Can good writing be truly taught? And could it underpin basic academic achievement?
The Atlantic recently delved into a new program that has shown very promising results at a troubled school:
And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”
Ted Cross says
I think rules can help a lot and certain get someone to a level of competency…and some readers will even call it good. I still feel that the most brilliant writing will come from innate talent combined with hard work.
I know that this is the premise behind Mona Brooks's art books…anyone can draw nicely if taught how to. Now, becoming a Michelangelo is up to the basic talent and drive of the artist, yes? I think it's the same for fiction (and non-fiction, for that matter). THere are basic things in common about good books, and these things can be taught, so anyone could write a nice story. Becoming a Hemingway is up to the writer.
As a homeschool mom, I agree with the idea that those successful in school are excellent writers. Having to write FORCES the student to rub brain cells together, rather than just memorize and regurgitate info (though there are spots for that, too). The girl in the story needed to be trained to say "why" once she had her basic premise. And I'm sure she was. She may not have become a famous historian, but she would have been LEARNING, rubbing brain cells together.
Steve Shea says
I think the point of the article, and my own purpose when I did something much smaller and less well organized in a similar setting, was to use structured nonfiction writing to get the students to develop general academic skills, whereas structured fiction writing would not have a clear correlate.
Josin L. McQuein says
You can be as creative as you like, but if there's no foundation to hold your creation up, it won't do you any good.
"Learning to write" in the sense of what we're taught in school allows you to build the foundations for the story, and it familiarizes the writer with the tools of his/her trade in the same way that a sculptor has to learn when to use a chainsaw, a chisel or sandpaper.
What you choose to do with that knowledge will determine how well you're able to adequately express your creativity.
Lauren B. says
Yeah, there was definitely a point in college when the professors demanded that our writing evolve, which required basically unlearning everything from the high school 5-paragraph-essay/write-to-the-rubric/AP-level timed writing foo.
Which is not to say that that foundation wasn't important. But it's not enough to elevate you beyond competence, and I don't think it really translates to learning narrative structure. It certainly doesn't help you learn voice.
Lauren Monahan says
It's funny to see this article here as it's been passed around my teaching circles, too. My goal in teaching high school English has definitely evolved to formally teach writing technique, and I think it's advantageous in creative writing pursuits as well. But I don't think that technique and formula are in any way synonymous, as seems to be the concensus here. Technique emphasizes the tools used, what effect each tool creates, and the standard way the tools are used. Formula is far more simplistic. It can be effective in younger kids, but can keep writing from evolving if the training wheels of formula are kept on for too long.
Molly Goossens says
If you think this doesn't apply to fiction, then you have been misled to believe that fiction is only about telling what happens in made-up stories.
So, reading this article, I was alittle stunned to find that writing techniques are no longer routinely taught in schools. I had no idea! Not knowing writing skills will really hamper kids in their future. They would be locked into manual labor. That's fine if that's a job they want, but what if it isn't? How can any kid work any desk job at all without basic writing skills?
On a larger level, what is happening in public schools makes me really nervous. This is the type of thing that can trap people into the lower classes. The whole point of having a public school system is to avoid that type of forced class separation.
Back to the question you posed, Nathan, as to whether you can teach someone to write fiction, I would love that, but I doubt it. I can't write fiction. I just can't think of a story. I go okay, what happened next?, and my mind is a complete blank. But I'm very capable of learning writing rules, and if anyone figures out a way I can learn to write a story, let me know. I want to write a blockbuster novel and make millions. Then, I'll spend those millions improving our terrible public school system!
When I hear that someone is having trouble writing, the first thing I ask is: how much are they reading?
My second thought is: A piece of writing that meets all the criteria on a checklist is not necessarily a good piece of writing. I still can't tell from the article whether the students are actually writing better; all I know is that they're getting higher scores on exams. Seeing the test-craziness that has taken over our schools, I am unimpressed by exam scores, and doubt their significance. So color me skeptical.
