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Monday, October 20, 2014

"You Can't Teach Writing"--Bullcrap

There is this lie that has floated around the writing world for centuries: "You can't teach someone how to write. They either have it or they don't." Today I'm going to talk about why that is a myth.

Recently I was looking up loads of quotes about writing. And some of them were amazing and inspiring. But some of them were ridiculous, puffed up with superiority and laced with elitism. Even today, you honestly don't have to look far to find evidence of authors being held on pedestals, as something other-worldly, or elect. Sure, I've praised J.K. Rowling's writing talent to the high heavens, and maybe I'll joke about her being queen of writing, but sometimes this whole "writers are superior beings" thing is ridiculous. Sometimes the awe-someness of the writing world gets so blown up that people get led into believing that great writers are born select, and if that's the case, then no one can teach people to be writers, because they have to be born with it.

Here is just one quote I found the other week from some prestigious author: "You are either born a writer or you're not."

Don't believe it, not in the context that you have to born with some special ability.


There is this myth that you have to be born creative. But I'll let you in on a little secret: we're all creative.

No, really.

We are. My brother might not be talented in the "arts," but you should see him design things. He made a robot in his spare time, for a hobby. That's creativity. My nephew who can't write or read or draw well once glued toy guns to his toy cars. That's creativity too. My dad's an accountant, but you should see some of the work he does in the yard. Sure, he might not be a professional landscaper, but that doesn't mean he isn't creating something. Because some people's creativity doesn't fall into what our society calls "the arts," then people think they're not "creative." I believe we all have a God-given desire, huge or small, to create--whether that's putting together a gorgeous outfit, or beautifying a room.

"Yes," some may say, "but I'm not creative with writing. That just doesn't include me." Creativity stems out of your own background, personality, desires, and tastes. That's it. You are unique. You just need to learn how to present or communicate or channel or find that creativity to put into writing. Maybe that's harder for some than others, but that certainly doesn't mean it can't be taught, that it can't be learned or developed. We learn in different ways. Maybe you just need to learn it your own way. Maybe you need someone to help or teach you how to communicate your creativity, but that doesn't mean you are entirely devoid of it.

In fact, no on is entirely devoid of creativity.

"You Can't Teach Writing"

Remember this: The people who don't believe writing can be taught are the people who don't know how to teach it. Again, the people who don't believe writing can be taught are the people who don't know how to teach it.

Yes, even author superstars exist who don't know how to teach writing, just as I'm sure there are loads of other professionals who don't know how to teach their skill either. I've heard of a mechanic who told his college class he didn't know how to teach what he knew, so they needed to just watch him and ask questions.

When I was looking up quotes, I found a writer who said something like "The truth is, none of us writers know what we are doing! I don't know why this story works!" If this were true, then how the heck does Brandon Sanderson consciously talk about his own novels and storytelling devices and how he manipulated them to get a specific effect? He knows exactly what he's doing and how to do it, and he even knows how to teach others.

Teaching people to write is so hard, that some people trick themselves into thinking it can't be done. In fact, I think the difficulty of teaching writing is largely what led to people to see writers as an elite people. But consider the medium of fiction-writing. On the physical level, you are literally staring at black marks on a page (or screen). I mean, literally. I think that, to a degree, in other art forms, it's more obvious when one piece takes more talent than another.

You can look at pictures in a life drawing class and quickly see which pictures are great and which need more work. It's obvious. Unless, of course, the participants' talents are almost all near the same level. You can listen to music and tell which song is performed well and which isn't. But when you are dealing with fiction-writing, the performance is done in words. The stuff that often makes one writer more talented than another can't be found in the way one author crosses her t's and another author shapes her o's. You can't look at the story and say, "Yeah, Jennifer has better penmanship, so her story is better." What we are undertaking when we are critiquing and teaching fiction writing is looking at what all those letters do on an incorporeal and sometimes, frankly, a subconscious level.

Learning Subconsciously

Many writers (and I assume artists in other practices) learn on a subconscious level. Heck, even audiences do. Have you ever been in a movie where you or someone you're with predicts exactly what's going to happen? I know someone who is pretty good at this. Such people might think they are pretty smart that they can predict movies so well, and maybe they are. But, what's really happening is not necessarily that they have some superior ability to connect the dots, they just learned, on a subconscious level, the story form and devices the writers of the script used. They've seen that storytelling technique in so many other movies, that on a subconscious level, they knows how it works and what's going to happen next.

Almost all romance stories follow the same story-formula, and readers know this. That's partly what attracts them to that genre; they want to experience that story structure over and over again, but a lot of them can't consciously tell you what that story structure is (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back), they only know it on a subconscious level. And if the author breaks that story structure, the reader will hate the book. The reader has learned about storytelling even though she's not conscious of having learned.

I've learned a lot of writing techniques on a subconscious level. Recently, people who have critiqued my writing have said it needs more of my character's viewpoint and voice and thoughts in it. That was one of my weaknesses, and I think partly because we didn't talk about it in my English department in college. Later, I was looking at some stories I wrote when I was a teenager and was shocked to discover how well I had used character viewpoint and voice in them. Their voices were amazing. No one had taught me how to do that when I was a teenager, but I had learned how to on a subconscious level, and in my adult years, I'd somehow lost that ability. What's funny is I've actually been going back to those stories I wrote as a teenager to try to make conscious sense of what I was doing.

A lot of writers will tell you that you can't teach people how to write a character's voice. I disagree. I just think that most people haven't figured out how to teach it on a conscious level. They only know how to they do it subconsciously.

The storytelling techniques you can learn subconsciously are endless, which I think is why aspiring authors are told so much to read, read, read. We learn subconsciously by reading other novels.

