I cannot teach you to write. No one can.
I cannot teach you to sing. I cannot teach you to pause in the moment before dusk and appreciate the sunset. I cannot teach you to love and be kind to your fellow human beings. I cannot teach you to step into your forehand and follow through.
You can learn all of these things. And I, or other teachers, can teach you to be better at them. But in the end, you must want to learn, and you must be willing to fail. Once you fail, I can help you to see why and how you failed, and to be better.
“Ah, he is a good teacher,” you may say. But until you are ready to learn, I cannot teach you anything.
There are things I can show you.
If you write, I can show you why you use too many words. And I can tell you why, and how to think about what you write to fix it.
I can show you that yes, it is spelled “restaurateur,” and when to use a comma after an introductory phrase. These are not deep things, but still, you may find them interesting.
I can share better ways to prepare yourself to write, so that writing itself becomes more fluid.
I cannot tell you what a story is, but I can show you why what you have written is not one, and how to fix it.
I can point out the habits you have — passive voice, jargon, weasel words — that muddy your meaning and confuse your readers.
If you’re writing an essay, I can give you tips. If you’re writing a book chapter, I can share a way to structure it. If you’re writing a blog post, I can tell you how to begin.
If you work with others, I can tell you how to collaborate without so much pain.
But really, the best thing for you to do is write and then share what you have written with someone else who writes and thinks about writing — and who is generous enough to share that knowledge.
If you can get past the hit to your ego and pay attention to the criticism, you will learn. You will become better. The more you do this, the better you will get.
No one can teach you to write. But if you write, we can help you learn to be better.
5 responses to “I cannot teach you to write. But I can help you to learn.”
“If you can get past the hit to your ego and pay attention to the criticism, you will learn. You will become better. The more you do this, the better you will get.” -> TRUTH! That criticism is part of the growth. Great post.
This is so very true – particularly about the hit to the ego. I always considered myself a good writer and have even made money as a copywriter. So, when I went on a (very good) writing course, they asked for 1000 words of something I had written. Entirely confident, I sent off the last thing I had written. It was pretty boring stuff, some quite technical writing. But I was confident it was grammatically perfect.
It turns out I am (was) a serial user of the passive voice, and there were other ways my writing wasn’t all that good. Grammatically perfect? Close. Really easy to digest? No.
Once I had got over the hit to the ego, I really started to think about the reader and it makes such a difference. I also learned a great quote that day:
“I’m sorry for writing such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one”. Oh so true.
I now teach writing at work (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king) and by far the toughest part is dealing with reasonably good writers who, like me, just want to be told how good they are.
I forgot to add that everybody on my course gets a copy of your book. The first five chapters are required reading.
Wow. Thanks, Mike, I appreciate the support. Keep pushing the boulder up that hill!
Hey Josh, I know that in the past your writing/expertise was technical writing. My daughter is an aspiring writer but in the fiction genre. I (of course) am so impressed by her, she has had “stories in her head” for years, literally since middle school. She sits at her computer for hours writing and sharing with her friends and family for feedback on google docs. Do you give feedback on that type of writing? She has submitted a book and now has a short story she wants to publish. I have no idea how to guide her into this world and “they” suggested that her stories (at least one publisher of that genre) need an amount of words that was typically minimum for the stories to be published. Any suggestions/guidance?