Sunday, September 7, 2008

Can Great Writing Be Taught?

I wish I had some deep insight to share about life, but about the only thing on my mind lately has been this one question: Can great writing be taught?

At my request, my students turned in copies of the papers that they wrote last year so that I could see where I need to focus my lectures. Over the past two weeks, I've struggled through reading their papers and have averaged almost an hour on each paper. The results have been disheartening. Only one student "gets it." The others have major grammar, sequencing, and citation problems. I don't expect their analyses to be stellar (yet), but not having the facts in a logical order is not acceptable. Elementary students are asked to put sentences in the proper order to make a logical paragraph, and they can do it. So, I can't expect less of my students who are much older.

After marking one problem after another in their assignments, I began to wonder if good writing is truly a gift. A talent that can be developed, rather than taught. For instance, I took piano lessons for eight years and learned how to play the instrument. After all those years of lessons can I play the piano well? Unfortunately, no. Playing the piano did not come natural to me, and I had to practice quite a bit to learn how to play the songs at a competitive level. But no matter how much I practiced, I was never going to be a contestant in the Van Cliburn competition.

Good writing seems like it might fit in that same category. These students have been taught the basics for many years now. But there's still something missing in their writing. I'm not sure whether it is a lack of practice because they spend their time preparing for their other classes or whether they don't "get it." Either way, I've got my work cut out for me over the next few months. I want their writing to improve tremendously.

So, all you fellow writers, can great writing be taught or is it a gift? If you believe it can be taught, what pointers do you have for teaching it?


Britta Coleman said...

I think competent writing can be taught. Great writing, inspired writing...that, I believe, rests in the heart of the would-be writer. People who want to write, and have the grit to study their craft, can make great strides. But people who don't--sigh--can be difficult to teach.

Two words for your classes: Strunk & White.

Renae said...

I used to teach jr. high English. I used a "writer's workshop" format. We all wrote drafts - teacher included. Then, we shared our drafts with a partner, and the partner found mistakes and made suggestions. Then, we re-wrote. Then, we shared with a small group - same thing. As the teacher, I was the sr. editor. I would grade their drafts with them standing right beside me, so we could talk about the strengths and weaknesses. Then, AFTER I graded the draft, they had to write a flawless final copy. They really had no excuse, after all. The end results weren't always brilliant, but they were far better than the first drafts. And I did see an improvement in their writing through the year. So, if you are teaching writing as a way for people to be able to communicate clearly, then yes, writing can be taught. But as Britta said - brilliance can't be taught. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. It can improve, but true genius is innate.

It seems to me that to be a great writer, you have to be a good reader as well. I've noticed the percentage of people who read for pleasure declining dramatically. I've attended a few jury seminars that point that out, so I guess it's not just my observation.

I play the guitar....I can play decently, but Eddie Van Halen I'm not, nor ever will be. Same thing with golf, volleyball, competitive shooting, or anything else that I've done. Practice goes a long way, but you won't grind out Hemingway-esque bits of prose if you don't have the gift. Those who have a gift for it, and practice it....a deadly combination.

Your piano skills are underrated, by the way...:)

Alyssa said...

BC - Thank you for the recommendation; you know your writing books! I shared some of Writing Down the Bones with my class today, another great recommendation from you. Maybe we can swap classes before the end of the semester just to shake things up a bit!

R - I'm sure you have earned a special place in heaven by having taught junior high English. I like the writers' workshop idea but may need to tweak it for my class because they are prohibited by the honors code from reading each other's work.

A - Britta would agree with you as well regarding the fact that avid readers are better writers. I think that might explain a lot of the problems I'm seeing in my students' writing. Their class loads often prohibit them from reading for pleasure, though I bet you found time to read at least a few Tom Clancy novels while you were in law school.

spaghettipie said...

Oh, have you been reading the thread on TWV2? It matches perfectly with what you are discussing here.

Can't wait to catch up with you this weekend.

Krista said...

I don't know enough to even comment!! I enjoyed the post though!