October 26th, 2016 / 10:11 am

Can writing be taught?


  1. j orloski

      I’m don’t think writing can be taught, obviously aside from the basic rules of grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. I’ve always viewed writing as a innate skill that develops with practice and also fades when in disuse. That said, I have never been published nor do I have an MFA. I did write significantly more and of a higher quality when I was “being taught” towards my BA in literature and writing. The traditional school system for writing, in my opinion, is not necessary, however it will place a writer around other writers which inspires more writing. I sadly haven’t written much since my university days.

  2. Northern Rockabilly

      Yes…. self-taught.

      Teach yourself to find the beat within and keep at it and at it… It doesn’t have to be good quality, just alive and honest.

  3. Adam Robinson

      Good points.

  4. Traposaurus rex

      School never did shit for Gucci Mane.

  5. Caleb Bouchard

      I agree with Northern Rockabilly. I think writing can only be self-taught. Professors, fellow book lovers, and other writers (either on a personal level e.g. workshops, or by reading the works of writers you admire) can provide guidance, direction, encouragement, insight, epiphanies, etc., but I believe the strongest writers are those who (a) have some form of a regular writing routine, (b) spend a considerable amount of time with each project or piece they work on (revising, experimenting, seeking feedback, and so on), and (c) are constantly looking to improve their craft. A writer who has this dedication and drive will seek out and study the attributes of great writing —the mechanics of it, what works and what doesn’t —and try to implement it into their own writing. Essentially, I see learning to write as an independent study.

  6. Terri McCubbin Steel

      I think story telling is an innate quality that dwells in all of us. A good writing instructor can offer both the basic tools and writing prompts that allow the writer to relax, free themselves from judgement and coax their story onto the page. But, as with any art, once the basics are there, it is all practice, practice, practice. After earning my Master’s, I revisited some of my undergraduate essays and was amazed by the changes. Great professors, writing workshops, studying great voices in literature and the tried and true study of the discipline can take a writer places they never imagined.

  7. Trey

      much easier to teach what not to do than to teach what to do, but yes

  8. deadgod

      ‘Taught’ in the sense of something entirely outside oneself put within, no, probably nothing can be taught.

      But ‘taught’ in the sense of enablement, yes, of course one can be taught to say better what one wants to have said.

  9. deadgod

      Or are you asking whether all writing is slack… or can some of it be taut?

  10. Adam Robinson

      I feel like it can be improved, but it can’t necessarily be made “good” but “good” is subjective whereas “improved” may be less subjective?

  11. Dave K.

      I think it can be honed and refined, and that mentorship is an important part of a writer’s development. Many celebrated writers in the past worked in related fields like journalism or publishing to really learn the craft beyond the basics of grammar and sentence structure, and now MFA programs have to pick up a lot of that slack since most of the industries that support writers are circling the drain.

      As to whether the initial ability/spark/interest/potential to be a writer can be taught, I don’t think so. A lot of evocative, resonant, enduring creative writing is the result of time and experience, and those can’t really be taught. That’s not to say that writing is some kind of inscrutable music from the spheres that only certain people can understand, but the only way to really improve is through measured repetition. Good teachers can only help navigate that, they can’t be substitutes for it.

  12. bartlebytaco

      Yes. Writing as an activity involves enacting a system of moves that range from the syntactic to the conceptual, always multiple, and always at the same time. These systems/moves are (mostly) observable, and repeated exposure to a variety of these textual concerns will, to some degree, make available the ways in which one can use these various principles to create “writing.” These systems/principles are porous, shifting, dynamic, but that’s how it always works.

      I would say teaching writing is similar to teaching someone how to use a lawn mower, or how to build a sky scraper. The differences lay in the axis of time, repetition, and the wide spectrum of potential execution. I think this question is asked so much because, to some degree, the locus of “learning” frequently exists without a discernible trace, and the process of writing dramatizes that. I don’t think anyone can say, “Now I am learning,” and mean something intelligible or concrete. But learning does happen, because you either know how to use a lawn mower, or you don’t. But no one asks “Can you teach lawn mowing?” because the answer is self evident, somehow.

      If my language is a bit cold / robotic, it’s because I’ve always found the occult veneer surrounding the idea of “writing” to be somewhat baseless. That writing is this magical activity that can only happen if God Graced You with unique and special creativity. That kind of romantic thinking feels like an impediment to creating new ways for thinking about / understanding writing as a practice and process.

