Teaching Writing One Skill at a Time

Posted by @ 1:00 pm on September 27th, 2011


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 onpinestreet.com/style.