How Writing Should Be Taught

pencil

The way writing is taught is, by and large, terrible.

Starting at an early age, English teachers encourage students to think of writing as an unbearable chore, a hellish task, and something that only the rarefied few will ever excel at. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I loved writing as a kid, and love it still, but it was in spite of my writing teachers, not because of them. They did their damnedest to make writing a miserable experience. Frequently a first draft writing assignment would come back to me marked up with red ink, with harsh comments in the columns. This is not the way to teach a creative process.

Often the way writing is graded by teachers puts too much focus on the mechanics. I know why teachers do this. It is a fact that poor mechanics in writing will make other people think you are stupid. A single typo on a resume could mean you don’t get invited for an interview. People love finding ways to elevate themselves above others, and the English language is an absolute minefield of opportunities for error – homophones, silent letters, foreign spellings, irregular plural markers. And often in modern society your first impression on another person is through your writing. An error in mechanics can have an outsize impact.

But writing is not mechanics. Writing is not spelling and grammar and handwriting. Those are the tools we use to produce writing, just as paintbrushes, paint and brush strokes are the tools a painter uses to create art. But the writing itself is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Writing can be many things. Analysis. Explanation. Persuasion. Expression. Good writing has a voice that is unique to the writer, and ideas combined in new ways. The raw material of writing is drawn from experience, and the practice of writing improves the result. This is a creative endeavor, and it should be taught as such.

If art teachers taught painting the way English teachers teach writing, no one would enjoy art. And in fact, some art teachers do teach art badly, and the result is a lot of people giving up on something they enjoy, because they think they can’t “hack it” as artists. Shame on those teachers.

Imagine if you were trying to learn to paint, and every time the art teacher came around to look at your work they said things like “your lines aren’t straight enough” or “these proportions are all wrong”. How long would you last under that treatment?

And yet so many people think this is the way to teach writing. The vast majority of my writing teachers felt it was appropriate to laser in on every error, prejudge my work before talking to me, and to deconstruct what I wrote rather than to engage with it holistically. Very few of them ever asked questions like “what were you trying to do with this section?” – and of the few who did, I LOVED those teachers.

edited paper

By way of contrast, let me describe the methods of my favorite art teacher.

First, she made us comfortable. She made tea. Sometimes there were crackers or little cookies to nibble on. We talked about our week, and how we were feeling that day. Sometimes a student was tired or just “not feeling it today” and would abstain from painting. Instead, they would watch the rest of the class and provide encouragement. This had the double benefit of giving them a break (you can’t force art) and making the process feel more like a team effort.

Next, she helped us find ideas. You can’t just sit down to paint. You need to have something in mind that you want to work on. Often, this is the hardest part of the creative process – just getting started. Sometimes she would bring a curious object. “I found this wierd lamp at a yard sale!” she would say, holding up some ugly glass thing. “Anyone want to paint it?” Often, she took us outside, where the light and subjects were always changing, and inspiration was much easier to find. If we brought our own ideas to work on, she encouraged that heartily.

She engaged with our art on its own merits, not based on what she wanted us to produce. Once we were sitting in the alley, painting a scene of the fence and trees in her back yard. She came to look at what I was working on, and asked me “tell me about your piece.” This gave me the opportunity to describe what I had picked and why. “I liked the way the light was coming through the tree and breaking up on the fence. See? I’m painting the speckles.” She nodded. “That’s great!” she would say with real enthusiasm. She meant the idea, not the painting – she was encouraging the process, not the mechanics. She did not say things like “your fence lines are all wavy” or “this shading is all wrong.” She might, however, after asking several questions about the choices I had made and the techniques I had chosen to employ, offer some advice about technique. “You’re spending a lot of time in this corner of the paper. See if you can fill the whole sheet.” This had the effect of stretching me, encouraging me to build on what I had already achieved. It buoyed me, and made me want to work harder. If she had criticized my fence lines, do you think I would have felt buoyed? I don’t think so.

alley with fence

The way writing is taught can be this way. It SHOULD be this way.

Writing is a creative process, and writers get better with practice. Too much focus on mechanics, like spelling and handwriting, gets in the way and discourages people from the real meat and potatoes of writing – the analysis, the expression. Does a 9th grade English teacher really think they are going to improve on a student’s handwriting at that point? Are they really going to succeed where the 3rd grade teacher, who spent considerably more effort, has failed? If a person has bad hand-writing by the 9th grade, they probably always will. Give that student a computer and never look back. And as far as spelling goes, that is something that improves the more a person READS. Correcting spelling is important, but it should happen at the end of the editing process, never near the beginning of the writing process. And this is where a computer can shine, too. Students should be taught not to trust spell check or auto-correct completely, but to use them as tools to help find errors, which are difficult to see even for the most experienced of writers.