My third thought is that of course I think guidelines and a writer's toolbox are helpful. They're not The Answer, though. No single thing is ever The Answer.
Julie Luek says
I spent 22 years in higher education working with students on study skills. Without solid, basic reading and writing skills coupled with critical thinking ability (which evolves throughout their college career), they were in for four years of frustration. It is essential for academic success.
But ask Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinkos Copy Center and author of "Copy This: Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic Who Turned a Bright Idea into One of America's Best Companies" and he might have an entirely different opinion on the importance we writers place on excellent technique. He never could master reading or writing.
Kristin Laughtin says
Yes. I work in academia/librarianship (and did a Master's degree, where I had to read lots of my fellow students' work), and a basic foundational understanding of the rules of writing is essential for conveying ideas, forming arguments, making meaning, and telling stories, whether they are fictional or not. Learning writing rules also helps build comprehension skills, making people better at interpreting and understanding what they read.
When it comes to fiction, I'm a big believer in needing to know the rules in order to break them well. In my experience, there's a notable difference in the writing of an amateur with no clue what to do and someone who purposely bucks convention. One is rambling and nonsensical; the other is coherent, no matter how many rules the prose breaks.
Susan Tuttle says
Creativity without structre is chaos. Structure is what spurs us on to assemble and organize our creative endeavors in positive directions, so that they impart true meaning to those who behold them.
My son once went to a "gifted" school that had no rules of any kind, not even "no running on the stairs," or "no shoving other kids." Their philosophy? The kids were "gifted" enough to figure out the basics themselves. Which was not true. The school kept spiraling down into chaos. I pulled him out after a year durning which his grades and behavior kept falling.
I put him in a regualr school that was strong on the "basics" – i.e., those things that were not "creative" but which formed the foundation for creativity. His behavior and grades shot through the roof, simply because he did not have to expend energy figuring out what was acceptable and what was not. He was free to be as creative as he wanted to be – within a clearly outlined strcture.
I'm appalled that schools no longer think the basics are worth teaching. How will kids get and keep jobs when they graduate if they cannot communicate properly? How can writers produce literature worth reading if there is no underlying structure to support their words? Digital world or not, we all still have to communicate, and if we can't put coherent sentences together we can't live together in peace, porsperity and mututal cooperation. Or share our experiences and world views with each other.
Creativity without structure is like a bridge without a support system. Lovely to look at, but I wouldn't want to cross it. Would you?
I teach creative writing at community college level and I am seeing more and more kids coming out of high school not understanding where to put a full stop, and these are kids who want to write!
You can have all the brilliant ideas in the world, and make up amazing stories, but if you can't use grammar and punctuation properly, your readers will give up on you (and so will editors and agents). So yes, I think writers do need to know this stuff for whatever they write.
D.G. Hudson says
Academia can plant the seeds and encourage the writer to grow, but it takes the writer's creativity to put all the novel elements into a coherent story.
Imagination is required.
Bryan Russell says
The writing tools and structures are what allow you to shape creativity into a work of art. It sure don't happen with a lot of wishful thinking.
I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher my first year in college who taught EN101 and she believed in a school of thought that said writing can be taught to anyone.
And I agree with her. But you can't teach creativity to everyone. That has to be innate.
I also think this is why there are so many books with good stories but not great writing. And I have come to believe most readers care more about good stories than good writing.
Whoops. I just realized I answered the wrong question. If I had a penny for how many times I've done that on your blog, Nathan. 🙂
And yes, I read the post twice, and read the link twice, and still got it wrong.
My answer to the question of: " Are there rules and structures that can be as important as sheer creativity?"
There are some basic rules that relate to the culture, in terms of how a story will be acceptable to your audience, for example, having a beginning and end, a story arc, etc. And there are some basic rules that underlie communication, like spelling, basic grammar, etc.
