Unteachable: Learning to Write

You’re up next! This is an important presentation, one that could get you that promotion you’ve wanted for so long. Last time, your knees were knocking together so loudly that no one could hear you speak, but this time, you’ve been practicing. You’re ready. And it’s showtime.

I’ve long held that you can’t teach writing. You can improve on natural talent, but if the talent’s not there, then too bad. Yet writing a good essay is very similar to presenting a good speech—and for some reason, I thought speaking well could be taught. I taught competitive speech myself for several years in high school. Why, then, don’t I think writing can be learned?

Compared to other disciplines, you’d think writing isn’t really that different. For every subject, the learning formula is more or less the same: practice, practice, practice. Repeat the lesson until it’s memorized. Practice until it’s second nature. Get corrected when your memorization or style has gone awry. You can use this same formula with writing, and with speaking. Memorize a few tactics, practice using those tactics. Appear friendly (or whatever your style is), communicate clearly. Get beta-readers to give you feedback, and be in tune with your audience. Yet, there’s something fundamentally different about communication when it comes to learning.

Learning. There are 8 letters in the word learning—did you see them? No, you saw a word, and more probably, you missed the word altogether and saw a concept. While there is something to understand in most subjects, when it comes to communication, you’re only trying to do two things—make the medium disappear (don’t annoy the audience with nervous gestures or misspellings), and optimally, make the medium enhance the content.

What is there to learn? The best communicators have intangible gut instincts about what makes a good show. The best communication is accomplished through imagination and just being in touch with that unconscious part of yourself that has learned, over a lifetime, what looks and sounds good and what doesn’t.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Ernest Hemingway

This is why watching good speakers is essential to becoming a good speaker. It’s why the key to writing is reading, reading, reading. Your unconscious needs to learn what to do, so you can forget the medium and focus on the content.

If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Stephen King, On Writing

In high school, I taught speech with fun exercises, practice, feedback, and videos of excellent speakers. When I got to college, I found my creative writing class taught the same way. We read excerpts of great creative nonfiction, did short impromptu writing exercises, wrote actual pieces, and received peer and professional feedback. Speaking and writing have the same recipe for excellence.

Yet, I was a writer long before taking this class. Most of the students who excelled were. And I wanted to be able to speak well, before I began to practice.

So are these two modes of communication learnable? Are they teachable? Ha! Who knows. But when you begin to practice these things, you learn about the core of who you are and how people perceive you. You learn your style, and what you do best. It’s a different type of learning, but even so, I think everyone should have a taste of it.


Further reading:

Notable Writing Quotes

What We Learn Through Writing


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