teacher, I used both methods but tried to focus on the latter strategy. I’m not sure that my efforts were successful.

I also taught copyediting to adults for many years. Some students didn’t belong in the class, because they virtually matched me in skill. Others didn’t belong in the class, because they had no business working in the writing and editing business. Most were somewhere in between. Did I help them? In class evaluations, many claimed that I did, or at least that I opened their eyes to how complex and creative editing can be.

I believe that students young and old can be taught the basics of spelling, style, and syntax, and of grammar and usage. But how do they develop the skill to integrate all these components into a clear, concise, coherent whole? As with any other skill, it takes practice, practice, practice — that’s where year after year of language arts instruction comes in. But I also believe that much of writing skill is innate: You have it, or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get it.

That doesn’t give anyone an excuse to give up. You can’t help but get better through repetition. Positive learning experiences and inspirational teachers are significant factors, but ultimately, becoming a better writer is a matter of learning what better writing is (reading well-wrought fiction and nonfiction) and of composing your own prose. My tip for today? It’s simple. Read a lot, and write a lot more.

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21 thoughts on “How Do You Teach Someone to Write Well?”

  1. There’s no substitute for “full immersion” in good quality writing. I believe that, once the fundamentals are in place, it is possible to “learn by osmosis”. Unfortunately, because the average reader is at risk of being exposed to so much low-grade material, this is not as simple as it sounds.

    I recently heard an anecdote from a copy-editing friend: The client sent the work back with a number of errors re-inserted. They said that they needed a smattering of grammatical errors because that is what their target demographic expected, and they didn’t want to alienate them with high prose!

    Writing well is like learning a musical instrument. If you pick up bad technique in the early stages it can be really difficult to correct later. If I try to think back to my own learning and what worked for me, I think it was a case of being an avid reader who tried to emulate what I liked. There was also a certain English teacher who taught me how to spell – there are rules and exceptions and they can all be learned in a week. That week changed my life.

  2. Mark – Yes, language ability is innate, and some people are better with language than others. But the ability to write well is process-oriented, as I prove daily in my work.

    Anyone can learn how to ACT like the most skilled writer. And by doing so, they can become that skilled writer themselves.

    Sadly, many writing instructors, and almost all management “experts” haven’t studied the process. Some of them have studied language instead, which only takes one so far.

    Focus on the process. Learn to behave like a writer, and as Quintilian said, write quickly and you will never write well. Write well, and you will soon write quickly.

  3. Excellent post! I agree totally with your last statement. Until I began to write, I never realized how much reading books taught me about writing, especially those that were particularly awful. Seeing something so wrong written on the page (and somehow published) makes the lessons learned stick with me.

  4. I believe that writing is a developmental process that can be learned.
    To become better writers, we must experience appropriate interventions which focus on both the learning process and the writing process.
    As well, knowledge and understanding of various writing structures along with much practice is required.

  5. I don’t know if writing skills are innate, but I do know that my sons who struggled in school in many areas somehow managed to become good writers. This was due to the fact that we read good books to them for most of their young lives, which gave them an inner sense of how words should go together.

  6. Good advice: Read a lot, write a lot.

    I think what separates the potentially great writers from the competent is intelligence. I think, too, that given a good measure of intelligence anyone can, with proper motivation, learn to write better, even well. Otherwise, we’re wasting a lot of dollars on teachers! Otherwise, we’re all imprisoned by our genetics with no hope of transcending them. But the latest research, I’ve heard, doesn’t agree with that totally and has shown, for instance, that the human brain is not nearly as limited as past research has tried to show.

    I agree you cannot teach writing. But good teachers can act as guides and coaches and discover ways to open up the pathways to better writing for others. Ultimately, though, if there’s any real teaching to be done, it’s us teaching ourselves.

  7. “High school graduates spend part of virtually every day of school for thirteen years learning, and relearning, and then learning again, the fundamentals of the English language, from letter recognition to critical essays. ”

    My opinion is that the problem is mainly the poor quality of instruction, ranging from Whole Language (now mostly labeled Balanced Literacy) in the earliest grades to lack of grammar instruction to excessive journal writing that goes uncorrected in the middle grades to an increasing emphasis on alternate forms of communication (video “essays” in history class). I could go on and on, including the mish-mash of confusing variations of teaching tools such as Venn diagrams, cloud-charts, math journals and vague three-page rubrics.

    I’ve discovered an alternate type of writing instruction that I wish my kids had experienced – the Kerrigan method as explained in his book, Writing to the Point. The precision and clarity of this method is refreshing, and I think writing can ABSOLUTELY be taught by using something like this.

