On Teaching Writing

quill pen writing womanI love to teach writing. I have taught writing for research in various contexts: to voluntary sector practitioners, statutory sector managers, and postgraduate students. Next weekend, for the first time, I will be running a writing course for doctoral students with Katy Vigurs at Staffordshire University. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this – I’ve had so much fun already, just doing the preparation.

There is a school of thought that considers writing can’t be taught. I’m afraid I think that’s utter rubbish. For sure, there’s an element of ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’, as the saying goes. Ultimately, however much teaching someone has, there comes a point where they have to get on with the writing for themselves – and there are people who continually struggle at that point. Writing is particularly hard, I think, for people who don’t like writing but have to do it anyway. I’m lucky that I like writing, and I’m confident I can pass on some ways to make it less onerous and more fun – or at least more productive.

Writing isn’t easy to teach, and it’s difficult to learn, but there are lots of tricks of the trade which the more experienced writer can pass on. Some people can learn from written advice, whether on blogs like that of the estimable Pat Thomson, or in books by people like Pat or Rowena Murray. But for many, there is no substitute for time in a classroom with a group of other learners and a skilful tutor or two.

I learned a lot, years ago, from attending courses myself. I went on three Arvon courses, and a doctoral writing workshop at the University of the West of England (UWE). Two of the Arvon courses focused on novel writing and were useful for my fiction work. The other Arvon course, and the workshop at UWE, both focused on the permeability of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, and the way some writing techniques can be used for both.

I attended these two courses during my doctoral studies and they were inspirational. I’d already been grappling with ideas around truth versus authenticity, the function of creativity in research, and the role of storytelling in human communication. I had read Sol Stein’s book Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction and Non-Fiction which also suggests that fiction writing techniques can benefit non-fiction writing, and vice versa. This concept has been a huge influence on my work ever since. I have written about it in academic journals and books, and now I’m going to teach it, properly, for the first time.

Among the learning outcomes I’ve set for my students are: writing non-fiction is a creative process, writing is hard even when you’re skilled and experienced, and thinking and writing are inextricably linked. I have also promised them that they will come away from the weekend with between 1,000 and 5,000 new words of their thesis, depending on how far advanced they are in the process. The group includes students at every stage, from those who have only recently begun to those in their final months. I would expect students to write more slowly at first, more quickly in the later stages.

They will be doing creative writing exercises. Not just for fun, though I hope there will be some of that too. The exercises are designed to teach students about overcoming resistance to writing, the purpose of rewriting, how writing helps thinking, and voice. There will also be a number of ‘shut up and write’ sessions where we will all write together, as well as plenty of time for questions and discussion, not to mention cake. And in the evenings we will, as writers often do, patronise a nearby hostelry.

It may be a working one – but I am so looking forward to the weekend!

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