Writing is a complex skill, but like any skill, it is eminently teachable and there are known ways to go about it. You wouldn’t know that from reading the media about education–critics of both the public education system and higher education prattle on about students not being able to write despite objective evidence getting in their way again and again. There are some fairly understandable reasons for this, as explained in an article published at the Chronicle for Higher Education this week. At the same time, though, the presence of these mostly uninformed opinions that fail to articulate what it is that they wish students knew more precisely are also doing something else. They are convincing people outside of education that writing is some kind of esoteric skill, something that is based in intrinsic talent or worth and not in the hours of discipline and research it takes to acquire a skill that most people don’t understand has to be acquired in a society that is designed to convince you that if you aren’t good at it, you can’t do it.
That’s a problem. It’s a problem because a fair number of people who drop out of college or decide not to attempt it do so on the basis of their self-perceived writing skills and their lack of faith that they will be able to acquire this skill set. It also keeps perfectly capable storytellers from going full-force with their craft and having the courage to submit for publication, and it mirrors the kinds of downright evil attitudes about the role of education and the purpose of it in society that fuels the efforts of those who would seek to dismantle and weaken our public education system simply to make it cheaper.
Taking on these attitudes is a radical act, as ridiculous as that might seem, but it’s a radical act we can each take on our own. After spending most of a decade pursuing a terminal degree and most of another decade attempting to make it work as a college instructor, I’m realizing that the best place to start change is where the people who insist on continuing this debate have no platform and no reputation to stand on. It’s here, in conversations with people who Google things like “writing advice” or “how to write college papers.” It’s showing you how putting together the things you already know about genre, or should know if you follow fan sites like TV Tropes, alongside a deeper understanding of the craft choices that make them easy for readers to perceive and the rhetorical choices that help you to show them the way you want them to understand your writing.
Most importantly, it’s about understanding that while there are many purposes to writing and many messages you can send with it, there is ultimately only one craft. The methods of investigating and interrogating texts that allow creative writers to build a library of techniques serve those working on research papers and technical documents very well too (just ask me about my relationship to spec sheets). And on the other hand, it really helps creative writers to understand what their word choices, attitudes, and choices about subject matter (and its resolution) have to say to readers about the beliefs they will pick up and attribute to the piece’s narrator and author-characters, whether they are implied or otherwise.
That’s why Lynn and I are starting Code School on this blog. We want to talk about writing. Most importantly, we want to get down to the basics so that people who are looking for a study guide or trying to decode a new genre have a large library to work from. And we want to make sure we’re not missing anything, which is why we are trading off and sharing the byline for these blogs. I’ll be talking structure, characterization, detail, and basically how to make it less work for people to understand you. Lynn will be talking rhetoric, showing you how you show yourself to others and discussing how you can shape the direction of your readers’ thoughts with powerful enough choices. Together, we’re going to organize the work into courses, taking on topics with weekly posts for 10 to 15 weeks before moving on.
Writing is nothing without practice, though. That’s why we will be leaving comments on for all the posts–that way, you can work out fragments, link to your own blogs as you work through similar topics, or ask craft questions as you need. Just remember, writing is a skill like any other. You learn by doing more than by reading or hearing.
The next four months, until the end of April, will be spent on topics that most universities consider remedial, like how to craft a topic sentence and what the deal is with writing teachers’ obsessions with thesis statements. Once we hit the end of the talks on those topics, we’ll poll the readers to see what you’d like the summer series to look like.