Can good writing be taught?

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” – Ernest Hemingway

I’m always surprised this question is not asked as often of other arts as it is of writing. For instance, when a man wants to learn music, he finds a music teacher. If a father decides that his daughter ought to become a dancer, he doesn’t sit back and ask whether dancing can be taught, he enrolls her into a dancing school. A similar sort of thing could be said for painting and drawing too – in fact, schools of art belong to such an ancient tradition that they’ve now become a figure of speech.

With each of these art forms, there is an assumption that in addition to the work you need to put in to become proficient at it, you also need a guiding hand of someone who knows better; someone who would walk by you on your path and correct you every time you go wrong. There is the acceptance that while practice is important, so is theory.

You could expand this to more scientific fields too. Doctors become registered practitioners only after six years of work in a controlled environment; engineers study for four years before they can go out and become professionals; lawyers work as understudies for years after graduation before they set up their own firms. In fact, pick any field, profession or hobby in the world and there is a period of apprenticeship involved – a phase in which you gain knowledge of your field; knowledge that you would one day put into practice and begin to improve.

The logic behind this is quite simple. If you do not know what to practice, there is no meaning in practicing. If you practice doing the wrong things, all you’re doing is getting really good at being bad. You can spend twenty-five hours a day with your guitar but if you can’t tell one note from the next, you have no hope.

If this applies so universally to every bit of human endeavour, and you must concede that it does, I wonder why writing is considered an exception. I wonder why writing is considered one of those things that you either have or you don’t. I wonder why when you tell a beginning writer that he’s not yet good, he invariably takes it as a personal insult. Perhaps in our minds we think of writing as a mere extension of thought, and therefore we assume that it must come as naturally (even as easily) as thought does, and when it doesn’t we get disappointed and we give up, thinking that we’re not made for it or that we’re not gifted enough.

Nothing could be more naïve. Writing, just like anything else, starts out being hard, and the more time you put into it, just like anything else, it becomes easier. And yes, like there are principles to good painting, to good dancing, to good singing, there are principles to good writing. And just like the theory of painting, dancing and singing can be taught, the theory of writing can be taught (and learnt) too.

But just the theory, mind you. No one can teach you to practice what you’ve learnt. It’s one thing to know how to perform brain surgery and quite another to actually do it. It’s all well and good knowing how to play the perfect tennis forehand, but unless you put in the required number of hours practicing the theory, you will never play it right. You may know in your mind exactly how to write the perfect scene of dialogue, but unless you practice, practice and practice some more, it will still come out looking like dog’s vomit. (It may come out looking like that even after all that practice. No promises.)

Last December I was at the inaugural Bangalore Literature Festival, where poet and filmmaker Gulzar had just finished his reading session and was taking questions from the audience. Someone asked him, “Sir, ek poet banne keliye kitna mehnat karna padta hai?” (How much effort does it take to become a poet?)

Gulzar thought for a while and said, “Mehnat toh karna hai, lekin usse pehle aap ko shabd ko samajhna hoga. Study karna hoga. Music compose karne keliye sa re ga ma toh seekhna padega, na?” (Before you think of effort, you must first understand words and their effects, study them. To compose music, you must first learn ‘sa re ga ma’.)

What works for Gulzar ought to work just as well for you and me.

Comments

  1. So there’s the theory part – which I agree that just like every other vocation, should have some guiding – be it in the form of teaching, reviewing, simple brainstorming – methods may vary depending on the level of guidance too. Plus, it’s better to learn from other’s mistakes than make all of them ourselves all over again, there’s no time anyway! 🙂

    And then, there’s practice. Couldn’t agree more! What’s your take though, on the “either you have it or you don’t?’ part? Doesn’t that play a part too? I remember going for Bharatnatyam classes when I was young, got theory, got a whole lot of practice but was always the person my teacher used to yell and throw the stick at! Call it lack of interest, or lack of passion, or lack of the ‘gift’ – Never had it! Sometimes, the best of teaching/practice might also not help, just my personal opinion.

    And if someone ‘has the creative kindling’ within him/her, wouldn’t it be good to have them spread their wings and discover a bit before we they go in guidance and chance getting influenced a certain way? After all, isn’t that what happens in our education system today – we learn to to process information and do everything a certain way? Does the whole expanse of writing fit into the same bucket as music or dance does? The basics of music would be the saptak, but can writing be brought down to finite basics? Am only thinking out loud. Please don’t get me wrong, am all for guidance, just wanted to understand at what point of time, does it makes sense to go for it.

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    • Hi Deepa,

      There is, of course, a ‘talent’ aspect to it too, but generally speaking, if you like what you’re doing, no matter how untalented you are, you will still do it for longer, get more practice at it than another person who is more talented but less interested, and therefore be better at it than him. People who have to work hard at being good at something value it more, love it more, and spend more time practicing than people to whom it comes easily. So the answer to that is not a simple one. Talent matters, yes, but a lot less than we think it does. That’s my opinion, anyway.

      Whether someone should ‘spread their wings’ or ‘be taught’, it depends on the quality of the teaching. Like in all other crafts, knowing how to write and actually writing are completely different things. And yes, the basics of writing can be whittled down to a set of rules – the ‘saptak’ of writing, if you will. Most writers, for instance, consider Strunk’s ‘The Elements of Style’ to be the definitive bible on Style. There are similar books available for almost all aspects of writing.

      The debate about the education system is probably for another time, but we can continue this over email, perhaps. I will write to you.

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  2. I hope my comment doesn’t appear as if I am trying to slam education itself. That is absolutely not what I intended. I do mean, specific aspects – which tell us there’s only one way to do it. Even in certain subjective papers, we have had that restriction. That’s the only aspect I was trying to question.

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