Learning Consciously

We will always grow faster and become better writers if we can learn on a conscious level. For one, we might pick up some things on a subconscious level, but others we'll totally miss. Often the challenge of learning and teaching writing is figuring out how to explain what happens on a subconscious level on a conscious level. When we understand writing and stories on a conscious level, we have control over them. We know how to write this way to get that effect, we know how to switch-up this plotting technique to get that effect. We know how to pull from a character's background and beliefs to create a compelling character voice. The list goes on.

Some writers may only ever learn to write on a subconscious level. They don't believe writing can be taught because they aren't conscious of what they are doing. They may think it just came out of them because they are this elect or chosen person. Don't get me wrong, I do think some of us do have "natural" gifts for things. I've seen it in children. But just because one child has a "natural" ear for music doesn't mean the kid who doesn't can't gain one.

"You Must be Born an Artist"

This concept that artists can only be born is a concept that once went into other forms of art. If you look back at the history of ballet, you'll find some weird ideas that "qualify" or "disqualify" people from being a ballerina. For one, you had to have the right head shape and circumference. I'm serious. And that's only one requirement. Today, most societies (I say most, because I'm sure somewhere there is still some dancer that follows these guidelines) laugh about it. Today, anyone can take ballet classes. What does the size of your head tell about your dancing capabilities? How many would-be talented ballerinas have been limited by their head shape? Also, aren't those guidelines a great way to breed elitism?

Unfortunately, there are people in power today that still have this mentality, blocking or stifling the progress of others. I have a brother who went to talk to his college counselor about becoming an engineer. His counselor looked at his records and said, "You can't do that. You should look into becoming something that doesn't require a college education, like an electrician." My brother didn't listen. He graduated with an Engineering degree almost four years ago.

I'm sure the counselor didn't think my brother was "naturally talented" enough to get an engineering degree, just like people with too round of a head weren't "naturally" made to be ballerinas.

Sure, for some, learning to write might come easier, but everyone still has to learn. Even natural talent needs direction and growth. I'm one of those cliche "I always wanted to be a writer" people. I wrote my first story when I was seven, and I was hooked. Was it material worthy of awards and a bestseller status? Heck no. I just loved writing.

I've had people think I'm "naturally" talented, like it all just comes easily, but they don't seem to realize I'm working my butt off six days a week. I've skipped out on social events, I've cut out hobbies, I've minimize my vacations, I've totally cut out lazy. I might have a natural desire to write, but any talent I have sure didn't come naturally!

I recall one story I was plotting out. I was trying really hard to plot out a "Hero's Journey" story structure. When I showed the outline to my instructor, he replied, "Hey, you should try making this into a Hero's Journey story, since you are already doing that on a subconscious level." Inwardly, I cringed, and I gritted my teeth, because I had been working my butt off for days trying to practice that story structure, and let me tell you, it was a painfully conscious endeavor.

But even if you haven't had that "natural" drive for writing that doesn't mean you can't become a writer. I remember as a teenager learning about a football player who, as an adult, decided to pursue dance. He went on to become a professional. It's not too late to start your journey to become a writer. You don't need to be "qualified" based on the circumference of your head. What qualifies you is your ambition and willingness to work and learn. Sure, you might feel like so-and-so or what's-her-name or everyone is so far ahead of you, so much more talented than you, but so what? There will always be people further on the path than you, more talented than you, so you might as well accept that.

If Writing Can't be Taught . . .

This idea that the capacity to be able to write well is something one had to be born with is just not true. If writing can't be taught, then how did I learn to form sentences? How did I write a high school essay worthy of an A? How am I learning to create satisfying plots? Most of those things are taking what's subconscious onto a conscious level. If writing can't be taught, how do authors keep making money teaching others? If writing can't be taught, how do we have standards for what makes a good story and what makes a bad one? Where did those come from? Because if we can't be taught, we can't learn, and if we can't learn, we can't create standards. Someone had to be taught somehow, somewhere.

Yeah, people may learn mostly intuitively (a.k.a. subconsciously). Does that mean it can't be taught? No. It just means that they don't know how to teach it. If you are reading this, you have the capacity to learn how to write.

If you are taking a class where the instructor says writing can't be taught, then go learn from someone who can actually teach it, if not in replacement of the class, in addition to it. Here are some options:

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
Writing Excuses podcast
Writer's Digest
Dan Wells's Seven Point Plot Structure Lecture


  1. Such a great post, thank you! You should apply to teach a class at Storymakers.

  2. Thank you. Seriously, thank you.
    I've read a lot as a kid and always wanted to be a writer... but actually didn't write that much. I've been losing my motivation really fast. Today, I study creative writing at uni (just started my second semester) and I've been worried sick for quite some time. I read a lot, I can tell what's working and what... really isn't... but I've had so little practice. I've been thinking "everyone in the class is probably miles of me. This writing thing is so hard, harder than I've imagined: what if I'm not cut out to do this? What if I've chosen the wrong thing? Maybe I was never supposed to be a writer?".
    This article brought me peace on a level I didn't know to be possible to attain. It's alright; I have time; I can learn and grow. Maybe I wasn't "born" a writer, but I can always *become* a writer.
    Thank you so, so much for that.

    1. Agnieszka,
      There is no reason why you can't become a good writer! You can do it! If you ever feel discouraged, there is a great story here: septembercfawkes.com/2014/08/talent-like-youve-never-seen-before.html I'm not trying to be self-promoting--I didn't even write this post, but I asked if I could steal it from my friend because it was such an amazing story. She went from being a terrible artist to a great one in one year. She felt so behind everyone when she started studying art. She was discouraged and depressed. Now she's amazing! If she can do it, why not you?


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