Who Teaches Writing?

Who teaches writing?

Lots of people.

These days, search online for “writing” or “learning to write” or any combination with the word “writing” in it, and you’ll get so many hits you’d never write another word yourself if you tried to read them all. I guess I’m one of those posters, though not here so much as another blog, Just Can’t Help Writing (which tends to get hits where this one does not). I guess I’m among those who thinks that what I have to say about writing might be worth five minutes of somebody’s time.

Online, I’ve noticed, advice comes in two basic flavors. First, get the grammar right–that is, get the Standard English Conventions right:  know where to use an apostrophe or whether you can start a sentence with “but.” After all, for students of language, such as linguists, “grammar” means not correct punctuation or choice of “that” or “which,” but how parts of sentences fit together, how words fit into sentences, what unwritten rules we all follow when we communicate verbally with each other. Even pidgins, the concocted seeming gibberish that people who can’t understand each other’s tongues use to barter when cultures intersect, have grammar. It’s how you know to say “I ate breakfast with my father” rather than “I father breakfast my with ate.” As native speakers, we imbibe this grammar as naturally as we breathe. It’s part of our environments from the day we first hear human voices, perhaps even in the womb. It’s not that we don’t need “correctness” mavens who tell us whether we can start sentences with “but.” But they serve a limited purpose. They certainly don’t tell us how to write.

The other common online teachers are the ones who tell us how to live our dreams of sharing our innermost genius with the rest of the world. There’s an evangelical quality to much of this instruction. Writing opens the soul. Pouring ourselves out to others fulfills us, makes us and our worlds aware of how special we are. Everyone wants to know what we have to say, once we find the inner truth that lets us say it. It’s just a matter of writing honestly, finding an authentic voice. Believing in ourselves and the value of our experiences to the world.

Many of these teachers have meaningful things to say about the writing experience. Much of what they say is alike because it is, in large part, true. You do have to believe in your voice to be able to risk putting it out there. I’ll grant that. I’ve also just recently read an article, I think in the New York Times, that talking about ourselves, sharing our views and thoughts, gives us a dopamine rush–that is, it stokes our physical pleasure centers. Ah, ha! So that’s why we blog!!

But the problem with this kind of teaching is that nobody can tell you how to do it or whether you’ve succeeded. How can anyone know whether what you’ve written is REALLY the REAL YOU that can gift the world with your inner vision? What if your authentic self is actually just an amalgam of a lot of other people’s views and voices, spilling out like a whole bunch of foreign coins you’ve piled into a sock on your life’s travels?

There are a lot of people who make a lot of money telling you how to punctuate and how to let loose your inner genius. There are other teachers, though, who barely make any money telling you others things. It’s about these teachers I want to write.

Helping 2

Many teachers I know feel that students want most to be told what to do. “How do I fix it?” “What should I say?” The literature on teaching anything tells us that at some point, people learn best when they work through problems on their own. But there’s some optimal level of help that positions a person to set off in the right direction rather than flounder around in circles. Finding the optimal level is one of the hardest things for me.

In my own case, the worst editor I had was the one who said, “There’s something wrong. Go fix it.” Unfortunately this was a really important editor, and our lack of communication slammed my fiction-writing career into a concrete wall. The best editor wrote comments like, “There’s an awful lot of sitting around in hotel rooms, brooding, in this book. We need to open it up and get Chris out and acting.” I felt that comments like that gave me a clear sense of how the editor was reacting and something specific to work on. Was he too directive? I’ve never thought so. (He did also tell me things like “Fix ‘babbling’ on page 85”; he hated that verb in that context and he was right.)

I try to say things like, “Here are the questions your paper raises for me,” or, “Here’s where I got confused and why,” or, “What are the counterarguments and objections to your position?” or simply, “I don’t understand this sentence. Did you mean X? If not, can you explain better?” For weaker students, though, I’ve tried “helping” more aggressively. Last term I sat down with a graphic organizer and had the writer fill in boxes with the points she wanted to make. It didn’t change her paper at all, and she’s someone I know was trying.

So today’s question is: given that you often have to write a particular kind of paper or piece (you can’t give your boss a poem), when do teachers, editors, colleagues, cross the line in “helping”? When does “helping” unravel into taking over a paper or project? But then again, when are comments too vague to be useful? When was a time you couldn’t figure out what a reader who was trying to help you meant?

“OH, NO!”

As I reread this post, prepared a while back, I realize how much it is geared toward college writing. Yet I suspect that many people who would be interested in this topic are people who either are taking, have taken, or are thinking about taking a writing course in college. Most colleges require some sort of writing course, and it’s often a “gatekeeper” course: if you can’t pass it, you can’t enroll in other courses, at least not for long. And since teaching people to write, which has been such a challenge for me, usually involves teaching them in a college setting, this post is rightly addressed to those people, but also to people who’ve participated in writers’ groups and who have had what I call the “Oh, no!” experience there. I hypothesize that anyone facing a college writing course is interested in, if not terrified by, the prospect of being judged as a writer–as we must do when we give grades. So maybe how I feel about those “Oh, nos!” will be useful information, both for people struggling with college and for those for whom feedback can feel like a blow. So here goes.

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