Can you teach someone how to write?
As a sessional creative writing teacher, I believe the short answer is: yes!
As a creative writing student, and author, I believe the long answer is: it depends.
Depends on what?
Perhaps the better question is, can someone be taught how to write better? Absolutely.
Two things need to happen before you even pick up a pen or open a word document:
- You need to be genuinely interested in writing (and hopefully, you’re an avid reader too).
- You need to be humble enough to recognise that there is room for improvement and getting an A+ for a short story in high school English does not mean said story is ready for publication.
Because the standard of writing expected of a high school student (or a graduate from a non-creative writing university course) is different from the standard expected by publishers and industry professionals.
But like I said, writing can be taught.
It is possible to learn grammar rules, sentence structure, plot, characterisation, narrative drive etc. You just have to want to learn it and you have to practise.
Your writing can improve with time and effort.
When I was a creative writing student, I watched my peers develop their writing alongside me.
When I compare the short stories they wrote at the start of the program to the one they submitted at the end (we were constantly reading and critiquing one another’s work), it was often difficult to believe it was written by the same person.
Here’s a few things I’ve noticed …
Students got better at writing when they experiment with different view points.
Some found that when they wrote in third person, they tended to ‘tell’ more than ‘show’, but when they switched to first person this problem was eliminated and vice versa, because they intuitively understood the mechanics of that POV.
What’s interesting is that the students who were good at the beginning of the program were still good at the end of a program, but what was thrilling was seeing all the ways that other students improved over the course of the year.
How did they do that?
By take the lessons learned in class and applying it to their writing and by coupling this learning with their own independent study, which included reading craft books, critically reading fiction books (reading like an author), listening/reading author interviews, and practising various writing exercises.
It sounds intense, I guess, but when you love what you do it doesn’t seem to really matter.
I would like to add a small caveat …
Writing can be taught, but it’s difficult to teach someone how to have something to say.
It’s possible to write a story that is technically correct – the commas are in the right places, the dialogue is witty, the setting visceral – but by the time the story has concluded the reader is left wondering, what was the point in that?
Now, having something is say can have many forms, some more subtle than others.
A space opera could be an analogy for global warming, a novel about high school social hierarchies could be an exploration of classism, a short story about a woman wearing a green ribbon may actually be about female oppression.
These are all big ideas, but maybe your story is exploring smaller, more personal ideas.
Maybe your short story is an attempt to articulate what it is like to live rurally or regionally, to have a health scare, or uncover a family secret.
Maybe your novel is an attempt to create something beautiful and the goal is simply to make the reader feel something.
The rules of writing, if they can be called that, are learnable.
How long it takes is obviously depended upon the person who is learning them, the time they are able to devote to the endeavour, their personal discipline (ie: turning off the wifi during writing sessions), and the amount of effort they are willing to put into the work.
There is a myriad of grand and humble activities you can engage with to become better.
- Sign up for a writing course (undergraduate course, diploma, an online short course, or through your state’s writing centre)
- Hiring a mentor
- Hiring an editor
- Become a member of a national or state writing organisation
- Submit your work to competitions or magazines (NB: Do not submit a first draft to a publisher or agent, you have one shot at a first impression so don’t blow it!)
- Reading like a writer (this may mean highlighting interesting sentences, dissecting plot/character/structure etc.)
- Actively improving your vocabulary (see here)
- Joining a writing group or starting your own
- Establishing a writing routine
- Reading craft books and listening to writing podcast
- Reading writing advice blogs … 🙂
Writing can absolutely be taught, but the difference between an aspiring writer and a published is self-motivation.
Do you want to improve?
Do you have something to say?
The story inside you is hoping the answer is yes.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. Have you enrolled in formal education as a way to improve your writing, or are you more of a boot strapper? Is your writing continuing to improve or have you hit a plateau? Leave a comment below and let me know!
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