“Can such principles be taught? Maybe not.
But most of them can be learned.”William Zinsser, On Writing Well
It’s rare for people to say they don’t know how to run. They may admit to being out of shape, or just lazy, but they will not say that what is getting in the way of their running is a lack of knowledge. They know how to do it and, in so far as they are not good at it, they know what to do about it. You put one foot in front of the other.
When people say they don’t know how to write I try to get them around to that way of thinking too. They may write less well than they’d like, I suggest, but they know how to do it. I tell them to pick a topic they know something about, then to pick a single thing that they know about it. (If they can’t do this then writing isn’t their problem.) I tell them to write a sentence that expresses that idea and to make a plan to spend 18 or 27 minutes the next day writing at least six sentences and at most 200 words about it. In effect, I tell them to put on their running shoes and get at it.
Once they’re doing this regularly we can talk about technique. But there’s not a whole lot to say, actually. Many writers find that simply working in discrete, focused writing moments shows them what they need to be doing better. They also feel themselves becoming stronger writers. They are getting their prose into shape. I can look at their work and suggest simple things to try, but most of their improvement is in their own hands. Every day they find a little more of their voice, they become a little more aware of their options as writers.
When people say that “writing can’t be taught but it can be learned” this is what they mean. They mean that no amount of instruction in either the rules of grammar or the rules of genre will make you a better writer if you’re not actually writing.
By “actually writing” I mean putting words on the page with the intention of communicating them to someone else, and in an academic setting this means writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. To train this ability, teachers must get their students to write for the other students in their class about what they are learning together. They must try to explain what they think about the material to their peers, i.e., people who are looking at the same material in more or less the same way. Everything the teacher is telling them about style and grammar is directed at making them better able to do this.
What the students are learning how to do is really to expose their ideas to criticism, they are making themselves corrigible. They are putting what they think in terms that other people who are thinking about the same things at the same level can understand. If there are disagreements they can now be made explicit and that’s the first step to deciding who is right. At the end of the day, we’re teaching our students to present their ideas to people who are qualified to tell them that they are wrong. This takes a very particular kind of strength and that strength is acquired through training.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how we can better teach writing. We want our students to write better and we think there must be something wrong with the way we are teaching them. But I think the bulk of the problem lies in getting the students to actually write, to practice. If genre-based instruction gets them to write more than assigning five-paragraph essays does, for example, this will explain why students are getting more out of it. But if you can get your students to actually write those five-paragraph essays, with their fellow students in mind as they write, then you’ll accomplish much the same thing.
The important thing is that they are writing in a way that lets them experience their competence. We have to give them a way of writing that makes them better writers every time they write. They know how to do it: you put one word after another on the page. It’s regular practice that will get their prose into shape.