How do you actually learn to write? A comment on pedagogy.
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
But how do I learn to write? It’s funny that this question is asked with such frequency among aspiring authors and yet there’s still so much debate in the academic and published community regarding the effectiveness of creative writing programs and pedagogy in general. I’ve been thinking about this question for nearly a decade now. First because I was asking it—then, around the time I got published and became an editor, because I was trying to remember when and how did I learn to do this?
I couldn’t remember exactly how. Sure. I read a lot. And I wrote a lot. But how did I actually start recognizing good dialogue from bad dialogue? How did I learn to string my prose together and weave exposition into description into action?
Well how does a musician learn to quit missing notes on the piano? How does a carpenter stop blowing his budget on bad cuts, splitting wood, and forgetting to sharpen his blades and bits? Well they practice, sure, but there’s something important to note here. It’s important because if you don’t recognize it and seek it out, you’ll struggle mightily to get better. In fact, it might even be impossible to get better.
Writers who write in the dark (alone) are normally bad writers.
You NEED honest and objective critique. And you’re not going to get it from Grandma or Dad. Why is it especially important for an aspiring author? Because when we miss a note—when we write a particularly nasty bit of exposition that, to trained eyes, sounds like a set of ten inch werewolf claws dragging on the windshield of an old Toyota Camry, we don’t hear it. The guitar player screws up his chord and the noise the guitar makes tells him immediately that he’s messed up. The carpenter uses a dull blade to do his cut and he instantly recognizes that he’s made a mistake as the wood comes off the table saw with tear outs and a rough edge. When a concert pianist goes up to play and gets her fingers off key, the entire room knows it. People who don’t know how to play the piano, who’ve never even sat down in front of one, can tell that the pianist has totally screwed up. You’d be hard pressed to get someone who hasn’t read a book in a decade to explain a mediocre piece of writing from a fine piece of writing. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to improve.
Because you can’t necessarily tell, on your own, that what you’re doing is bad. Even if you read a lot and can tell a good book from a bad book yourself. Even if you totally love science fiction and have like watched every sci fi movie ever made since 1980. Critiquing your own work objectively is nearly impossible. It’s why editors exist even for the most prolific authors in the world.
Yes, Reese. It's hard.
And your family is very unlikely to be able to help you, either. Even if you ask them to please be honest and assure them, sternly, that they won’t hurt your feelings. It’s not that they don’t want to be helpful and honest. It’s that they genuinely aren’t capable of telling you if your writing is good or bad. Very few people actually are.
Probably half the Creative Writing professors in the United States, even, perhaps aren’t capable. Those online writing classes? Probably even less. Online services where an author or publisher offers to critique your first chapters for a fee? Maybe—but even that model has stark problems.
So what do you do?
Because the only way to know for sure whether your piece is good or not is to ask a lot of people at the same time. You can’t rely on one or two opinions. Especially not the opinions of people that don’t read and write voraciously themselves.
And even when you do have a classroom full (or a library / chat room / discord group / coffee shop) of peers that read and write, perhaps half the advice they’re going to give you is totally bunk.
But if you take the average of what they’re all telling you, you’ll get to the bottom of a lot of truth about what you’re presenting. Do 90% of them agree that your opening pages are confusing? Was half the time spent in the workshop doubting the strength of your dialogue? Did half the class agree that their suspension of disbelief was totally squashed when the thirteen-year-old protagonist of your story laughed in the face of the monster that crawled out from the pond behind his house?
You’ll get at hard truths if you take the temperature of an entire group of people. You’ll be left running in circles if you take things one at a time. I remember my 1st beta reader said this, but then my 2nd said this. You’ll scratch your head. Which of them is right? Get a third and they’ll tell you something slightly different. A fourth will agree with the 1st (and incidentally, you happen to think the 1st was totally out of their mind, but now you’re completely doubting your own ability to judge your work because two people have said the same thing!). If you do this slowly, one at a time, you’ll be relying way too much on potentially flawed personal taste and opinion.
But if you sit down at a workshop and listen to 30 people discuss the merit of your work. And if they’re honest and genuine, if they’re also aspiring to get better, if they’re also readers and writers. You cannot help but leave the hour with a broader and deeper understanding of what is and isn’t working in your writing. Will you suddenly understand how to write amazing, flowing prose and dialogue? No. But the worst of what you’ve done will be clear. Because they’ll tell you.
Equally as important, the best of what you’ve done will also be highlighted. So this is what they like? You’ll look at the specific passages and scenes with a closer eye. You’ll emulate them in the future. You’ll frown at the things your peers pointed out as troublesome (or downright hard to read). You’ll nod your head along by the end of the hour.
Every Creative Writing program in the United States is built around this model. The professor's job isn't to take you under their wing and coax the greatness out of you. They don’t hold your hand while you write and swat you when you use an abhorrent simile that’s been written a thousand times before. They lead peer groups and guide them along in workshopping your novels and short stories. They keep things on track. Sometimes they overrule nonsense. Other times they reinforce great commentary.
A thousand amazing authors have entered the workshop model with very little skill and left it being able to write outstanding stories. But tens of thousands have left it without being marginally better than they entered.
Because there’s a lot more to learning to write than putting your fiction in front of an audience. But I do believe that’s the most important step. The step that can’t be skipped.
Even more important than reading?
Even more important than writing every day? Or at least every week?
There are exceptions to all these rules. Some great authors don’t read a lot. Some great authors don’t write a lot. But very few great authors don’t have a group of beta readers / peers / workshops that they rely on for thorough and fair feedback when they’re working on their next big novel or collection of short stories.
