September 27th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Craft Notes

Teaching Writing One Skill at a Time


The first principle of a creative writing class should be: you cannot teach everything in one semester, yet the workshop teaching method is based on the mistaken idea that you can.

 Much of the research into how people learn suggests that we improve fastest when we can focus on one skill at a time, like a violinist working on one piece of a solo over and over. Students learn quickest when they are offered challenges suitable for their skill level, receive feedback on their performance, and then repeat the task, incorporating the teacher’s advice. These challenges should be both very specific and easily repeatable, like having a golfing coach adjust your stance after every swing. It is harder to improve only by playing many rounds of golf, because the feedback is too varied, too enormous.

This “one skill at a time” principle appears everywhere in the best books on the craft of writing. Art Matters, Robert Paul Lamb’s study of Hemingway’s short stories, shows how the young Hemingway used the writing of every vignette and story to build up his grasp of point of view, symbolism, dialogue; how he sought advice from Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein and others, and how he pushed himself to achieve new effects in every novel, until problems outside of his writing overwhelmed him. In A New Rhetoric, Francis and Bonniejean Christensen guide readers to try out one kind of cumulative sentence after another, going from simple exercises to more difficult, showing how Katherine Anne Porter used a cumulative sentence to describe a hand, how Ellison used one to describe a smile. In the textbook What If? Painter and Bernays begin with the simplest things—”Write an intriguing first sentence. Write ten of them. Now write a second sentence that sends the story in a new direction. Write ten of those.” This approach, the repeated practice of the fundamentals, accumulating skills through sequenced tasks, is how people learn to play the flute, paint with oils, aim a rifle, or speak Chinese.

This is not how we teach creative writing in our classrooms. Generally, we offer a group of students a workshop, in which they submit completed works, and we facilitate a collective critique of those pieces. In many workshops, anything in the genre can be submitted—in a fiction class, students can hand in novel chapters, short stories, dream rambles, flashes. Any aspect of a submission is open to critique, from its use of first person to the believability of the protagonist’s poodle. For aspiring writers, this process can be extremely valuable. They learn how a group of readers reacts to their work, and how to judge other people’s efforts. They learn how hard writing can be but they do not really learn, during the workshop process, the specifics of how to improve their writing. There is just too much feedback, on too many topics. There are too many things at work in each submission.

Good teachers, of course, try to overcome this problem. They use their closing comments to speak about general craft concerns, and they encourage students to focus re-writes in a particular direction. However, in a single fiction workshop, where two or three students will be critiqued, a teacher may have to advise on plotting, point of view, the minds of children, scene transitions, narrative voice, the wisdom of spelling out dialects, the avoidance of cliche, the portrayal of women, the skillful use of dreams—and no one, not even a pedagogical genius, can explain all of these craft skills in the limited time workshops allow. A good teacher may have time to refer to those craft ideas, but will never have enough time to teach them.

In an isolated or introductory writing class, this lack of focus may not matter. After all, we teachers have many other responsibilities—we try to broaden students’ reading, we try to give them space to voice their thoughts about their art, we try to offer them a model of an older person dedicating herself to writing, whose very life is built around words. These are very admirable goals. In a sustained writing program, whether for advanced undergraduates or in an MFA, this “lack of focus” problem grows with every class the students take. They may enjoy each workshop, but at the end of each semester, they wonder—what do I do now? And in every semester that follows, they receive the same deluge of advice, along with the same challenge: “write us a good story.” Frequently, when students bring in their bigger projects—poetry collections, novels, memoirs— this lack of focus becomes overwhelming. I have seen talented fiction writers never get past the second chapter of their novel, constantly rewriting chapter one, never sure quite what they should work towards, only to hear a classmate say he preferred the narrator’s mother the way she was before.

Each class in a creative writing program, above the introductory level, should only teach one main skill—say, for instance, “prose style,” or “the fundamentals of plot.” Reading assignments should be selected for the purpose of illustrating that skill, as should the in-class writing prompts. What is tricky, as I have discovered from my own classes, is first working out where students are when they join the class, then designing a sequences of exercises that will guide them through the learning process, leaving time to repeat each technique in later weeks, and still offering the general mentoring and discussions on the industry and the life that students also need.

However, I am sure that if we want to do more than facilitate creative writing, if we want to actually teach it, then the first step is to make our classes as focused as we can.