  8. I am now at the point in my career where I write everyday. It may be a short email or an accident investigation report of several hundred pages. Until recently, writing was not big part of my job. As I am two decades past my college composition class, I probably have forgotten most of what I learned.

    The consumers of my writing all have undergone similar career paths so they are not much help in critiquing my writing. Usually they will just correct the occasional typo or change some wording. Since I am unable to get the proper feedback, it is difficult to improve.

  9. My advice: steal unashamedly from writers you admire until you develop a style that reads like theirs, but feels like yours.

  10. “But I also believe that much of writing skill is innate: You have it, or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get it.”
    I have said many times that good writing is a gift. It’s a combination of sound grammatical knowledge and the ability to structure a story. A book can be beautifully presented or an interesting article posted but if there’s a big grammatical error, the writer’s credibility slips a notch.
    Writing is really hard work. I envy those who can just crank it out. For me it’s a labor of love and take time, but I’m usually pleased with the results when I look back.

  11. You can teach basic writing skills, but you can’t make a great writer. What does that? Reading Great Writing. In fiction, in nonfiction, in magazines, in newspapers. Most of all, in books. Read for rhythm; read for inspiration; read for education. Read to bind to your bones a respect for educated, ethical writers.

  12. You can teach basic writing skills, but you can’t make a great writer. What does that? Reading Great Writing. In fiction, in nonfiction, in magazines, in newspapers. Most of all, in books. Read for rhythm; read for inspiration; read for education. Read to bind to your bones a respect for educated, ethical writers.

    (Sorry for the repost; typo in my blog link. Feel free to delete the first? Thanks!)

  13. I just barely started writing seriously this school year, and when I look back at the books I’ve read (the Hunger Games especially), I’m amazed as to how I didn’t notice all of the little slip-ups I’ve made. This alone – plus a recent read of the unabridged Les Miserables – has gotten me to making sure that everything is acceptable in my writing before I say “done”. As for copying writing styles, I might need to try that.

  14. Reading is definitely key, but I think learning to write early helps, too. I went to Catholic school, where the nuns were very keen on writing. We were writing reports in the 2nd grade. When I reached high school, I was shocked to find myself in a class with people who had never written more than a paragraph. Writing has always come easily to me and I credit that early exposure (plus voracious reading habits) for that. I worry about people today who don’t seem to have the attention span required to write more than a few sentences (the Twitter effect?).

  15. I respectfully disagree with the notion that good writing can’t be taught. Most of the time, it just *isn’t* taught. I taught ESL writing for several years on the secondary level, and I was distressed by the lack of writing instruction most of my kids received in other classes. Grammar skills weren’t touched after 8th grade, and once in high school, essay writing seemed to be taught by trial and error–the student tried, the teacher wrote all over the paper what was wrong, 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.

    I sat 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 also talk about the logic of their papers, and how the structure could be used as a tool for making the paper a better one. There are plenty of ways of teaching good writing, and expecting students to get it by reading alone, 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 further with a good teacher who knows how to make concepts accessible and help you target your weak spots.

    I know that this approach works because I saw it in my own writing when I went through an MFA in Writing program a few weeks ago, and I also saw within one semester how my new skills were helping me do an even better job with my own students. You just need skilled teachers and schools who are willing to let them use those skills to help their students, which is by far the larger problem we face these days. So please don’t espouse the notion that good writing can’t be taught, because it most certainly can.

  16. From my own experience I find that reading and writing, inextricably intertwined, are skills that can be taught but that teaching will produce nothing beautiful or brilliant in and of itself. Any imbecile can dunk a brush in paint and slop it on a surface, but how rare is a Rembrandt or Da Vinci! Anyone with basic intelligence can learn to read (“See the ball. The ball is blue.”) or write (“Milk, butter, corn flakes…”) but there is so much beyond that level that it’s staggering.

    So how does one teach a non-writer to write well? Teach them to read well, then give them an entire library to choose books from. As they read material they enjoy they will, by example, learn how it is written — how it feels in the mouth and in the mind, how the words flow and the flavors they carry, how those squiggles of ink please (or repulse) the eye. Then, let them write what they like to write; don’t restrict them or assign them a specific task (I love to write horror, but if I had to write an article on proper fertilization of rutabegas I think I’d retch). Humans tend to do what feels good and eschew the onerous, and as all skills writing will deteriorate if neglected, so let the student read and write what pleases them and they will, if they have any drive and desire in their hearts to do so, learn to write well.

