Teaching Writing as a Technical Skill

I have been complaining fairly steadily for the past eight years or so that public schools do not teach writing.  Recently my local paper ran an article about new strategies to teach writing — all of which were fuzzy, and rather appalling, nonsense.   I’ve been grumbling off and on about it for about a week when it finally hit me between the eyeballs this morning the true nature of the problem.

Most people confuse writing with the process of being an artist.  Because of that, teaching writing as a technical skill seems limiting, as if it is killing creativity.

I first ran across this when I was tutoring a fifth grader some years ago1.  The child did not know what a five paragraph essay was.   My own son, now a teenager, does know.  He knows because it was a format I taught him.  They don’t teach it in the local schools here, either.  The excuse given is that it is too rigid and will not teach children to write well.  What they’re saying is that writing as art is the important thing, so formula is not important.

The problem comes in because there is a certain level of formula to good writing2.   There are people who do it intuitively, who are not conscious that they are adhering to a formula.  Many of them are teaching Language Arts to kids, too.    Because they don’t know consciously what it is that they do to write well, there isn’t a hope in hell of teaching it.  Sometimes there’s an air of throwing up the hands, and excuses like, “Oh, he’s science-oriented,” as if this is a reasonable excuse for not being able to write well.  Sometimes there is the mistaken dichotomy between art and science that makes it okay to be bad at writing because one is good at math or vice versa.  I got this as a kid, especially from my father who believed the theories about the art/science dichotomies3.

No, you can’t teach someone to be a great novelist or poet.    What you can do is teach someone to create a logical construction in words. The thing is, if you aren’t a great novelist or a great poet, it’s not the big deal that not being able to write well can be in Real Life.  If you’re a knowledge worker of any sort, and these days, more people are than are not, you need to be able to express yourself clearly in text.

Fortunately, this is a learnable skill.  I’ll hearken back to the Five Paragraph Essay as a classic example of this.  It is simple, it is basic and yes, it follows a very specific structure.  If that bothers you, keep in mind that a sonnet’s structure is simple, basic and formulaic and go read some Shakespeare.  He was considered an adequate writer, if I recall correctly.

For a Five Paragraph Essay, you come up with a premise and three supporting statements.  You express these in the first paragraph, then in the following three paragraphs, you explain the supporting statements.  Then you have a concluding paragraph where you more or less say, “Ha!  See, I proved it!”  This used to be a standard format taught in schools.  Do I ever use it in my own writing?  Yes, actually.  I do.  Professionally.  Nothing I do professionally is a five-paragraph essay when I finish, but when I’m stuck for an idea, I absolutely do write out the premise/three supporting facts outline to get started!  It’s simple.  It’s logical, it’s clear.  It forces you to think clearly and factually, which is quite necessary in business.

And it’s teachable.

You don’t have to throw up your hands in the air that someone has too concrete a mind to get it.  There’s nothing nebulous to “get”.  Entertaining writing might be intuitive.  You do need a voice, a rhythm to your words and a quirky hook.  I’m clueless how I do it, so I’d be clueless to teach it other than to advise people to listen to really good storytellers in the Anansi tradition.  Clear writing, without all the fun and exciting bits, is a learnable skill.

It’s also a pretty necessary one in our age of textual communication.

1My God, the boy was due to graduate from high school last spring!
2Believe it or not, more so in fiction than otherwise. Read any of the great writers. There’s serious structure to what they do.
3I often wonder why he didn’t question this when one of the first things I did when we got a computer was to write a checkbook program in BASIC.

4 Replies to “Teaching Writing as a Technical Skill”

  1. Trying to learn how to write without having mastered the basic forms first, is a little like trying to learn music by picking up an instrument for the first time and joining a free style jazz group. It’s not going to work.

  2. “Most people confuse writing with the process of being an artist. Because of that, teaching writing as a technical skill seems limiting, as if it is killing creativity.”

    The road to becoming an artist is full of skills to learn:
    Draughtsmanship is a teachable, technical skill.
    Colour Theory.
    Perspective (which is – shock horror – MATHMATICS!!one!)
    Self evaluation/correction.
    and so on…

    It’s no longer taught to kids because it interfers with the “artistic process” – or some rubbish. ;p

  3. *grin* Drawing is not the only sort of art there is…

    I mean creative process rather than knowing a craft.

    You’re quite right that good art requires craftsmanship!

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