I believe the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “Yes”, but I’m biased. As a longtime writing instructor and tutor, I’ve had the pleasure of helping students from a broad spectrum of ages and backgrounds improve their writing. How do I know their writing improved? Because I often saw these same students over a period of weeks, semesters and even years, and not only could I see positive changes in sentence and paragraph structure, grammar, punctuation and word choice, I could feel their confidence levels rise—and that has always been my true measure of success. I can only hope part of that advancement and confidence was due to my instruction.
I’ve also seen my own writing improve with the help of many writing classes, the study of excellent writers and their writing, and lots of just plain writing with enforced deadlines. I’ve also been lucky to have had top-notch editors whose invaluable advice only improved my words before publication. If I didn’t think I could improve with solid instruction and hard work, I simply wouldn’t continue to write.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, two well-known writers squared off on this topic and in the process, illuminated both the art and craft of writing. One writer’s theory is: If writing is an art form, then it’s less likely that good (or possibly great) writing can be taught. One of the authors, Rivka Galchen, argues: “I believe that in most every intellectual endeavor, the extremes of its work come from an unteachable dark.” This idea seems to feed into the “tortured artist” theory that claims great writing and other artistic masterpieces can be produced only through manic or drug-induced episodes where the artist looses herself to the creative process.
And let’s face it, innate talent has a lot to do with great writing—I’ve been pea green with envy after reading some of my students’ work, because I could see a real, individual style in their writing. But these natural talents may have much more to do with creating fiction and poetry at the extreme ends of the masterpiece spectrum, rather than producing clear, concise technical, business or even creative non-fiction writing. As Galchen says, “Somehow, with the sciences—with most every subject—we don’t think that the measure of teaching is the production of masters.”
On the other hand, there are basic principles of good writing that can and should be taught, like grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and logical organization, and learning these basics will vastly improve anyone’s writing. The opposing author in the writing debate, Zoe Heller, believes that “…teaching young people how to organize and present their ideas in lucid prose…” is part of the mission of teaching “critical thinking” that most of today’s curriculums embrace. We all have to communicate, and we will only benefit from communicating in the clearest, most direct fashion. Luckily, top notch writing instructors and editors can help almost anyone achieve that goal—if the writers are willing to put in the study, practice and seemingly endless revisions it might take.
Heller also laments her daughter’s high school writing education because of its narrow strictures for writing, in this case a book report, that she describes as “a single, graceless formula…” She compares this writing formula to “…wearing a too small, too stiff bridesmaid’s dress: It’s a joyless exercise and the results are never pretty.”
Many, including me, believe that all writing can rise to the level of an art form. The process of creating that prose should be full of joy and grace rather than a boring formula. And it may well depend on the bond and collaboration between the instructor and student that takes the process from dull to joyful. While we all may not be able to create writing masterpieces, we should all master the basics of writing. If you didn’t do so in high school, you should certainly do that now—and that will help your confidence levels soar!