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.