Strangely enough, I did not take any writing courses in college. Neither my B.A. in English nor my M.Ed. in English required me to take even a single writing course. There was a writing course requirement for all incoming students at the college (of arts and sciences) within the larger university that I attended; but I passed out of it.
True, I took many, many university courses in English literature, all of which required essay writing. Professors commented on my essays and assigned them grades. But I took no university class that attempted to systematically teach students how to write.
As it turns out, I am not the only professional writer who did not take a single writing class in college. I hear tell of others on occasion. Just this week, I read an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn, editor-at-large of the New York Review of Books, author of many books and articles, and expert in literary criticism. (I found this interview in the most recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine.) Here is what Mendelsohn is quoted as saying:
“I myself never studied writing; I just read a lot. You start by imitating the people you like, and soon you develop your own voice.”
It’s true that reading a lot, imitating what you read, and developing your own voice are all key components of learning how to write. I certainly followed this path. But I find myself dissenting, in a slight way, when Mendelsohn claims the following:
“I don’t think any kind of writing can be ‘taught.’ Either you’re a writer or you’re not, and it doesn’t matter what kind of writing we’re talking about—fiction, criticism, whatever. I do think that people who are gifted can be helped along, their craft refined and improved, by good teachers.”
In one sense, I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment: it’s true that some people are born with a gift for writing, while other people are born with other gifts. And I agree that those born with a gift for writing can be helped along. But I find myself dissenting with Mendelsohn’s definition of teach, as well as the implication that people not born with any particular gift for writing cannot also be helped along the writing path by good teachers.
This opinion of mine surely arises from my background as a high school English teacher. The belief that sustained and inspired me during my four years in the classroom was that reading and writing can be taught—and be taught to students of all ability levels. And I found, after recovering from some major pitfalls during my first year, that my belief is substantially true.
But being a high school English teacher was challenging. It was challenging in many ways, obviously, but one of those many ways is that teaching English language arts is more loosey-goosey than teaching other subjects. English language arts and mathematics are the two main core subject areas; all of the other academic subjects build upon English language arts and mathematical skills. But these two subjects are vastly different. In math, logic and formulas rule. In English, emotions count as much as logic. And while there are formulas in English, they are looser, and they can be broken. The formulas are more like tips and tricks.
But these tips and tricks work. And they can be taught.
Of course, when Mendelsohn says that writing cannot be taught, he is not referring to the teaching of tips and tricks. He’s referring to the creation of an art form, to the advanced, invisible workings of mind that go into crafting a masterful text.
But I would argue that if that is the definition of teaching, nothing at all can be taught. You cannot teach anyone to swim, to be a scientist, to pilot an airplane, to fully understand Algebra, to create a masterful painting: the novice ultimately has to learn the skills of a discipline on their own, through study and practice. But while you can’t implant expertise into someone’s brain, you can offer them an increasingly more advanced sequence of tips and tricks. And you can monitor their efforts and guide them on a path toward greater proficiency. This is what good teachers and coaches do.
And so, there are tips and tricks that can help people learn how to write well. Where did I learn them, if not while pursuing my undergraduate and graduate degrees? I’ll explain in my next blog post.
Did you learn professional, job-related skills through taking college classes? Through personal study and practice? Through another source? Through a combination of several ways?