Can Writing Be Taught?

Can writing be taught? This question was recently debated in the “Bookends” section of The New York Times Book Review (8/24/14). Both Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller agreed that, yes, it can be taught. How well or why the teaching of writing is so debated when we accept that we can teach biology, chemistry, history, ethics, music, painting–these are the issues raised by Galchen and Heller.

Since I am an old English teacher, who spent the better part of her life trying to teach writing, or composition as we sometimes called it, to college freshmen, I do believe that writing can be taught. But over the years, I must say I  struggled with the way it was taught–and I frequently doubted my ability to teach people to write.

The Comp 101 classes, still required in most colleges and universities, grew out of the old rhetorical tradition dating back to Aristotle and Socrates. During the Greek and Roman times, rhetoric was a part of public discourse. How do we convince people to see our side of the argument? It grew into a detailed study of sometimes formulaic methods of argumentation and debate.  A quick check of the definition of the word rhetoric reveals the inherent problem with the rhetorical approach to teaching writing:

1 : the art of speaking or writing effectively
2 : the study or use of the principles and rules of composition
3 a : skill in the effective use of speech b : language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful

Note that this definition begins with the word art, but ends with the more current association with rhetoric:  “language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful” as in “cut the rhetoric and get to the issue.” In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the word appears in this sentence:  “No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.”  

This passage occurs early in the novel and refers to a long speech in which Dorothea’s pedantic future husband, Mr. Casaubon, has attempted to express his ardor for Dorothea. But his rhetoric is frigid. This is a foreshadowing of Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s disastrous marriage. Mr. Casaubon wants to tell Dorothea how he feels, but his brain has become so tangled up with rhetoric that what comes out, while sounding good, is really a mess. Unfortunately, Dorothea is blinded by her idealized notions of love and her own lofty ambitions.

With the classical, rhetorical approach to writing, people often learn the techniques of effective argumentation as a substitute for truth and honesty and real thinking.  It is much easier to teach the structure of the five-paragraph essay (or theme as it was called by my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy) than it is to teach how to write clearly and truthfully with insight and even a dash of creativity.  All you need is an introduction with a thesis statement that includes three points that you must develop in three body paragraphs and finally a conclusion to re-state or summarize the three points. And so can begin the death march to disastrous writing.images

Dorothea, because she is young and wants to be in love, makes Casaubon’s speech mean what she wants it to mean. Mr. Casaubon’s life work is to write the great book, which never gets written. No wonder. He can not be true to himself. How to teach a person like Casaubon to write? There is no easy, fill-in-the-blanks formula. That is why we can keep telling budding writers to read, read, read great writing. But it is deeper than that. Thus the dilemma of teaching writing.

Still I bow down to my English teachers–especially the great ones, who tried their best to help us see the light. How can I ever forget thin, waif-like Miss Walsh, my eleventh grade high school English teacher. Or my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, who was sturdy as a fire plug, and a formidable opponent to those in her classes who could not, or would not, learn all the comma rules or how to diagram sentences. My brother did not have the same high regard as I for dear Mrs. Murphy. “She ruined my ninth grade year,” he said recently. There again the predicament of teaching writing–how not to kill off any love for the written word that might be trying desperately to blossom. I know too many people who hated their English classes and can only remember their red-penciled essays.

That’s why I never used red pens: only blue ones.



This image was from a home-school teacher, who teaches the “Five-Paragraph Theme”  as a monster. Truly scary! Oh, well.


Writing Challenge: What do you have to say about your English or writing teachers?  Go for ten minutes in your writer’s notebook. Can writing be taught?


In my next blog, I’ll talk about my recent visit to Ireland–and my emotional moment with William Butler Yeats. Also I still want to tell you about the workshop I attended this summer with Rebecca McClanahan and what Rebecca, a master, taught me about writing.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. I always enjoy your comments and e-mail.


4 thoughts on “Can Writing Be Taught?

  1. I’ve been wanting to write about this debate in the Book Review myself. Too much of our education in the “creative arts” has been about rules and little about the creative process. For 35 years I have taught voice to people who had been told in elementary school that they were “tone deaf” and spent their lives wanting to sing, but believing they couldn’t. I teach writing in a senor center and in a college’s community courses and am amazed, over and over, at what marvelous writing people can produce without being trained in the rules of grammar and punctuation. I help them add commas, etc., but tell them that the rules exist only to make the reader comfortable.

    • Good to hear your reactions to the post, Carol. Many people believe they cannot write for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s because they compare themselves to great writers or perhaps they think they have no talent. I too have been amazed by the writing of the people who take my workshops. So what can be taught? I still believe that there is much to learn about the craft of writing. Maybe that is all we can truly teach, although I agree that an understanding of the creative process helps also.

  2. My favorite writing teacher was a woman in the Temple, Texas community college who always gave me A over D. A for content; D for mechanics. She was my French teacher too and I really liked her – wore her snow white hair in a bun on the top of her head. Now I could.

    She gave tests that asked us to choose the correct word in a sentence (I could always do that) who or whom, me or I, etc. and I could always do that, but the second part of the question was Why? I never knew. The subject? The object? Couldn’t say. One day I became so frustrated with the test that after I chose the correct word, in the Why section I wrote, “Because my mother told me to!” She laughed but she still counted it wrong.

    It wasn’t until I began teaching ESL that I finally understood grammar. That’s the text we should use for our freshmen comp students, not simply assume they “got it” somewhere in grade school. They don’t. Because teachers in grade school aren’t taught a subject, they’re taught how to teach. So we all grow up with teachers who don’t know how to teach the mechanics. And if they don’t have it by high school, they’ve decided they can’t write.

    Teaching ESL turned me into a grammar geek, and now I can teach mechanics in an understandable way because I learned as my ESL students learned. Four years of teaching ESL got the stuff implanted in my head. I use the same kind of worksheets now to show patterns that I used then and it works.

    But no, you don’t need to know grammar to write. It helps if you want someone to read it, however! And getting rid of the term “Proper English” and replacing it with “Standard English” helps take the shame off.

    I think I did a rant.

    I don’t know if you can “teach” writing. But you can teach them not to be afraid of writing.

    • What a great response to this blog post, Janet! This is why I enjoy writing these. You helped me remember the A/D system, which, in a way, served a good purpose. At least you knew that your stumbling attempt was worth doing and that if you could just get the mechanics right, you were on your way. I also like that this woman was your favorite teacher. She was tough and demanding, but with a great sense of humor. That’s what I loved about Mrs. Murphy. You didn’t mess around in her class; you got right to work. She had high standards because she knew students deserved this. Also I identify with your ESL experience. After I retired, I volunteered to assist with ESL students, mostly from Somalia. I too am a grammar geek and sometimes tell people that my tombstone should read: “She could punctuate.” That would be thanks to dear Mrs. Murphy!

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