I Can’t Teach You How to Write
I cannot teach anyone how to write.
That’s quite an admission as I begin teaching a course called Historical Methods, which is about historical research and . . . WRITING.
I’ve done this for fifteen out of the last 21 years. I’ve had some some students write some pretty good papers. Some not so good.
The act of writing is usually accompanied by all sorts griping and nagging — mine — and procrastination — theirs.
The end results are often run-on sentences, page-long paragraphs, no logical construction, sentence fragments, zero topic sentences, and dozens of misspellings.
A few years ago I happened upon a reason for these troubles. I casually asked a class to tell me what their favorite books were. I got a smattering of murmured responses, and one student finally said, “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t read.”
Not that he can’t read — he doesn’t.
Others agreed; they were the same way.
I’ve asked the question several times since then, and I frequently get essentially the same response. Students might struggle part way through a book that a professor had assigned for a class. They might skim a couple of things on the internet on their way to Facebook. They might — emphasize MIGHT — read a blog post now and then.
But almost without fail, students I’ve met don’t read for shear curiosity’s sake, for entertainment, for enjoyment.
And thus I don’t think I can ever teach them how to write.
Cue Stephen King:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” [Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 147.]
By reading — a lot — you experience both bad writing and good. You pick up styles you like and might want to emulate, and styles you hate. You develop a taste for literature, perhaps, or pulp. (Either is fine, really; I’m not a snob.)
Importantly, if you have not read, you will not know what to do when you sit down to write.
My parents read to me every night, and Captain Kangaroo read to me every morning. When I was able to read, I had books all over the place. I had them sort of arranged on a couple of shelves in a closet, but they didn’t fit well, and when I opened the door they would slide out on the floor. It was cool.
I had a bunch of my mom’s old books from the 1930s and, of course, many of my own. I was really partial to something called Big Little Books, from Whitman Publishing (I think). Here’s a few I know I read:
A lot of those books were based on toys and comics and cartoons. Who cares? I got me reading. Here’s something else I loved:
Not to mention, we subscribed to Time magazine, and Life, and Look. They were spilling out of a too-small magazine rack in the front room. And we got TV Guide every week. It had real articles in it.
That all blossomed into heavier reading as I got older. My favorite book when I was about 11 was something called Rifles for Watie, a Civil War story set in the trans-Mississippi theater of war. It was a Newberry Prize winner, and the cadence of the Harold Keith’s writing fascinated me. (Gee, I also became a Civil War historian.)
Sure, those were all gateway books. Later I moved up to every James Bond book that Ian Fleming wrote; Alistair Maclean adventures (Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra) and sci fi from Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke.
Thus, when I dropped out of college in 1979 and walked into a newspaper offering to write — for free (that’s a different story) — I basically knew how to do it. Sure, I needed to learn the difference between hard news stories, features, and news features, and I needed to learn the “inverted pyramid” style of writing, but I knew the basics of story, pacing, and structure.
No, it wasn’t easy, but I had the foundation.
Today, if I ask someone to toss off a 500-word essay on . . . anything . . . they look like I’ve asked them to drink poison.
I would argue that the ability to write quickly, and well, is more important now than ever. With the internet, virtually everyone can have a platform. Unfortunately, not everyone can write in a way that can hold a reader’s attention and convey a message. And if you don’t have a message, why write at all?
Plus, the act of writing helps you think. It helps you sort out your ideas and marshal them into steady prose. You know those stirring speeches that the great orators gave — say, Lincoln, FDR, and Churchill? They wrote them first.
Some writers say we are living in a “post-literate” age. Apparently, that’s because people don’t read anymore; they get all their information from TV and videos.
I love TV, but I love to read as well. I don’t want to live in a post-literate age. The ramifications of that are grim.
Rather, how about this? Parents, read to your kids. Grown up kids, read to yourselves. And then read to your own kids. Buy them books, books, and more books.
Since you’re reading this on Medium, which is a great hub for writers of all types, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know. Nevertheless, I’m saying it anyway.