Empowering Writers

Free Writing vs Skills & Practice

Given the demands of 21st century standards, teachers of writing will need to be much more skills-centered in their instruction. However, the word “skills”, when used in relation to writing, sometimes suggests didactic drills, formulaic tricks, and a “basalization” of the writing process. Having young writers work on skills may seem tantamount to stifling their creative flow and interrupting the natural process of writing.

However, talk to any successful, published author and you’ll discover that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in all of the arts – music, fine art, theater – all meaningful, moving work is informed and empowered with skills so well honed as to become nearly invisible to the casual observer. The concert pianist articulates brilliant passages of sparkling music because of the hours spent on technique – scales, arpeggios, and exercises designed to build strength and dexterity in the fingers and harmonic awareness in the mind and ear. An artist has an understanding of and facility to use line, shape, form, composition, and perspective as the underpinnings of powerful visual statements that move the observer.

In the same way, powerful writing is informed by numerous discrete skills, that, when practiced over time will inform and empower the resulting writing. The idea of having students “just write”, producing quantity without quality, without an understanding and practical experience of the specific skills good writers possess is a hit or miss proposition at best.

A perfect example of this is a friend of mine who inherited a beautiful antique grand piano that graces her parlor. My friend would love to make music on this stately old instrument, so every day she sits down and dabbles at the keys. Needless to say, sitting down on the bench and “just playing” has produced less than stellar results. Unless a natural prodigy or someone with an unusual innate gift, the dabbler, in music, art, or writing will simply become a more comfortable dabbler – but never a skilled artist.

One concern is that teaching skills will produce formulaic work. There is some truth to this, perhaps, in the early stages of learning. For example, let’s take a beginning sewing class in which the students produce a garment. They learn the basics of sewing – how to read, cut, and place the pattern pieces, how to cut, pin, and stitch the pieces together. In the end, except for the individual fabric each student chose, they’ll produce nearly identical garments. However, this is just the initial basic assured learning experience. Students who continue on learn how to adapt a pattern to better express their own personal sense of style and function. In time, the basic assured skills disappear into the background, providing the student a solid foundation onto which they can build and express their own creative vision. Think of Pablo Picasso’s early work, nearly photographic in its literal depiction of his subjects, articulated with great skill. This ability to produce such perfect literal depiction is not apparent to the observer in his later, signature, abstract works, but is clearly the foundation from which he could launch his own vision. Such it is in all the arts. Artists and writers learn the skills, the rules, the basics of their craft, then, over time, through ongoing pursuit and practice, earn the right, and gain the confidence to “break” these rules, and apply the skills in creative, unique ways. But, learning and earning skill is where they must begin. There are no shortcuts.

The idea of simply providing students with a set number of minutes a day for “free writing” can be a panacea for the teacher who is uncertain about how to improve student writing. We’ve all heard writers say, “You have to write every day.” This is certainly true. However, you cannot assume that improvement will evolve through free-writing without specific skill instruction or informed teacher direction. This is not an indictment of teachers who simply provide daily writing time with little direct instruction. In fact, in fairness, most teachers, in their teacher-preparation courses and even in graduate school, have not had a course specifically geared to writing skills or to writing instruction. So, many teachers, while recognizing good from weak writing, do not have the specific skills and strategies necessary to empower their students to improve. The myth that “just writing” will produce improvement in most students is one that is appealing – if only it was true.

In fact, writers themselves support the idea of working on discrete skills as opposed to the notion that a person can “just write” in some creative flow in order to produce a fine piece of writing. What do experts say about this?

  • In his classic book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, author John Gardner says: “Fiction is made of structural units; it is not one great rush. Every story is built of a number of such units: a passage of description, a passage of dialogue, an action, another passage of description, more dialogue, and so forth. The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one.”
  • Jesse Lee Kercheval, author of Building Fiction, says, “Readers and teachers are like visitors who’ve paid money to tour a famous home. Ah, readers say, what lovely rooms. Yes, the teacher says, notice the artful placement of the windows. Writers look at a story the way a carpenter or architect looks at a house: They see the surface but also the structure under the paint. They know how the house is put together and how much work it was to build.”
  • Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes art as pattern imposed upon experience. Real life is chaotic, unpredictable, and random. Fiction, on the other hand, is sequential, deliberate, built on a highly selective series of cause-and-effect events.
  • Author/educator Ronald Tobias in his book Theme and Strategy says: “Patterns are fundamental to human nature. We like to create them (the arts) and we like to discover them (the sciences). In writing, these two powerful forces combine: as artists we create the patterns, but we create them for audiences to find…creativity is fluid and, like water, it is formless and always conforms to the container that holds it. If there’s no vessel to contain the water, then it will run off and drain endlessly.
  • William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, says: “Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves, as if they were working on any other project that requires logic: making a shopping list or doing an algebra problem.”

Clearly, those who’ve spent their lives writing focus on mastering sets of discrete skills as the building blocks of their art and their craft.

Therefore, having teachers become familiar with specific skills and strategies as well as a methodology for the successful delivery of these skills is critical. Although teachers typically do not receive this training during their teacher preparation courses, they can certainly become empowered while immersed in the classroom.

When teachers identify, then model specific, discrete, genre-specific writing skills and then have students try their hands through guided practice, students begin to recognize the building blocks of effective writing. They begin to read differently, with a much sharper awareness of the ways in which authors apply skills in order to move readers. No longer does a teacher simply recognize good writing, but he/she can take the writing apart in terms of the discrete skills that, collectively, make a piece of writing successful.

Empowered teachers of writing no longer see themselves as facilitators of an unwieldy process that may or may not yield results. Rather, they begin to see themselves as writers, as master teachers, as writing role models whom students desire to emulate. They begin to see, in objective terms, the exciting and satisfying results of their instruction. They relate student improvement directly to their efforts. They build, through their own efforts, communities of empowered writers.