      At the same time, I understand that writing is weird, and that absolutely no one understands why or how it exists, what its purpose is, or why we like it or don’t. But that contradiction is what makes me like writing and reading more than lawn mowing.

  13. Joan Osborne

      Here’s a better question:
      “Can writing be taught” has already been asked a million times and answered a million times already, so why are we still asking it. This question is the fucking opiate of the masses still ascribing to a dead institution. It is a waste of time disguised as “intellectual discourse.” It is the question that guarantees the $15/hour adjunct $30 without doing any real work.
      Writing can be taught, it can also not be taught. Please end this recursive madness, lest you murder this dead horse more than it’s already been murdered.

  14. Blake Butler

      according to my notes writing can definitely be taught but only by gordon lish

  15. reynard seifert

      I think a good writing teacher is more like a coach than a math teacher. It’s not necessary to teach people how to run – they are generally born with the instinct to do it because we’ve had to run away or after things for like forever – but a person’s running can be improved by a good coach, who watches them run and advises them on how to adjust in order to run faster, or longer, or whatever, as well as what runners to watch and learn from. But when writers “race,” there is no clear course, just a start and finish on either side of a national park.

  16. cake lamb

      anyone who wants to can write, & the more they try the more they’ll figure out as they go along. writing is ultimately the expression of self. technical knowledge can be taught, but not self-expression. it can only be nurtured & encouraged. the technical aspects of writing are largely overstated, over-emphasized & overvalued precisely by people who are obsessed with “teaching”. most “teachings” not only about art but about pretty much everything in life that isn’t a mechanical task tend to fill people with artificial inhibitions, restrictions, & obsessions. that isn’t to say that there isn’t great advice available, or that you shouldn’t try to learn from people. i think good artists of all kinds try to learn from everyone.

  17. Ken Baumann

      In my experience, people can be taught to reason better—to be more logical, questioning, and thorough. This often improves their writing, if their writing attempts to understanding something. This improves their essays, in other words.

      Regarding fiction writing: I believe that reading a lot of writing that has survived—for one reason/contingency or another—for a few hundred years will strengthen someone’s ability to recognize what their writing is doing, and how it is like or unlike writing from the past. Knowing how other people do things helps you learn how to do the things that you’re uniquely inclined to do. This is true of basketball, and I think it’s true of writing fictive stuff.

      If by “teach” you mean “train someone to write like you/some exemplar”, then I say yes—but that this isn’t really teaching. You can only help someone to write how they’re inclined to write, primarily by explaining how you think they’re writing and how their writing relates to the work of others.

  18. Mike Kleine

      People sometimes simply do things just to do them. Going to school immediately after high school, for instance, is a great example of this. I know I went to school and then more school after school only because I didn’t know what else to do. I was 45% interested, going to school full-time. The rest of the time, I had other things I wanted to do. Now, looking back, I don’t regret it. A lot of what I do writing-wise, personally, I feel I learned and picked up on my own after school was already over. I only really learn and become engaged when something interests me.

      Someone can push you in the right direction, yes, but then the rest, that’s up to you.

  19. Anjali Mullany


  20. Tyler Burn


  21. Noah Cicero

      Maybe this is an answer: I don’t know:

      I’ve been writing for years, fiction, poetry, articles, even emails etc. I’ve read a million books and articles about writing and how it’s done, just like everyone on this site.

      So right now I’m in school taking a few classes, and I have to write Case Briefs/memorandums, three page long things on cases. I can write them really easily, in less than an hour. The other students take hours to finish them. I think my brain does know how to look at a few ideas, put them together, and type them in an orderly fashion, but it took years of practice to do that.

      If you talking about the mere act of having ideas, putting them together in your head, then putting them on paper, I would totally say practice and guidance really helps.

      If you are talking about being a famous writer in 2016, or a famous indie HTML giant writer or a famous Poetry Foundation Poet who wins awards and gets tenure, well, I still think practice and guidance matters, but other things like the personal life of the writer plays a key role.

  22. Matthew Briggs

      Yes. If you learn it and more experienced practitioners are better at it, then it can be taught. That’s the test. Any other words on the subject are bullshit and/or mystical thinking as this thread makes clear.

  23. Tyler Crumrine

      I mean, form and genre can definitely be taught. It’s easy to teach someone the basics of dramatic structure or formatting. Not so sure about voice.

  24. Pepito, Abysmal Goat

      Kung Fu can be taught. Not everyone can be Bruce Lee.