    That’s essentially what guided me as I grew. My family showered me with books and read to me from my earliest memories; when I was old enough I was given free access to the public libraries (and a very genial and pleasant librarian who tolerated my endless questions and telling her about the book I’d just returned) and allowed to choose books I found exciting (age appropriate, of course). Later it was comic books, although my family considered them silly and possibly damaging to a young mind, which had me using and understanding college-level words in 4th grade. Then I discovered HORROR COMICS and a beautiful monster was born. I’ve reveled in the genre for four decades and have both read and written in it to my great pleasure (and yes, a modicum of financial benefit).

    I apologize that I got a bit verbose. In brief: teach the student the tools, encourage the use of those tools to create what the student likes, be there to guide them in the use of those tools, and if the student has any aptitude and desire you will probably create a writer. After that it’s mostly sweat and elbow grease and a pinch of luck to turn a mediocre writer into a great one.

  17. Stephen,

    You make many good points. I would only add that while reading is important, the element no one has mentioned so far is that students must also be taught to think, and to think critically. Critical thinking is the bridge between reading and writing, and without it, all the reading in the world isn’t going to make a difference. Writing is where a lot of us discover the holes in our logic, because once we see something on paper, they’re obvious to us, but without the critical thinking skills in the first place, we would still miss them. Writing is where we take our ideas and make sense of them to present them to someone else, so our thought process either makes or breaks the product.

    Alas, critical thinking is difficult to teach, and takes a lot of time, so it tends to be neglected in schools–and then teachers and parents complain that students don’t know how to think anymore, and that they can’t write. Well, the two go hand in hand, and if you neglect one, you’ll undercut the other.

    (I would also like to note that my follow-up comment to my comment above was, for whatever reason, not approved. It simply clarified that I studied for my MFA a few *years* ago, not weeks!)

  18. Mark, you are absolutely right. I taught writing and literature in high school, in two major universities, and in adult remedial writing classes. Writing, editing, and reading are all part of the same skill set, and they are improved by practicing each skill daily. Motivation is the key to practicing anything; you cannot teach the unwilling. Which is why students often fail to learn to write, edit, or read even semi-well. They don’t care about learning those skills. Therefore, they don’t practice. And the writing they do (texting, blogging) lacks discipline and only reinforces bad habits.

    Contrast the quasi-literate modern American populace with the populace of 19th century England or America. There was no radio, no TV, no cinema, no electronic entertainment, and above all, no telephone. To communicate over a distance, they had to write. And most of them learned to write tolerably well. Many were also self educated. Consider the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen. They taught themselves to read and write well. Or if those seem too exceptional, consider Van Gogh, the painter. His letters to his brother are colorful, cogent, and grammatical. Or to go back a little further in time, consider DeFoe, who taught himself to write as a hack pamphleteer and turned himself into the father of the modern novel. None of them had any formal instruction in writing.

    Now, let me commend Nancy’s point below, which is a good one. An ability to think clearly is a necessary precursor to writing clearly. Yet most students never learn formal logic and struggle to organize their thoughts in any systematic way. Is it any wonder people can’t write well when their thoughts are a jumble of ideas and feelings?

    Finally, our manner of teaching writing in the public schools — combining exemplars from great literature with the 500 word essay — is worse than useless. Few students care about literature, and even fewer have anything to say on any topic that requires 500 words. We should begin instead with teaching students how to think, write, and edit competent sentences and short paragraphs, preferably involving matters they care about personally. I must confess my own efforts to move English pedagogy in this direction met with a stony resistance from my colleagues. Nor have I seen any improvement in the quality of writing or thought by adults, in academia or business, over the intervening years. And digital technology, if anything, has only made matters worse by lowering standards and making vagueness and imprecision of thought more acceptable.

    In short, the ability to write clearly, concise, and precisely is fast becoming a skill unique to an intellectual elite — much like law, medicine, and higher mathematics — and I think it is likely to become increasingly so for the foreseeable future.

  19. I have a question.

    I would consider myself a writer. I have done well in college so far as an English major and like most of you, I assume, stringing words together has always been an easy task. I could write a 5 page rough draft in under an hour.

    But i have a cousin, he is struggling with his English class so I have been helping him. The last two essays have been him writing 2-3 pages of his general ideas while I rewrite them into a good essay. He’s thrilled with his A’s but I think that we are being counterproductive. He is a college student, paying for school to learn. He struggles in class and wants me to teach him how I come up with “perfectly constructed sentences.”

    How would you all go about teaching him?

  20. Learning how to write well is something that takes time. At least it did for me, and I know it does for a lot of people! It would be nice to be able to take a class dedicated solely to learning how to write well. Even though many colleges offer that, I don’t think students really take advantage of it! But, it is something that can really help an individual out.

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