Daniel Wallace was born in England, but has since been living elsewhere. He graduated from the excellent MFA at Rutgers-Camden, where he is currently allowed to teach creative writing. He is not the Daniel Wallace who wrote Big Fish, nor is he Daniel Wallace M.D., whose patients continue to email him requests for medication. His essays have appeared in the Fiction Writers Review. If you are curious about his idea of “focused” creative writing classes, he has written a series of posts on teaching prose style at



  1. Jonterri Gadson

      I would have loved to receive my education in CW this way: one skill at a time.  It’s definitely how I approach self-study.  Good stuff!

  2. Guest

      Shameful. Enuff already.

  3. Lee Thomas

      This focused-skill approach, and Daniel’s other great piece over at Fiction Writers Review, has made me realize some of my own backwater views of writing. How often I revert to thinking in foggy, mystical, even broad terms about the story or chapter currently underway, when, like that concert violinist, there’s nothing mysterious about a perfect performance – just hours of work, will, and passion. Problems do get solved when you drill down to specifics, and the idea that a workshop could focus not on the whole menu, but perfecting the soup or pairing the wine, has given me much to consider in my own practice. Those at the top of any field make it “look easy” because their admirers rarely glimpse the herculean efforts that got them there.

  4. Christoffer Molnar

      At my MFA program, the best teachers did use this approach — whether it was a continued discussion about forming a collection of poems, or a weekly examination of sentence-level issues, or a focus on form — and I always thought these better than the ones that were just a weekly chitchat of what worked or didn’t work (mostly the latter, of course) in a few stories or essays or poems.  But I wonder if that’s more from having a continual theme or from having a great professor.

      I’ll argue that a semester of workshops can (and ought) fill both roles — the specific and the general.  I worry that too thin a purview will cause students to think they can tick another box off their Writer’s Toolbox Acquisition List, and when they get them all they win (like Pokemon or something).  (I don’t know how Pokemon actually works.)For me, the blank nature of workshop was deeply helpful as it exposed me to the nearly infinite nature of literature and the fact that I don’t have to use every skill or element of craft that’s out there.  If classes are too narrow, I worry they’ll become more like trade schools churning out competent masons but no Saarinens who can grapple with the vague, general, unfocused task of designing a new edifice — and do it.  Yes, craft is crucial, but only vision yields greatness.

  5. Daniel Wallace
  6. Daniel Wallace
  7. Daniel Wallace

      Hi Christoffer, you’re right, a balance needs to be struck. And I like workshops. I think they offer the writer who is open to them a powerful push towards maturity. One learns to be less self-interested, and more focused on the work itself, when a group of readers will be giving regular, public feedback. I also agree that good teachers try to teach craft and other concerns via the workshop format: my teachers at Rutgers-Camden were excellent, and they did this very well. The question, though, is not only whether good teachers can adapt a system, but whether the system itself is effective or ineffective. I suspect there simply isn’t enough time, what with all the other action of a workshop class, to teach all there is to teach. 

      I’m not imagining a class in which craft techniques are simply referred to, and books named which use them–“If you want to use 2nd person, read Italo Calvino.” I’m imagining a plot class of the same depth and complexity that, say, Robert McKee gets to in his old bible, “Story,” where students would, in different lessons, study scene construction, escalation of conflict, unconscious subtext, pacing and so on, then get workshopped with a focus on how well they incorporated these techniques into their pieces. I don’t think anyone who went through such an education would come out thinking these techniques were facile. 

      And I see less of a conflict between competence and vision–more of a progression from one to the other, if an artist is willing and able to keep struggling. For me, learning more about “managing distance in POV” doesn’t make “Cathedral” less amazing, less visionary–it makes it more amazing. The same is true when I read about beats in a scene, then watch Casablanca again–Casablanca just gets better. 

  8. Joshua Kleinberg

      I took a “workshop” like this (focused on individual skills in assignments) with Dee McNamer at Montana. It was her first time trying out that model and by the end of the class she conceded that the whole thing had been a failure and that she was going to abandon it. I definitely think it’s wise to focus on “what ails you” in your writing. And within the “standard workshop,” classmates and the workshop leader have a responsibility to point out your weaknesses, and then you have the responsibility of challenging yourself to overcome those in future assignments…which seems like a more self-directed (possibly unspoken?) version of what you propose.

