“It Isn’t Possible to Teach Writing”

Fist over a commaOne of the professors I had when studying for the PhD, as I was getting a degree to be a writing teacher, made the statement that writing cannot be taught. Oftentimes, when I was teaching writing, I agreed with him.

But writing is such a remarkably complex invention that almost any statement about it is oversimplified. What is writing, for instance? Symbols to express thought, we might say. Is the expression 2 + 2 = 4 an example of writing? The symbols are read aloud as words, which sounds like writing, but they are limited as to what ideas they can express. What are the mathematical symbols for “I miss you”? Hmm, maybe 1 = 0.

If someone in ancient Egypt drew a picture of a duck and then pronounced it as their word for duck, was that writing? In fact, yes. Their writing system consisted partly (though not entirely) of pictures that were read as words.

Leaping lightly across the millenia to touch down in Washington in 2013, I’m considering not only what writing is, but how it is used. Both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, writing originated as a bureaucratic or business tool. Society collectively invented this tool as a way to keep records, not to write poetry. From the very beginning, writing was intended to be practical.

Try telling that to most American English departments and see how far you get. Even though most English departments are deeply indifferent to whether their students can use writing in a practical way, English teachers are correct that the tool has been used to produce sublime works of art. Humans inherently create with everything around them, even something as functional as neon tubes (one, two), so the writing tool was quickly adapted to creativity as well.

At its most basic, writing is using symbols to transfer an idea from one mind to another mind, most often with the intention of achieving some practical purpose. Most of us do not need to make art with neon tubes. We do not need to paint or make pots. We do not need to write poems. But if we live in the modern world (i.e. here now), then we do need to write some things.

Of course people are taught to write, as we all do it, but how well are they taught? And what should they be taught? The dismal situation in college English departments may be improving, at least in some places, but there are still far too many instances of teachers who literally teach students to write with formulas (like a math class). Did you take college writing? Remember the five-paragraph essay? How often have you used that stupid shit outside of an English class?

If we were willing to do it—a willingness I have serious doubts about—how would we teach people who work as accounts to write for their field? How do we teach biologists to write as biologists? I wonder how many schools can teach contractors to write a successful bid for a project. Yet every town in America has contractors, and they need to know how to do this.

The questions I’m asking here go to the heart of what writing is, of why it exists. There is no profession, no discipline, no person who could teach what is needed to successfully do every kind of writing. What must be done to make a good business proposal could make a terrible sermon. The best way to write a good advertisement could make a horrible TV script or medical report. It does not help to teach idiotic writing formulas, nor does it even help to teach meticulous spelling and grammar, if that’s all we teach.

I do believe, however, that there is something that can be taught to college freshmen or to high school students that will give them a foundation for learning more. They can be taught some basic ideas about rhetoric, some awareness of how language can be used in relation to an audience. Audience is everything, and the audience can be different with each piece of writing.Ancient Egyptian duck

But this is complicated to do, and so far no one has come up with a truly effective way to teach all kinds of writing. Most people learn to write the same way they learn about sex, by doing it.

1 Comment

Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

One response to ““It Isn’t Possible to Teach Writing”

  1. I’m all for writing and I’m all for sex. I like and hope to do both often, daily even.

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