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Can You "Learn" How to Write?
by Gloria T. Delamar

There's an old argument frequently raised by beginning writers, professional writers, and teachers of writing. Some say writing can be taught whereas others say it can't be. The answer, however, seems to lie somewhere in-between. 

A good fiction teacher can teach characterization, understanding of plotting techniques, uses and variations of dialogue, etc. A good non-fiction teacher can teach the organization of material, the variety of forms the writing might take, the styles and moods of presentation, etc. A good poetry teacher can teach format, rhythm, etc. 

What it comes down to is that craft, technique, and even language usage can be taught--but no one can teach another how to have "something to say." That has to come from the writer's life experience, perceptions, and psyche. 

Writing conferences can help because they offer the support of education (craft and technique), marketing information, and an atmosphere of camaraderie and exaltation in the writing process. Most conferees come away from these get-togethers with not only specific knowledge, but also with a writing-high that inspires them to keep on working. 

Professionals can help beginners by pointing out areas of a manuscript that show poor usage of grammar, punctuation, and syntax--that defy the rules of viewpoint, argument, or logic--or that simply do not "work." Teachers can be effective if they offer help on a student's work without imposing their own styles. Almost everything can be correctly stated in more than one way. Good teachers recognize this and point out flaws, offer suggestions, and then encourage students to re-work the pieces into better products. 

A writer can get help from books on writing if the books themselves are worth anything. Because writing styles change, one important consideration is to read writing books written by contemporary writers. Check the copyright dates to be sure you're learning current techniques. 

There are, nevertheless, some older books that deal with the philosophy of writing or usage that have rightfully earned their places as classics. Among these are Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up, Dorothea Brande's On Becoming a Writer, Claudia Lewis's Writing for Young Children, William Zinsser's On Writing Well, Fowler's Modern English Usage, and of course, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style

A writer's library should contain, at the very least, the last-mentioned book, a good-sized dictionary, and a thesaurus. To that should be added books about specific disciplines, and some general reference books. Any serious beginning writer should subscribe to both The Writer and Writer's Digest magazines; with somewhat differing philosophies and styles, they complement rather than duplicate each other. Indeed, most professional writers continue to subscribe because these publications offer the best shortcuts to learning about changes in the writing- market. 

For keeping current with publishers and their wants, there are Writers' Market and Literary Marketplace. Most libraries carry either or both, with the current year's copy in reference, and past years' copies in circulation. Read the past copies to get familiar with the publishers, but verify editor's names from the current copies. 

Another resource is Publishers' Weekly, a weekly magazine that offers an education in who is publishing what. It's expensive to subscribe to, and it may not be out on the shelf at your library, but if you ask for it, the librarian will probably get it for you from the back room where they keep their personal references. 

Still, the most important factor in learning to write is to write. Reading about writing and talking about writing are fine, but nothing can take the place of practice of the art. That applies to an over-concern with outline-making or query-writing, too, as these can rapidly become subsitututes for writing a complete piece. You have to develop some system and motivation that will keep you working. 

Beware, however, of assuming that someone else's work habits should be your own. Among the hardest working professionals, you'll find a broad range of approaches. Some work at 6 a.m. in the morning - night people often do their best work after midnight. Some writers set a goal of a certain number of words or pages they aim to complete each day - others don't. Some work one hour a day - some half-days - some whole-days. Some work one day a week - some five - some seven. There's no one right way. 

Expose yourself to a rich range of experiences; learn to observe and to understand the dynamics of culture and people. This will help you to have "something to say." Next, examine your own lifestyle, your own goals, and your own priorities, and make writing a comfortable part of your life. And if you would progress as a writer, get down to the process, and write. 

-  © Gloria T. Delamar
Insights into What it Takes

"Everyone thinks they can be a writer. Most people don't understand what's involved. The real writers persevere. The ones that don't either don't have enough fortitude and they probably wouldn't succeed anyway, or they fall in love with the glamour of writing as opposed to the writing of writing."

- Peter McWilliams 


 "More people than will ever complete a piece blithely announce they 'could write a book'. Often, that's merely because they know a few facts or incidents, or have the beginning of a story idea. Primarily, they are misled because they are under the impression that it's easy because, after all, they use the basic tool of language every day, don't they?. They have little comprehension of the many applications and subtleties of the craft. Especially, they have no perception of the time and effort that goes into the whole process."

- Gloria T. Delamar 


 "With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable."

-Thomas Buxton


 "At the beginning of their careers many writers have a need to overwrite. They choose carefully turned-out phrases; they want to impress their readers with their large vocabularies. By the excesses of their language, these young men and women try to hide their sense of inexperience. With maturity the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style."

- Jorge Luis Borges 


 "Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make much out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged into it." 

- Flannery O'Conner 


 "Technique is . . . any selection, structure, or distortion, any form or rhythm imposed upon the world of action; by means of which, it should be added, our apprehension of the world of action is enriched or renewed. In this sense, everything is technique which is not the lump of experience itself, and one cannot say that a writer has no technique, for, being a writer, he cannot. We can speak of good technique or bad technique, or adequate or inadequate, of technique which serves the novel's purpose, or disserves." 

- Mark Schorer 


 "This analogical faculty, the eye that sees likenesses, parallels, contrasts, series, antitheses, and reversals, is in part a gift--a way of looking at the world. But the results it brings, in a more intense interweaving, coherence, and articulation of parts, are more often than not the fruits of concentrated brooding on work in hand, a searching out of all the conscious possibilities." 

- Vincent McHugh 


 "Properly understood, style is not a seductive decoration added to a functional structure; it is of the essence of the work of art. The necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, and individuality." 

- Evelyn Waugh 


 "An overly simplistic style gets in the reader's way by making her aware of the author in his limitations and thus of the fact that she is reading a work of the imagination instead of experiencing it; so, too, an overly elegant style may also block the reader's voluntary suspension of disbelief. The argument can be made that the best style is one that appears to be no style at all, and perhaps the writer's true style begins to emerge when he makes no deliberate effort to produce one.

- Oakley Hall 

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