Welcome to a Blog about How–and Whether–People Can Be Taught to Write!

Before making my first post to this blog, I spent some time surfing through the many, many blogs about writing, teaching writing, and learning to write. I can say with a fair degree of confidence that this blog is unusual, if not unique.

It’s not at all an inspirational blog—how to free yourself to write well, how to find ideas, how to motivate your inner muse. Many of the blogs I’ve visited do that much better than I ever could. Nor, for teachers, is it inspirational or instructive—it doesn’t strive to strengthen teachers’ knowledge of how to teach or their faith in education as a vocation and a mission. Again, I’ve seen many wonderful examples of blogs that perform this vital task.

So what is it, then?

This is a blog in which I hope to get help exploring and possibly answering a single, probably surprising question:

Can anyone ever be taught to write?

By that, I don’t mean the kind of teaching we need as children, when we first learn to craft letters on paper, string them into words, hook those words into sentences, and then make those sentences paint a picture or tell a story. I mean “teaching people to write” in a very different sense. For example, I’m thinking of the people who only write when they absolutely have to because, for them, it’s a painful chore that never seems to turn out right. Or of the people who take a writing class in school because they’re required to, and just cannot seem to meet the teacher’s expectations. Or perhaps the people who think they aren’t very good writers, even if they’re actually adequate, and would like to become better writers. Or those who feel they are pretty competent, but want to excel.

These are the kinds of people with whom I’ve been in regular contact for the twenty-two years of my career as a teacher of writing. They’re the kinds of people who’ve enrolled in my classes expecting something from me that I’m not sure I’m delivering—and that I have begun more and more to wonder if anyone can truly deliver. Recently I’ve been confessing to friends and colleagues that I don’t think I have ever taught anyone to write.

Oh, students do learn things in my courses. In my argument classes, they learn about ethos, pathos, and logos, and some of them even learn the steps of definition, evaluation, causal analysis, and analogy. In my research classes, they learn how to use my university’s databases to find articles on topics they plan to write about, and they learn what APA and MLA are (and sometimes how to use them). I can get most of them to tell readers in paragraph one why it’s worth fifteen minutes to read the paper (and sometimes the promises they make are kept). In creative writing classes, I can generally persuade them of the importance of conflict in fiction and imagery in poetry, and can actually inspire fresh efforts at producing these essentials. I can certainly say that many, many students achieved writing successes they never would have attempted had I not been goading them.

Just possibly these kinds of things are what “teaching writing” ought to consist of. In part, that’s what I am beginning this project to find out.

Because for me, so far, there’s been one inescapable truth: students who come in as strong writers leave as strong writers. Maybe they’ve tried something new or developed something that was already on the way, but I don’t teach them the skills that make these successes possible. They bring those with them. Conversely, students who come into my classes with weak writing skills usually leave pretty close to where they’ve started. Again, maybe they’ve tried something new, had an experience they wouldn’t have had without me, but all too often those experiences fall short of what they (or I) would call a success.

It’s not my aim in this blog to solicit advice on teaching, on ways I could probably succeed if I just tried X or Y. This blog is part of a larger project in which I hope to learn more than I know now about the ways students and writing teachers interact: how their ideas and expectations about writing differ, for example. And what is known across a wide range of fields about how people actually learn to write. In my graduate work in two very good programs, I learned a lot about what compositionists (members of the professional field of teaching college writing) think writing well means and how it should be taught. But I’m not convinced that this body of knowledge is enough. What I hope this blog will add to what my profession has taught me is more knowledge of how others experience the process of learning to write, or of learning to be better writers.

That’s a basic introduction as to what I’m hoping for. I’ll be asking a series of questions and reporting on my learning, and I hope that readers will respond in ways that open up more questions.

Of course, I recognize that there may be reasons why I’m not seeing magical results. In my next post, I’ll talk about my own theories a little, and invite you to share yours.

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