Sharing the Studio

November 9, 2022 § 22 Comments

Why aren’t we teaching writing technique?

By Allison K Williams

Writing is the only art form without a focus on technique. Sure, we take English class in high school and learn about the past perfect tense. College Composition 101 implants the five-paragraph essay, which must later be uprooted to write creatively. And workshops give us feedback on the emotional impact of our pages, the character’s journey or the storyline.

None of that is technique.

Technique—in any art—involves formally examining one’s fellow students’ work and immediately applying the lessons of their success and failure to one’s own work, under the guidance of a skilled teacher.

Ballet students spend hours at the barre, perfecting small movements before stringing those steps together. The teacher singles out the best pliés, the strongest knee position, even the most attractive foot arch, and points out sloppy posture, poky elbows and jutting chins. Every student dancer hopes to be singled out. Praise means you’re doing it right; criticism means your teacher thinks you can do it right.

As an artists’ model, I held still while students sketched, including one memorable lesson where, with my permission, the teacher circled my “fat pads” with washable magic marker on my skin, to show how drawing the female body is less dependent on musculature. After that, and every other sketching session, students circled the room to inspect each others’ work. As they moved from easel to easel, the teacher pointed out on each drawing where the line was strong, or a student had nailed a tricky shadow, as well as where they’d gone wrong, often adding a few quick pencil strokes to show what should be on the paper.

Musicians sing or play hours of scales, then rehearse with a conductor calling out missed notes and coaching the emotional interpretation of the score.

In most writing workshops, we discuss “craft” in terms of expressing emotional content on the page. Show-don’t-tell. Sensory details. Honesty. Those elements are valuable, and we need them to write. But we also need technique. What word arrangement best shows that sensory detail? How do the rules of grammar transform into strong paragraphs?

I’ve been to plenty of prestigious workshops and residencies, studied with noted teachers and gotten an MFA. My playwriting classes talked about structure and character objective; I’ve never studied either in a prose writing class. Playwrights learn to write dialogue so the actors will be guided to say it as we envision by the words themselves—not by stage directions like (angrily). I’ve heard “no adverbs!” many times, but I’ve never been taught in a prose workshop what to do instead.

Most of us teach ourselves what sentence structures make powerful writing by trial and error. One glorious day, I discovered the difference between a purposeful long sentence and an ineffective run-on: prepositional phrases! Words like across the room or in her hands or two days ago locate the reader in time and space. Too many relocations and they’re lost. Truly at that moment, I felt the angels sing.

Workshops can usually only cover short sections of full works. Too often, we’re not aware of the pace or rhythm of the whole book. Did you know that scenes need to accelerate near the end of a book, to create a feeling of inevitability in the reader, and one way to accelerate is by making each scene a little bit shorter? I don’t know if Cheryl Strayed teaches that, but Wild ends with chapters of 25 pages, 12 pages, 15 pages and 11 pages, then closes with 10 years’ worth of epilogue on a single page.

Many writing workshops reward the students who arrive with the most talent by helping them get better from where they are. The students with rougher skills can hope to apply the feedback to their own work, but too often what they get boils down to an inspirationally-delivered, “Great idea! Now scrap everything you’ve got and start over!”

But with what tools should they rebuild?

Most writers want to be able to analyze their own work and make it better. We all go through stages where our great idea has outstripped our ability to express it on the page.

Writer Deborah Lucas commented beautifully on this blog:

Art in any form, whether it be words on a page or paint on a canvas, I have found, goes through a process I like to call “the uglies.” It’s the destruction of the caterpillar before becoming the butterfly in the chrysalis. Even on emergence, the wings must dry and the body must warm before it can take flight. If your work is seen by the wrong person, say a less-than-matured editor, it can be devastating, even lethal to the creator.

Getting through the uglies means acquiring and using specific tools that have nothing to do with the power of the story or the emotional commitment of the teller. Improving our craft means receiving and applying feedback on the mechanics of language, and formally observing our fellow students’ works-in-progress to see those mechanics in action. Technique shapes great ideas into considered, focused, interesting and beautiful books—and more of us should be teaching it.

__________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.

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§ 22 Responses to Sharing the Studio

  • If Allison Williams is right about what’s taught in writing workshops- I haven’t taken enough to know – then that is a real shame. But there are two other avenues for learning craft not mentioned in her piece.

    First is, by yourself, analyzing the craft in stand-out pieces of short writing. Read each piece several times, noting sentence structure, paragraphing, word choice, transitions, etc. I did this without a teacher when I was beginning to write for magazines.

    Second is learning from editors. Some writers rush through edits without reflecting on them, but I would study hard what made my editor slash words or rearrange them. My best learning experience along these lines was when I wrote 3-minute radio commentaries for WBUR in Boston. Already every word counted, but my editor and I would discuss little improvements in verb tense, prepositions, sentence rhythm and so on. What great lessons those were for me!

  • I agree that “technique” gets short shrift. Grammar and analyzing sentences don’t arouse our creative spirits. Neither does playing scales for hours, drawing a straight line over and over, or practicing a plié until our knees shake.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      And I think the challenge is that writing technique isn’t just grammar–it’s learning what that grammar does and how it functions, rather than applying “rules.”