Writing, a skill so needed to be successful in our modern society, must be taught in such a way that it does not terrify or shame the student. Here is a hypothetical way that a writing teacher could adapt the methods of my favorite art teacher, and in fact, a poetry teacher of mine did many of these exact things.

First, encourage students to WANT to write. By 6th grade, many of my classmates had come to view writing as some form of punishment. Perhaps if they had been invited to write about something that was of interest to them, they would have been more inclined. For example: you like model planes? Here is a book about it. Write me a page about anything you loved in here. That sort of method works for some people. For others, writing seems like a boring, pointless pursuit. Appeal to them on practical grounds. Don’t like the way the city runs the parks? Write them a letter. Don’t like the way the movie theater overcharges for popcorn? Write a complaint. Write a review. Want to get a scholarship? Write an essay. For people who don’t enjoy the expressive or explanatory aspects of writing, it’s important to show them its practical value as a tool for getting what they want in life.

Second, encourage an environment where writing can happen at all. Asking a class to sit down together – with people they perhaps don’t like, in uncomfortable wooden chairs, with fluorescent lights overhead, in a drafty room, probably on an empty stomach, tired from staying up too late watching TV – to write an essay about the use of symbolism in Catcher in the Rye, is just too damn much. The hand writing is bad, and they know it, but they can’t help it. Their spelling is wrong, and they know it. They never much liked Sallinger anyway – they prefer Star Trek/My Little Pony cross-over fanfic. They can’t think of anything to write. Their mind is wandering. They scribble something down. They turn it in. They get it back the next day, covered in red ink. Missing paragraph breaks. Poor transitions. Lacks a conclusion or thesis. They got the dates wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, all wrong. This is not a situation that’s conducive to writing.

Here is what my poetry teacher did. He asked us how we were feeling. We chatted, we laughed, together as a group. He took us outside, had us walk around, and talk to each other about what we were seeing, smelling, feeling. He gave us good writing to read, and we talked about it, as a group, bouncing ideas off each other and making new connections. Then, and only then, he had us write.

Third, always engage with the writer first, not the writing. Ask questions. “Tell me what you were trying to do” is a good place to start. Writing is just thinking, written down in a linear fashion. Our brains don’t really think the same way that writing works, and this translation is harder than most people appreciate. A good teacher will ask the student to think about what they were trying to accomplish, and then help them assess whether or not they achieved that.

Fourth, encourage the writer’s voice. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher told me a phrase I used was “too informal” or used “inappropriate tone” I could buy a sandwich. Fortunately, I had some well of “fuck you” to draw on that saw me through those frustrating situations. I often argued with my teachers. I would say “that is my voice and if you don’t like it, too bad.” Later in life I have looked at these writing samples and agreed with my teacher’s comments, but that is NOT the point. By commenting on my voice, they were telling me what my voice should be, and that is wrong. If my art teacher had said my painting in the alley was “too cheerful” she would have been just as wrong. Perhaps my tone was inappropriate to what I was trying to achieve with my piece, but did these teachers ask what my intent was and engage me that way? No. They assumed and dictated, and in doing so, they were inadvertently crushing my unique voice and risking damaging my desire to write at all.

Finally, the last thing a teacher should do is to critique mechanics. Mechanics do need to be taught. Good writing does need to be readable. But there is a reason that professional writers write first and edit later. Writing and editing are two completely different processes.

My art teacher gave suggestions, but they were not commands. If I chose to ignore her and press forward, she never said another word unless I asked for help. Once, when I expressed frustration with a piece – and crucially, was in a place where I wanted to hear advice – she suggested that my painting looked overworked. That I needed to learn to recognize when it was done and to stop, to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer. In this way, she gave me an idea for future pieces, but was not overly critical of the one I had just produced. I took this feedback graciously and have carried it with me ever since.

girl writing at chalkboard

And so, in conclusion (look at me! I have a conclusion!) I learned more about writing from an art teacher I met with a few times for fun on Saturday mornings, than I did from countless hours spent with English teachers and their red pens. Writing is an art form, and a crucial skill for success as an adult. Everyone can learn to do it well, but only if they practice. And people will only practice if they enjoy it at least a little bit.

Writing can be a powerful expressive skill. Teachers, please: don’t kill that spark.

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