The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

11 thoughts on “The challenge(s) of teaching writing

  1. For me, it’s just sitting down and staying focused on writing when I’m tired and all I want to do is watch Netflix or read books or laugh at someone’s antics on YouTube. Or just sleep. Working so many hours in the day can be exhausting, and often, even after you get home and rest up and have dinner, just staying focused is a challenge. Hopefully I’ll be able to change that. I’m looking into ways to change my habits, so we’ll see.

  2. Yes! I still have notes from our time together Caitlyn which were invaluable. I saw here that “blogging” does not have to be stream-of-consciousness drivel splashed onto the screen. Your points about finding a way to communicate both the personal and the universal, along with finding a mix of the relevant and “ever-green” topics are a few of the many helpful guideposts I use to self-edit before each post.

    1. “blogging” does not have to be stream-of-consciousness drivel splashed onto the screen…

      Oh hell no! 🙂

      That’s why, for me, too many blogs are a quick miss…entirely too personal with zero notion that there is an AUDIENCE, potentially in the millions (with re-tweets, etc), so why blow that very rare opportunity with an open journal of interest to…not many people?

      It may be that working as a writer since 1978 has made this much clearer to me — NO ONE owes any of us their attention or interest, let alone ongoing. NEVER. It is our job to work for it. Yes, work. Yes, for no $$$$. Yes, with no guaranteed ROI.

      It’s our work as writers to connect quickly and (we hope!) intimately. Only then are we memorable.

  3. you’ll do great. it’s always so much better to teach/present when you know your subject well and have a passionate personal interest in it. as for writing, practice has helped me, and not everything is a hit, but i do try to be thoughtful in what i write and to consider who the audience will be or the purpose of the writing.

    1. It helps when students are able to make use of it…sometimes I just don’t have much time to help. With only 8 hours together, my NYSID class can only be something of a refresher,

  4. Have saved this. “A few steps the best prose requires:
    Have you revised the hell out of it?
    Have you read it in hard copy?
    Have you read it aloud?
    Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?”

    Good. Thank you

  5. The song lyric is a wonderful example of all the components needed to capture an audience. I could connect with that song lyric. I used to be classified as legally blind, for me those components are even heightened as a reader and the listener.

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