Can Writing Be Taught?

I posed this question at the end of another post and said I’d write about it some other time. So here I am.

This is one of those questions that people sometimes get worked up about. It’s also a question for which I’m not sure we’ll ever have a definitive answer. I mean, unless some scientists do a study? But how do you control for . . .? Well, anyway, FWIW this is my opinion: Not entirely.

What I mean is, I do think the technicalities of writing can be taught. Grammar. Punctuation. How to construct a sentence, a paragraph. All the stuff we did, in fact, learn in school.

But I don’t think good storytelling can necessarily be taught. Guidelines can be given—there is an industry of books on writing, how to do it. But if a person read only those books and never read an actual novel? I don’t think they’d be able to blindly write anything worth reading based only on the advice of how-to books.

I think good writing is absorbed. Learned by reading. Which might be a way of teaching, but it’s indirect. A novel doesn’t set out to teach someone how to write. A novel’s goal is to rope a reader in. The teaching is a byproduct.

When I was getting my screenwriting degree, we had classes on how to write screenplays. There is a definite format for it and all, but what every instructor said was: “Go read some screenplays. That’s the best way to learn how to write one.” Because after you read enough of them, you get a sense of the rhythm, how they work.

The same is true of novels, poetry. Any writing. And you’ll hear it given as advice, too: “If you want to write, read.”

So while I think that the technical stuff can be taught, I think good writing is sort of inherited. People who love to read eventually soak up the tools they need to write if they so choose. You can show me Save the Cat or whatever and tell me that on page 25 of my script this, that, and the other, but while the guidelines are fair, I think a person who uses only guidelines will produce a sterile script or manuscript. They must have a feeling for stories, and that’s something one gets from having lived in them oneself.

You’ll notice I didn’t say good writing is a natural talent. Because I don’t think it’s a talent so much as an inclination. I grew up in a house full of books. Both my parents are avid readers. My grandfather was a poet and storyteller himself. So maybe there are genetics involved, but it’s just as likely I learned by example. And there are so many children who fall in love with books whose families are not readers. But these kids grow up reading, reading, reading, and then some of them begin writing, writing, writing. And we’re quick to say, “He’s a natural!” But I do think anyone can develop a talent for writing—if only they first develop a habit of reading.

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