And I agree with Kristin that all rules can be broken effectively, but you have to know the rules first.
Hope I got the question right this time.
Absolutely. One way to understand this is to look at movies. How many times have we seen a movie where we walked away and said, "Wow, that was a cool concept, but they just didn't execute it well?" Fiction is exactly the same way. Yes, inherent talent is a key, but it's not the only one. Many people have great ideas but just can't convey them in a way that compels readers. Arguably, this is somewhat subjective (as is all writing and the judgment of that writing.) But if you break it down to its most basic level, if a person can not construct a simple sentence — Subject Verb Object — then it doesn't matter what brilliant ideas that person has. He or she will not succeed in the long run in writing fiction. And the foundation of writing extends from that S-V-O idea.
Shelley Souza says
Teaching children how to write essays and analyse their ideas on paper is not a new or revolutionary idea. It used to be the standard way children in England were taught to write well. Written exams from eleven years on were given as questions that required an essay answer that contained a thesis, an argument, a summation, and a conclusion. There were no multiple question tests that required No.2 pencils to black out blank dots. I had a very hard time with GREs when I went to graduate school here because my mind is not trained to answer multiple choice questions in examinations: it's trained to present a thought-out argument in an essay format.
Kristin, Susan, and Sherryl all had great points about solid writing being the underpinning of good fiction. The Atlantic article primarily focused on the idea that learning how to use different sentence structures dramatically helped the kids express ideas. As a former English teacher in a pretty rough neighborhood, I saw this in action with my 7th graders. They did very well with structure and learned solid 5-paragraph essay structure quite well; however, when we tried to approach unstructured thinking (or unstructured anything), chaos ensued. Learning to write well (which can absolutely be taught) gives these kids the ability to get their thoughts onto paper. What can't always be taught is the persistence it takes to become a great author and keep writing even when it gets hard.
Every test in my first semester calculus class in college had an essay question on it. I was an English major, so I thought this was brilliant, but not everyone did. Still, I was surprised by the article in the Atlantic which indicated that the New Dorp H. S. omitted math classes from requiring writing. The point is to learn to express your thoughts coherently and effectively. If you don't have the tools to do that, no amount of creativity will be enough. You wouldn't try to build a house without a hammer and some nails.
I have a highly creative daughter with severe dyslexia. I disagree with the premise that the ability to write well is necessary to learning. Certainly writing fundamentals should be taught to all children, but when I finally took her out of a regular school and put her in an arts focused charter school she started getting A's in grade level science and C's in grade level history in spite of lagging two years behind in reading and writing skills. She was learning the material all along, but couldn't produce the level of written work expected by the regular teachers. In the art focused school she is able to demonstrate her understanding of learned concepts through the creation of posters, demonstrate her understanding of advanced vocabulary by acting out the meanings of words, and acquire new information through tactile, music, and activity based teaching. She spends half of each day in focused writing and math instruction with an rsp teacher, but is able to be successful in a regular class environment for other subjects because the school acknowledges that learning other subjects does NOT require writing. She has a long way to go if she wants a career in those subjects because that would require more writing ability than she has. But it's important for her to know she can learn anything she wants to know in spite of her disability. And she can express what she knows in other ways than with written essays. We can change the way we teach writing to do it better, but we can also change the way we teach other subjects because expecting one sort of complicated product to result from understand a subject, shuts down learning for many kids who are more interested and capable in science, math, history, civics, etc. than they can prove by their writing.
Duncan Faber says
I teach creative writing to kids, and I stumbled on a really effective trick. Let them listen to audiobooks. There's something about hearing the stories read aloud that engages the kids differently. It almost becomes theater to them. Then they try to emulate that. There's lots of sites where you can download audiobooks for kids, but I use this one a lot because their stories are free, and also original. So much better than letting them hear stories they've already heard a million times. Here's the link, if anyone is interested. https://www.twirlygirlshop.com/moral-stories-for-kids