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Can Writing Be Taught?

posted: 9.11.14 by Andrea Lunsford

I’d be hard put to count up the number of times I’ve been asked this question, by parents who don’t want their children to have to take a “required” writing course, by administrators who don’t want to pay for writing programs, by colleagues in literature who often assume that writing arrives courtesy of the muse, and by students who think that they have learned all they could possibly need to know about writing in high school.

To these—and to Rivka Galchen and Zoë Heller, writing in the August 19, 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review—I have a one-word answer. YES. Yes, not only can writing be taught but it has been taught for millennia and is now being taught across this country and, indeed, around the world.


Cicero practicing and practicing

In ancient Rome, Cicero taught that the ability to speak and write well required three things: a modicum of natural ability, a fair amount of excellent instruction, and practice, practice, and more practice. I find Cicero’s insight as compelling today as it was over 2000 years ago. I have been teaching students (and myself) to write since the mid-sixties, and while I have encountered recalcitrant students (like the young man who assured me he was “above the paragraph”) and deeply challenged students (like a young woman who had suffered brain damage that impaired her ability to write and read) and uninterested students (like the football player who was sure he would NEVER need writing)—I have never encountered a student I could not help develop as a writer (the young woman with the brain injury worked with me for two years and eventually became a reporter for the school newspaper).

Galchen and Heller are of somewhat different opinions in their “Can Writing Be Taught” bookend essays, with Galchen musing that

The question of whether writing can be taught for me metamorphoses into the question of why it is, when thinking about writing, we are disproportionately detained by the question of teachability. Is it just that it’s somehow flattering to feel one’s endeavor is more gift than labor, and are writers more in need of such flattery than others? Possibly.

And Heller worrying that no one is teaching her school-aged daughter not to use lots of adverbs, concluding that “writing can be taught, but it deserves to be taught better than [it is].”

I’d love to hear how other experienced teachers of writing answer this question. In beginning an answer of my own, I often begin by quoting Stephen North who reminds us that “writing is hard, and it takes a long time.”  But it can be taught!

[Image: woodcut from Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares, public domain]

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