Can writing be taught? Definitely! You might have heard people say that writing can’t be taught. I’m here to tell you, categorically, that is total and utter rubbish. It’s a myth. EVEN people who say it can’t be taught still teach it.
A related myth: ‘real’ writers spend all their time writing and don’t have time or the inclination to tell people about how it works. Firstly, there’s no such thing as a ‘real’ writer. Secondly, almost no-one writes all the time. Every writer has other stuff in their lives. Thirdly, even famous or ‘headline’ writers who said (or still say) they didn’t want to tell people about how writing works, STILL talked about how writing works (Hemingway, for instance).
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Look at all these twentieth and twenty-first century writers who have written about writing:
On Writers and Writing by Margaret Atwood. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
Andrew Cowan’s The Art of Writing Fiction. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
The Art of the Novel by Henry James. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
Things I don’t want to know by Deborah Levy. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
Why We Write : 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
Why I Write by George Orwell. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
The New York Times Writers on Writing collections. For instance: Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
The Washington Post Book World collection called The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work. Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk
Even this quick list of books is absolutely stuffed full of good advice.
Countless writers teach on Creative Writing courses around the world, including headline writers. Even writers who have gone on record (or been misquoted!) saying they don’t think writing can be taught teach on Creative Writing Courses. So, to put that another way, even writers who say they don’t think writing can be taught, think writing can be taught.
The difficulty with learning to write is that there is so much out there claiming to be able to teach you to write. How do you find your way through all of the stuff out there – all the writing books and courses – to find the stuff that really works? This is the real problem and the real question you should be asking, not can writing be taught?
How do you find your way through all of the stuff out there – all the writing books and courses – to find what really works?
The first answer to that question is: stop looking ‘out there’ for information on how to write, at least for a while. After all, all you need is a notebook, a pen, fifteen minutes to focus on your writing, a space to write in, even if it’s in a temporary one.
Try writing without stopping, without reading back what you’ve just written, without editing. Keep going for one minute, then increase that to five minutes. You can write lists. You don’t have to make sense. The only rule is: keep going. This is called ‘freewriting’. Peter Elbow talks about it in his book Writing with Power. Take your notebook out to the beach, to cafes, to interesting places, and spend fifteen minutes at a time on freewriting. Do five minute bursts if you like. You can also use a starting word, such as ‘sea’ or ‘traffic’ or ‘window’ – or start by writing what you can see (or smell).
The second answer to that question is: find someone who’s done it before to curate or filter all that stuff out there and recommend resources to you. Do this until you get to the point where you know what you like and what works for you.
You’re after a writer who is more experienced that you, at least in the area you’re writing in, who can share resources, and tell you what’s worked for them. It’s a bit like being a detective and following clues – check out a few resources, follow up the resources they recommend, until you find out what works for you.
Here are some resources I often recommend:
Open University Creative Writing short writing courses. There are several. You can do this one for free!
If you’re in the UK, London’s Poetry Library website.
Or the Scottish Poetry Library website.
More soon. Keep writing x
P.S. This blog post by the poet Tim Clare is one of the best articles out there on the question of whether writing can be taught.
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