Can writing be taught?

By Rebecca Coles, Research Associate, The Open University 

It is one of the premises of The Craft of Writing project that in order to teach writing, we must know what writing is. We must understand what one needs to know, and be able to do, if one is to write. The project will bring professional writers together with researchers to compose a ‘Framework of Craft Knowledge’ around writing. ‘Wow’ I first thought when I heard: ‘Is that even possible?’

But the craft of writing is already very much discussed, and not only by instructional texts. There is a fascination in popular culture too with how writers write. Authors are regularly asked about their routines and rituals. Endless articles describe ‘the writing habits of famous writers’. We know that Wallace Stevens wrote while walking. Virginia Woolf wrote standing up. Roald Dahl had a special writing hut inspired by Dylan Thomas’s. James Joyce wrote in crayon. Nabokov wrote on index cards. Anthony Trollope aimed to write 250 words every quarter of an hour and Ernest Hemingway would stop each day at a time when he knew what he was going to write next, so he was able to get going again when he next picked up his pen! There is also a fascination with the texts that precede famous pieces of writing – with pages on which authors have sketched out a book’s structure and with pages of writing authors have scribbled over and changed.

Talking about a new anthology of writing about writing published this summer, Travis Elborough (who, by coincidence, has tutored at Lumb Bank, the Arvon centre in West Yorkshire where teachers will work with writers as part of the project) suggested that discussions about the craft of writing really got underway in the 50s and 60s as creative writing courses came into being, writers began teaching in universities, and a new televisual mass media invited writers to ‘explain themselves’ to the public.

Writers have often talked about routine, about the conditions they need in order to write, about planning and editing, and also about a part of the process that cannot quite be described, which is probably the source of much of the fascination that surrounds writing. Phillip Pullman for example, talking this month about writing his recent Book of Dust, commented “It’s a mysterious process [writing] […] I sit at my desk and stare at the wall blankly until I find my pen moving over the paper […] It’s a curious business and I’m not at all sure about it”. Perhaps having rituals around writing helps writers deal with its mysteries. Pullman apparently has a lucky pen and while writing Book of Dust said he’d made a ‘bargain with the muse’ to not cut his hair in exchange for it turning out well.

Pullman also described his approach to initial writing and editing. As he first writes a sentence he is more conscious, he says, of the ‘sound’ than the ‘meaning’ of it. It’s the ‘tone’, the ‘tone of voice’ that he sees as the most fundamental part of a book. This part of writing, he argues, feels like ‘discovery rather than invention’, like ‘the story is already there and I’ve got to find the best way to tell it’. Structure can be changed even at the last moment. This is particularly true on computers of course and Pullman first writes passages by hand and then, when he has a chapter, types it into a computer which he uses to edit it.

So, even if writing will always have a mysterious edge, it is also a process of being open to discovering a voice and a story, of editing and of attending to structure, that can be known and so can be taught and learnt.

Rebecca Coles
Research Associate
The Open University 

If you are interested in your school being part of The Craft of Writing project, please email me: rebecca.coles@open.ac.uk

 

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