  • Kristine Kopperud says:

    Thanks, Allison. I’m reminded of a similar gap in the training of journalists: very few schools teach students how to interview their sources. We learn who to interview, how to create balance of perspective, how to fact-check, but not how to cultivate the brief relationship known as an interview, or how to listen as closely as necessary to hear what’s being said. I’ve been lucky to learn by apprenticing to talented mentors, but it would be helpful to call it what it is: technique. Thanks, again.

  • Deborah Sosin says:

    So much wisdom here, Allison! Love the arts analogies. I get so frustrated in writing classes when, in a discussion of “what works” and “what doesn’t work,” people avoid analyzing technique, as if they’re being too picky or critical. But picking is exactly what can strengthen the prose on the page.

  • tammyvitale says:

    I was going to ask where you’ve been looking for technique. I’ve taken several online at Writer’s Village University to prop up 12 years of catholic school in the 50s and 60s, and more recently taking my own MFA courses at Lindenwood U online. But then I got to the bottom and see the whole essay was really a presale for your own classes here. So I will just say there are plenty such classes being offered if you look for them, and I’m sure the class being offered here is also a good addition

    Tammy Vitale

  • Not to be one of those moms, but I’ll add that the kids aren’t learning how to write–from a phrase to sentence to paragraph level–anymore. (And just look at my poor sentence construction there!) So, I can’t see it getting much better. In my MFA program, it was expected we already knew the nuts and bolts. Also, the nuts and bolts are less fun to teach than the emotive parts of getting a story on the page. Perhaps profs feel they are past teaching the mechanics of story. In any case, thanks for this. I’m long past my plie days, but as I practice my arpeggios today (I have a tricky piece to sing for a Christmas concert) I will remember that the practice of technique in my writing should also be an everyday activity.

    • You are likely correct, but this varies from one place to another. When I was hired to teach English to HS juniors, no one was teaching them much but how to write by the seat of their pants. When I argued for introducing the 5-paragraph essay, my peers countered that the structure was old hat. But the students didn’t know that structure or any structure at all. They were asking them to run without first getting them to stand up!

      When I convinced the Freshman teacher to teach paragraph structure he was amazed at how this improved his students’ writing!

      If you learned to write “intuitively” by reading a lot of great writing, you might fail tontine the skills you were acquiring. Thus you don’t appreciate what you need to pass on to students.

  • You are so right about so much. As one example: “I’ve heard ‘no adverbs!’ many times, but I’ve never been taught in a prose workshop what to do instead.” I watched an MFA student dragged over the coals for “whispered” and then another fifteen minutes trying to come up with an alternative. [Which they didn’t.] Perhaps some teachers in MFA programs don’t know how they do it themselves. They have managed through whatever means to write well, but don’t know much more than those tired rules to share with students. [I used to teach “The Things They Carried” specifically to show how sentence structure carries the story: long sentences followed by the key short one and lists that go from mundane to terrifying.]

  • Allison, you have to consider that invoking critical comments on style by workshop participants is a mine field, as many students in writing workshops do not have those skills. So as you suggest the teacher has to become the ballet instructor who points out the” fat pads. ” both in terms of style and content . The vast majority of creative writing teachers do not have tenure in a university setting and they get rehired on the basis of student evaluations plus many students are there to experience ” a writing community,” and to be encouraged. So they are sensitive to perceived negativity. At the community- based workshop i taught in for years the director clearly stated that my job necessitated getting good evaluations and repeat students who paid stiff fees for the courses which kept the program going . . I found ways to help students become better writers but it meant a lot of work which i did after , not before, they wrote evaluations. Creative writing instruction is often a business,

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Such an important thing to keep in mind – it’s a shame so many programs constrain their teachers. When I studied as an actor, there was a lot of very direct feedback and by the end of the semester we all welcomed it—part of it is the environment of a school that treated us like we were there to work, not necessarily to feel great about ourselves.

  • charwilkins75 says:

    The idea that “Technique shapes great ideas into considered, focused, interesting and beautiful books” was something I came to appreciate during Allison and Dinty Moore’s Rebrith Your Book retreat in Tuscany this fall. Watching them do live editing on our work helped me see how structure can deliver an impactful, even memorable, sentence or paragraph that could do more for tone, pace and character development than an emotion-ladened outpouring.

  • Your analogy to ballet and music study is perfect. We wouldn’t teach a class on painting without showing examples from the masters, yet high school teachers still assign writing without first providing a master model and helping the students see how it was put together.
    When I began my teaching career working as a middle school reading specialist/English teacher, I used samples of my published work to teach the kids about the writing process. This was so successful that I began developing my own curriculum based that brought the author to life. Instead of just asking where a story took place, I asked: how does the author let you know where the story happens? To teach craft, I pointed out a particular author’s “special effects” a gave them names like “dazzling dialogue”, “vivacious verbs”. The kids experimented with using these techniques and identifying them in published stories. We also read about the lives of each author studied. This led to two educational grants and a handbook for teachers. This was all at the cusp of the Internet.
    Today I mentor young writers and still use this approach.

  • lgrizzo says:

    Very thought-provoking. How can we improve if we don’t know how to achieve our goals?

  • […] blogged a couple weeks ago about writing technique. How it’s valuable for artists to explore their craft and their tools […]

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