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Can Writing Be Taught?


College administrators like to pay lip service to the value of writing ("the edifice on which the rest of education rests," as one official recently put it). Then they demonstrate their commitment to the craft by staffing undergraduate writing classes with some of the least experienced and most poorly paid teachers on campus--graduate teaching assistants and nontenured adjunct faculty.

Such cynical behavior brings to mind an old question: Can writing be taught?

The question seems to invite skeptical replies. Kurt Vonnegut used to say that he couldn't teach people how to write but, like an old golf pro, he could sometimes help them take a few strokes off their game. The poet Theodore Roethke insisted that writing can't be taught; it can only be "insinuated." And Wallace Stegner said that writing can be taught--but not to everybody.

After you consider the following responses from seasoned journalists, novelists, scholars, and teachers, we'd like to hear your thoughts on whether writing can be taught. Simply reply to the question at the end of this article.

  • Different Sorts of Writing
    The time-worn contention that writing can not be taught equivocates upon the word writing. Those who have thus begged the question, in any century, have ignored what sort of writing the rhetoricians commonly contemplated; and the rhetoricians, on their part, have sometimes applied to one sort of writing doctrines and methods applicable properly to another. The best treatises and the best teachers have usually agreed in dwelling upon composition in its literal sense of putting together, or structure. . . .

    A student can, perhaps, be taught to expound or argue consecutively; he can not be taught to write stories. You may teach logical composition; you can not teach literary composition.
    (Charles Sears Baldwin, "The College Teaching of Rhetoric." Educational Review, June 1914)

  • What Are We Doing Here?
    The question comes up: "Can writing be taught?" The questioner of course knows the answer in advance, the question implying the answer--"No, it can't." Ah then, what are we all doing in the classroom? The best we can, I should hope, since nothing--nothing worth knowing (nothing beyond the banality of facts)--can be taught. It is what every serious teacher finally discovers.
    (Jonathan Baumbach, Writers as Teachers, Teachers as Writers. Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson, 1970)

  • God Knows
    You can take undergraduates and guide them. You can tell them what works and what doesn't. But unfortunately, you can't teach anyone to write. It comes from God.
    (Robert Stone, interviewed by Ralph Blumenthal, "A Novelist Who Stalks Authenticity." The New York Times, May 26, 1998)

  • A Misguided Conviction
    [Edward] Corbett's uneasiness derives, I believe, from his stalwart but misguided conviction that writing can be taught. He presupposes that writing--and probably reading, too--constitutes a body of knowledge, or a skill, or a process that may be codified in some way and then taught to others. Of course, I have been arguing . . . that discourse production and reception cannot be reduced to discrete processes, systems, or methodologies and, as a result, cannot be taught.
    (Thomas Kent, Paralogic Rhetoric: A Theory of Communicative Interaction. Bucknell University Press, 1993)

  • Talent and Tips
    You have to have talent! Nobody can teach you to write, but you can teach yourselves. People can give you tips but they can't give you an imagination. You can teach people to put words together, and teach them grammar or how to find their own style but other than that, I think it is an inborn gift.
    (Barbara Taylor Bradford, interviewed by Sarah Kinson, "Why I Write." The Guardian, Oct. 22, 2007)

  • Can Teachers Write?
    [People] can be taught to write in the same sense that they can be taught to play the violin or to play basketball. Obviously, there has to be initial desire and motivation. . . .

    I think I have nothing against writing courses except that so often they are taught by those who can't do the thing themselves. It's pretty well worthless if they can't. The medieval historian does not really have to know how to use a crossbow in the sense the medieval crossbowman did, but someone who is teaching writing has to know how to at least write the kind of material that he's teaching. . . . Too often, it's somebody who is already on the payroll and who doesn't have a class to teach at that hour.
    (Gene Wolfe, interviewed by Peter Wright in Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing, Writers on Wolfe. Liverpool University Press, 2007)

  • Can Teachers Teach?
    Composition studies as a profession has accepted the general societal consensus that writing can be taught by people who do not have to demonstrate any specific knowledge or abilities. Clearly, then, the lack of an adequate rhetoric of justification for writing instruction is the real fault of the profession: it has not made the case that teaching writing involves real intellectual work.
    (David W. Smit, The End of Composition Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004)

  • Teaching Technique
    No. I think technique can be taught, but I think the only way to learn to write is to read, and I see writing and reading as completely related. One almost couldn't exist without the other.
    (John McGahern, interviewed by Robert McCrum, "The Whole World in a Community." The Guardian, Jan. 6, 2002)

  • Learning to Write
    Can writing be taught? This is the wrong question--unless you're a prospective teacher of journalism. The question, if you're a would-be journalist (or indeed any kind of writer), is: can writing be learnt?

    And the answer is: of course it can, providing that you have at least some talent and--what is more important--that you have a lot of determination and are prepared to work hard.

    If you want to succeed as a writer, you must be prepared to read a lot, finding good models and learning from them; you must be prepared to think imaginatively about readers and how they think and feel rather than luxuriate inside your own comfortable world; you must be prepared to take time practicing, experimenting, revising.

    You must be prepared to listen to criticism and take it into account while not letting it get on top of you. You must develop confidence in your own ability but not let it become arrogance.
    (Wynford Hicks, Writing For Journalists, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2008)

Now it's your turn: let us know if you think writing can be taught.

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