Yes, good writing can be taught


Image via sidewalk flying on flickr

Right, so a couple of US-based consultancies surveyed 225 employers and found they wanted to hire Arts graduates with good communications skills.

Of course, screamed S.A. Jones on Killings last week:

“After twenty-two years in the workforce and having managed hundreds of people, I’ve worked with a surprisingly small number who could write really well. By this I mean they could digest fat wads of disparate information, sniff out what was credible, discard the dross, distil the essence and repackage it all into a coherent, logical argument. Of those staff members, most have held Arts degrees.”

Sometimes in this kind of discussion, experienced writers assert that good writing can’t be taught. Thankfully, S.A. Jones avoids this, only saying that good writing skills aren’t easy to acquire.

Of course learning to write well takes time and practice. But that doesn’t make it impossible.

It drives me nuts when people suggest that if you’re a writer, it’s only because you have some kind of magical, natural talent. To develop this talent, the argument goes, you have to work on a whaling vessel or get a menial job or have some kind of life experience, not sit in a classroom and study creative writing or journalism.

Again, of course rich life experiences benefit writers. But when we talk about “good writing”, I think we conflate two things: clear writing and outstanding writing.

Perhaps you need to live on a whaling vessel or equivalent to become an outstanding writer, a prize-winning novelist, or a long-form feature writer who can move readers to tears. You probably need years of practice too.

But clear writing – well-crafted prose that will help you in work and life – can be taught in a classroom.

Want to know a secret? There are rules. Or guidelines. Or rules you can break once you know them well. For example:

  • Don’t write sentences longer than 25 words.
  • Write in the active voice, not the passive voice (e.g. “I ate the cake” not “The cake was eaten by me”).
  • Pick a concise subject and a good verb. Don’t pick a ridiculous verb though, you will sound ridiculous. (E.g. “Rising nationalism influenced the prime minister’s decision to go to war” not “One of the most important causes of the war was rising nationalism”. In the first example, the subject is “rising nationalism”. In the second, it’s “one of the most important causes of the war”.)
  • Don’t use adverbs or adjectives. I mean, you can use a couple, but think twice before you do. (E.g. “She strode” not “She walked quickly and deliberately”.)
  • Be concise.
  • Re-read, edit and proofread everything. The squiggly underlines on your screen will help you with this.

I learned many of these rules in classrooms at uni (and if you’re keen, some of my teachers have written books on the subject).

Of course I’m still learning. Of course it takes time and practice. And of course some people are naturally more talented with numbers or visual images than with words.

But these are skills we all can, and should, learn. They’re not magical talents to be acquired at birth or on a whaling vessel or never at all.

2 thoughts on “Yes, good writing can be taught

  1. Oh my. I have endured years of green squiggly-line terror from Microsoft word. I confess I never really knew what “Passive voice (consider revising)” meant until now! Thank you.

    Perhaps you could also address my fear of quotation grammar?

    • No worries! What’s your question about quotations? Do you need to know where to put the full stop? It goes inside the quote marks for a full sentence and outside for a partial quote:

      Sarah said she thought the sunshine was “better than kittens”.

      “Sunshine makes me so happy,” she said. “I’m going to dance in my backyard.”

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