So what about the other things?
I already mentioned it, but reading is incredibly important. And knowing how to read like a writer will make the time you spend turning pages far more valuable. A writer will stop and stare when they read a unique metaphor they’ve never seen before. A writer will break their suspension of disbelief on purpose—they’ll take themselves out of the story—and reread a whole chapter to recognize the point at which they found themselves on the edge of their seat. A writer will examine the dialogue and wonder for half an hour what makes it sound so natural. A writer will question how they fell in love with the completely unrelatable and perhaps even despicable protagonist.
A writer probably has a thick stack of transparent sticky notes and perhaps even a highlighter and their favorite novels look like they’ve been attacked by the sticky-note-highlighter monster. They go back to their favorite passages throughout the year and examine them.
If you want to learn how to read Shakespeare, you’ll probably first learn about the history of the English theatre. Then you’ll familiarize yourself with the record of Shakespeare himself. It’s sparse and debated, but important; this information impacts how you read the text. The same can be said for the works of Oscar Wilde, a personal favorite of mine. Understanding that Wilde was an (almost open) gay man in a time when being gay would end your career and potentially your life (for Oscar, some would say going to jail for being gay is what ultimately ended his life) totally transforms the way you might read something like The Importance of Being Ernest; it should definitely impact your reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
But none of that is necessary when you’re studying a great piece of fiction and reading it like a writer. We aren’t writing an academic English essay here. We’re trying to figure out how the hell Murakami led me into being totally okay with a 7-foot-tall talking frog waiting inside Katagiri’s apartment. Why didn’t I question it? Why didn’t I scoff? Why was I completely hooked after only one sparse paragraph of introduction?
Does it seem like I’m getting off track? I’m not. The point I’m making is this: if you want to learn to read great literature, there’s an efficacious and cogent path to follow in order to do so. It goes like this: History > Biography > Text. If you’re any good and you want to write a proper essay, you’ll then familiarize yourself with the critique and conversation that surrounds the specific text and learn what the leading experts in each authors field have to say about it. Most of the time, between all of the literature, they’ve got it down pretty damn well.
If you want to learn to read great fiction, especially genre fiction like fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, and horror—you’ll be required to do no such thing. There are millions of people hotly debating whether King’s Tommyknockers is a complete disaster or a masterpiece (incidentally, King himself says this is one of his worst books, but it’s one of my favorites). Does that mean I’m a moron?
Maybe. But it also means that even a story with a million plot holes can be riveting for hundreds of thousands of people if it’s set up correctly.
The question a writer should be asking themselves while they’re reading is: why am I enjoying this? When was I hooked? Why do I like/hate this character? What words did the author put on the page that made me feel this way? They’ll trace the passages and identify the exact spot the author performed the magic that put these powerful opinions in their head.
So let’s say you read a lot. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt: you’re reading like a writer, even. You’re asking the right questions; you’re studying the text carefully. You really rock! Let’s even say you joined a group at your local library with 13 other aspiring authors. You meet twice a week for 1.5 hours at a time and workshop two stories each time. You’re starting to learn something about yourself. And critiquing your peers writing is also making you look out for common pitfalls in your own work.
If you really want to get better, though, there’s no workaround for actually doing the work. Because writing is work. Ask anyone whose ever published a 100,000 word novel. It takes a long time to get it to the point that it’s going to be on a bookshelf. Hell, even getting it ready to submit to agents and publishers takes months of daily dedication (or years of disjointed attention).
You read a lot. You’ve joined a group of peers and you’re workshopping material.
Now you have to write.
I recommend that you write every day. Even if it’s only 250 words a day at first. I recommend that if you’re passionate about something, and you want to make something of yourself, that you prove it by dedicating a certain amount of time to actually engaging with it. You’ll never find a master electrician who dabbles with circuit boards once every few weeks. You’ll never encounter an impressive trumpet player that occasionally pulls his old high school instrument out of the case and blows into it.
So why is it that aspiring writers want to skip the final step? Why is it that they’re willing to perform complex and amazing mental gymnastics to convince themselves (and others) that writing a lot isn’t necessary?
Is it because they’re lazy?
Is it because they don’t actually like writing?
Is it because they’re afraid to write something bad? And realize that writing every day can almost only guarantee in writing some bad things every once in a while?
Is it because they have a romanticized view of writing that treats it more like an ineffable and secret talent than a skill that you hone, no different than riding a motorcycle or cleaning out septic tanks?
What I’ll say about this final (and for most, hardest step) is that you’re going to struggle mighty hard to find an author that writes great fiction who only has enough motivation to sit down and write once every few weeks or months. You can point a few out to me—you won’t shock me if you send me an email or leave a comment smugly pointing out that you know multiple authors who don’t write regularly and are great. But you’ll shock me if you can do it yourself.
So that’s my final advice. Incidentally, it’s also the thing I started doing last in my own journey that led me to write things well enough to publish and good enough to get accepted into 5 of the best Creative Writing MFA programs in the Country (and waitlisted at 4 more—am I bragging? No-I want you to know it actually works, if you put in the time).
This is the final step. It might be the hardest. Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll find it’s the easiest and most enjoyable (I do, now that I’ve been at it for a couple years and have built up consistency).
And don’t stop, no matter what.
Not even if you get a stack of rejections ten feet high.
Not even if people laugh at you.
Not even when relatives ask how’s that book going? with a smug smile on their faces.
Because in the end, all you have to do to call yourself a writer is write.