Learning to Teach Writing

Since the beginning of this year, I have served as an outside mentor to a graduate student who is working on his master’s degree in creative writing. (I am not employed by the university he attends, but I have been hired to serve in this specific role for this student.) And for the past month and half, I have been the instructor for an independent course this student is doing on writing short fiction. My student shows promise as a writer, but he is approaching writing from another discipline and he has had relatively little experience writing to deadlines and sharing his creative work with others. My purpose when the student and I designed this course, was a) to get him used to showing his work to someone, b) to get him used to receiving critical editorial feedback, and c) to get him used to producing creative material on a regular basis. The academic term is twelve weeks long, so we agreed that he would write six short pieces for me, turning in a first draft one week and a more polished, completed version of the piece the following week. We’re now approaching the end of week eight; I should be getting a finished story from him later today.

I have been interested in teaching creative writing for some time, and, since I came to my own writing career from an academic background, I had no illusions as to how difficult teaching can be. Still, I’ve found this experience eye-opening. As I say, my student shows much promise. Still, there are things he needs to work on: maintaining consistent point of view and voice, showing rather than telling, keeping his prose clear and precise — all the things one might expect to have to address in teaching a new writer.

The biggest problem I’ve found though, has very little to do with him, and everything to do with me. So much of my writing is instinctual; when I’m working on a book I never stop to break down the things I do, to think about how I’m structuring my sentences or introducing characters or weaving together disparate narrative threads. How do I teach someone to create? How do I convey to him what he needs to learn about writing without stifling his authorial voice and imposing my own on his work?

I’m an avid semi-professional photographer, and I remember when I was first getting back into photography after a hiatus of many years. I read tons of books and relearned the mechanical fundamentals of exposure and depth of field, of working with different kinds of light and choosing the right equipment for different conditions. But none of those books could teach me to see as a photographer does, nor could they make me understand what made for effective composition. That took experience. And it was a deeply personal learning process. I had to develop my own style. The same holds true with learning music. My first guitar teacher taught me what he could of chord structure and music theory. He helped me familiarize myself with the neck of the guitar and which positions were appropriate for different keys, different styles, different moods. But I didn’t really start to play the guitar until I stopped taking lessons and began to explore music on my own.

So how can I best serve my writing student? I can’t teach him to see things through the eyes of a writer; he has to come to that himself. I can’t really teach him style; that has to be his own. But I can work on the fundamentals, help him familiarize himself with the basic tools. I’ve been trying to work with him on the importance of maintaining consistent point of view, on what it means to trust his readers and himself, on how to pace his stories and ratchet up narrative tension. And we’ve been working on more fundamental questions related to prose and syntax. All in all, I think he’s learned a good deal. I’ve learned a tremendous amount. Forced to break down what I do each day into discreet tasks, I’m taking a fresh look at my own creative process. Some of what I see I like. In other ways I’m discovering that I can be a bit lazy with my art.

The hardest part has been trying to articulate the things I do when I write. When we talked a week or two ago about concentrating on the clarity of his prose, he asked me to explain how he should edit himself. I had no idea how to answer. “Well, how do you do it?” I couldn’t really answer that either. The truth is that I read what I’ve written, and if a section doesn’t sound right, I rework it until it does. Very helpful, I know.

In the end, I believe that the best I can do for my student is share with him those things I do think about when I write — character, pacing, voice, POV, etc. — and explain to him what I strive for when I write. Some of what I tell him might not help at all; some of it might be revelatory. But in the end, it will be up to him to decide what he wants to take away from our conversations and what he doesn’t. And perhaps that will be his first step in discovering himself as an artist.

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    I taught a creative writing class last year, and yeah, same boat — I had to stop and think about how I do what I do. Definitely gives you a different perspective.

  2. 2. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I’m a professor of English and teach creative writing and frequently feel as you do. Especially how to break down the specifics. It is definitely a learn by doing and experimenting sort of a deal.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Thanks to both of you. I posted this, and then started thinking, “Well, what if I’m the only one?” There are lots of people in the group who teach writing, and maybe my pedagogical inexperience was showing. Glad to know that these issues come up for more accomplished teachers, too.

  4. 4. L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    Very interesting.

    For years, I’ve noted that the best books on writing are written not by writers…but by writers who have tought (or done something similar, such as an agent.)

    Lone writers never seem to be able to distinguish between what a writer needs to do and that particular writer does.

    Those who have taught have learned to distinguish this from seeing what helps others and are more universal in their approach.

  5. 5. Liane Merciel

    I _don’t_ teach writing, and actually found writing classes and workshops to be actively unhelpful in my development as a writer, so take this with a hefty grain of salt, but… since learning to write is largely about learning to read (critically, with an eye toward seeing what does and does not work in other writers’ stories), why not encourage your student to do that too?

    For example, if he’s having difficulty maintaining consistent POV, have him read a chunk of fiction written in tight third-person POV (there are plenty of these, since it seems to be the dominant mode in commercial fiction these days), then one in swiftly-rotating third-person POV (like James Clavell’s _Shogun_), then a piece of work from the Critters.org queue or other slushpile that exhibits that particular flaw in 10x resolution. (I don’t think this is unethical as long as you provide the Critters writer with a written crit afterward. That is why they’re in the queue, after all; they want feedback and it would be helpful to that person as well as educational for your student to give it.)

    For me personally, critical reading and analysis of texts written at different skill levels was key to figuring out how to do what I wanted to do (at least to a limited degree — I can hardly claim to have perfected it yet!). As a beginner, it’s much easier to see the issues as they pop up in slushpile works than to pick them out of professional work or your own.

    After doing that for a little while I found that my own writing was better because I was much more conscious of those issues, good and bad. For that reason I recommend including those types of critical exercises between story-writing drills for your student. It might or might not be useful to you or him, but it certainly was for me. :)

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    This is a terrific suggestion, Liane. I have recommended a bunch of reading to my student, but the idea of using the Critters writing as a counter example to published works is brilliant. Many thanks!

  7. 7. David B. Coe

    Jagi! Your comment posted after Liane’s, but above it. Didn’t mean to ignore you! I think you’re right. Until you’ve actually stepped back and tried to breakdown the writing process into its components, it’s a hard process to explain, much less teach.

  8. 8. Ben Cirillo

    When you say you’re going to teach writing, most people think that it’s going to be in the same way that you teach history or math. Sit down, shut up, and I’ll tell you what you need to know.

    But really, teaching someone to be creative is like teaching someone to have bigger biceps. Sure, you can go over technique and theory, but ultimately they have to develop themselves.

    Check out The Blog of Imaginary Things at http://imaginarythings.wordpress.com , a place I’ve created as sort of a gymnasium for the imagination. It’s still in its infancy, but I think it will ultimately grow into a great community for creative people of all skill levels.

  9. 9. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment and the link, Ben. I agree absolutely that in teaching any art the student has to take far more initiative than in other, more academic disciplines.

  10. 10. Lydia Sharp

    Thanks for posting this, David. I’m considering teaching creative writing (to either a single person or a small group) at some future point in my career. These are all good things to keep in mind.

  11. 11. David B. Coe

    Glad you found it helpful, Lydia. I love teaching, and like you, I’ve wanted to do it for some time. But it definitely has been a learning experience.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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