      By the way, the problem with that workshop, as I saw it, was firstly that people would focus so attentively on the assigned aspect of their stories as to practically parodize…and then every other aspect would often be really weak. Second, and probably a more important issue, was that people would turn in something great when an assignment catered to their interests and something uninspired when it didn’t (and uninspired, technically apt work is what everyone’s always bitching about with MFA programs, right?). Naturally, I don’t propose that anything from such a class should necessarily be publishable, but drudgery breeds listlessness breeds not-really-paying-all-that-much-attention breeds leaving a class wondering whether or not you’d actually learned anything.

  9. Andres O'Hara-Plotnik

      Another aspect of these introductory workshops is that the student-critic is often unguided in how to approach, and critique, the manuscript. Most comments are surface level and unfocused, if only because the student must respond to the work as a whole, and the structure of the class requires only a few moments of participation from each student. It is unfortunate if these students take these workshops as lessons in how to interact with, critique, and learn from, texts in the future. Close reading should be emphasized much more in these workshops, for the benefit of the student-author and the student-critic.

  10. Daniel Wallace

      Hi Joshua,

      I agree, there are difficulties. I’m teaching a class this semester using the skills approach I outline above, with “prose style” as the central theme. And it isn’t easy. It is really tough maintaining the level of student buy-in that a workshop creates effortlessly. Suddenly the sense of ritual, competition, and exposure is gone. I’m sure that many of my students feel that until the workshops begin, the class isn’t quite real. 

      The second trouble is that even in the weekly vignettes I have my students do, the primary problem in each piece is rarely stylistic. As a teacher, I have to advise on the most pressing issue whether or not that fits the style theme, and so inevitably I feel the subjects of the course widening to meet students’ needs. I have begun setting my weekly assignments to have students practise the building blocks of story structure (this week they have to write a scene that turns, for instance), and in my written comments and one to one lunchtime meetings I talk to them about point of view. So three technical topics, in one class, not a single one–discussions about style, assignments to teach plot, and conferences to teach pov. 

      I still think, however, that it’s a pity that your teacher dropped her approach after one semester. We students and teachers are by now conditioned to expect the workshop, its high-stakes energy, and developing alternatives will take time. It may even be something that only a program director, and not an individual teacher, can do. Perhaps students would be less inclined to parody if they knew how the class’s focus fitted into their entire degree, and that each course would build on the previous one. I have been teaching composition for three years, and it has taken me those three years of continuous teaching to develop methods that I think actually engage students, speak in a language they can understand, and prod them to try out the skills that each lesson discusses. For my first year, I’m sure I was discussing composition, but teaching something quite different–the philosophy of literature, perhaps. 

      With this skills approach, it may be that one should open with five weeks of quick workshops, have everyone identify their failings, and then go for five weeks of lessons, readings, and prompts, then start workshops again for the semester’s final third. I don’t know–the methods to teach the way I am suggesting may not yet exist–but I think the examples from other fields of human learning suggest that it can be done.  

  11. Christoffer Molnar

      I agree with you, and I realize now that even the courses that did have some singular focus would have prospered from being more rigorous in discovering the “depth and complexity” that you describe.  I wish the terminology you mention offhandedly had been used productively.  I often was irritated by a lack of technical precision, and your focused approach would go a long way toward fixing that.  One professor started off the semester by handing everyone a long sheet of vocabulary we were expected to know and employ.  It was good; it could have been even more demanding, I thought.

      But I also was irritated by how little anyone ever seemed to discuss the vision of a story.  There were plenty that were unimaginative and unambitious.  Maybe no one wanted to comment on this because the stories were always viewed as “only drafts.”  Maybe no one wanted to comment on it because they thought it couldn’t be taught.  Or maybe they didn’t comment on it because they thought it was beyond the purview of the course.  I think it can and should be taught.  Why can’t we talk about why, say, Calvino’s stories are better than, say, TC Boyle’s because Calvino goes bigger?  Or if you want to argue the opposite, have at it.  Either way, people will at least be thinking about the difference between able and excellent.  This, in my MFA experience, was a frontier in great need of exploration.

  12. Daniel Wallace

      And it can be hard to know what is and what is not a surface-level comment. I remember in my first workshops making remarkably intelligent comments about themes, Nietzsche, American culture–many of which I now suspect were totally useless to their hearers. 

      Roxane Gay chose the image of musical notation that heads this post, and it’s an apt choice. I suspect that in music, it is easier to grasp the relationship between a work’s technical components and one’s intuitive understanding of it as a whole. I don’t think anyone believes that studying Beethoven’s use of syncopation ruins one’s experience of the 3rd symphony, for instance. But words are so good (much better than musical notes) at referring to the external world, and creating images of that world, that it is natural, when students have little formal training, for them to read a story that begins, “The old woman walked ten miles through the blizzard,” and to immediately ask real-world questions like, “Can old women really walk ten miles through blizzards?”

      I suppose I imagine that a more skilled workshop would read that sentence and asking different questions–what kind of story is being promised by that opening sentence? What sort of point of view has been established? What sort of voice and prose style? And then–does the story that follows seem helped or not helped by such an opening line?

  13. Patterson

      I don’t know of any competent creative writing teacher who plans, or tries to teach “everything” in 1 semester.  Where?  Who?  You begin w/ a straw man that doesn’t exist.

  14. Daniel Wallace

      Hello Patterson: yes, that would be a straw man, but that’s not actually what I said. I opened the post by saying that no creative writing class can teach everything in one semester, but that the workshop model of teaching creative writing is structured around the assumption (conscious or otherwise) that you can. So my argument is that the choice of teaching method, as well as a teacher’s intentions, determine how focused a class can be. 

      As long as the bulk of lesson time is taken up with wholly open workshops—where one student can submit chapter six of his novel, and another can submit ten
      one-paragraph flashes, and a third can submit a comic short story in screenplay
      form (or whatever)—the teacher has committed herself, whether she intended to
      or not, to teach everything. So, in answer to your question: many teachers, in many places.

      The workshop teacher has to respond to each piece according to its merits and
      needs, and adjudicate whatever disagreements the workshoppers have about the
      elements of a submission, no matter whether she privately thinks a particular
      element should not have come up in discussion. She therefore cannot offer students the sort of focused learning I speculate is most beneficial. Now, she can fight against this aspect of workshops, and offer specific tips to specific students, but, as I’m sure anyone who has taught will agree, there is a big difference between mentioning something and teaching it. “Mentioning” is easy, and takes little time–little time is all the time that workshop participants have.

      My following point was that this perhaps doesn’t matter if it’s only an isolated workshop. Everyone will learn something, and everyone will get his or her work read. Great. But a sequence of teachers within a writing program, each doing this same workshop thing, each asking students to bring in whatever they would like, will leave those students more and more confused, more and more frustrated, and not that much closer to figuring out the essential principles of whatever specific art they are trying to master.

  15. Daniel Wallace

      Yeah, you’re right. It does seem like something vital, and I don’t know how the “skills-focus” that I’ve been describing would accommodate it. I have approached the graduate level writing class from the opposite direction–I suspect that basic skills are not being taught with sufficient depth. 

      Calvino is great figure to think about, because he is someone in whom both concerns meet: he seems to have been able to do almost everything, from a simple story about a man trying to sleep on a bench, to Invisible Cities, to the wonderfully well-plotted tale, “The Nose, The Name.” Was his technique great because he was ambitious, or vice versa?

  16. Christoffer Molnar

      Ah, finally, the right thread and the right person.  Apologies for being all kinds of mixed up.  You probably thought I was insane.  You probably are right.

      I’m glad Calvino is our example here.  I hadn’t thought that closely about him, but now that I consider what I love best about him, it is as much his skywriting imagination as his formal and structural mastery.  Cosmicomics, my favorite of his, is intricate on levels ranging from the entire book’s method down to sentence-level beauty.  It is great in both technique and ambition.

      Is there a causal relationship between them?  I wonder if perhaps neither necessarily comes first.  Perhaps a writer has a truly brilliant idea then spends years honing the craft to be able to articulate that idea masterfully.  To me, that seems very natural, although I’m rather still waiting for that idea to prance along in front of me.  But who’s to say that careful honing of skills won’t enable a writer to see beyond was is merely competent?  Maybe becoming a craftmaster will help a good writer begin to see how easy good writing is — and thenceforth forgo any ideas that are anything less than great.

      In other words, there is no choice to be made.  St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as a child, was presented with a handful of candies and trinkets.  “Pick,” she was instructed.  But she refused.  “I choose all,” she said.  And I think that, somehow, courses need to encourage this sort of greediness, perhaps simply by discussing the necessity of both and admitting the impossibility of actually finding both in a workshop — or even over a full MFA degree.  After all, the goal of education is not to be graduated as a master (despite what the acronym suggests) but to be empowered to continue to study.  At the least, making students aware of these essential qualities and their infinite depth should prod them to pursue them forever.