13 Tips for Teaching Others to Write
13 Tips for Teaching Others to Write
Chapter 10 “The Writing Life” – Section 6 “Teaching”
The one exclusive sign of thorough knowledge is the power of teaching.
Learning a craft, starting from nothing, can be a complex challenge that requires complex solutions. In college, I found that I was unable to recall information well enough to get the grades I wanted. Fortunately, it was around that time that I was invited to a study group with other students who were not getting the best of grades. Upon reading with them, sharing notes, and trying to grasp the concepts we were challenged with, I learned that each of us had a slight advantage at learning certain concepts; so we used our personal strengths to explain the things we understood to the rest of the group. Being taught the things I didn't quite grasp was helpful, but it was when I taught others that I really learned. Through teaching in my own limited capability, I learned to break down concepts in a way that others could understand. By doing this, I not only gained a more thorough understanding of what I was discussing, but any holes in my knowledge quickly became apparent. This was how I learned the power of personal learning and growth through teaching others. Today, I'm going to talk about how you can use this technique to help others improve their writing, while simultaneously increasing your level of mastery in the craft.
Tip 1: Teaching begins earlier than what you might think.
The prospect of teaching a craft that you are not yet a master of can seem perhaps arrogant and intimidating. And I certainly would not recommend trying to start a class when you have never even written a first draft, or even writing a tutorial. However, your learning to be a teacher starts at the moment you pick up and read works of fiction that do things right. In reading and paying close attention to how other authors did things right, you build up your expertise. And it is then that you can begin your teaching by just critiquing your friends' manuscripts. This may not seem like teaching in the conventional sense, but it is a starting point where you can begin to train yourself to identify problems and strengths, and then to explain them to others. And that is teaching.
Tip 2: Teach from the wealth of knowledge you have acquired for yourself.
A temptation in writing is to rely solely on the knowledge of others. I know that when I started these tutorials, I had no idea where to begin. I knew that my quest for writing mastery had only begun, and I felt incapable of creating anything that would compare to the insights of great published authors. Fortunately, that was also when I began to receive feedback from writing partners and learning about all my flaws as an author. By learning the reason for my own shortcomings and then learning the reasons for why my solutions worked, I gained an intimate and personal understanding of how to make my writing better. Though others helped me to learn, the process of grasping my own flaws and applying solutions was something that I did for myself. And because these areas of learning were mine, I understood and was able to explain them better than I was able to explain the concepts that I knew strictly from the advice of professional authors.
Tip 3: Teach in your own style.
The way that I teach, through my list-based, point-by-point tutorials, is not the only or best way to teach. The reason that I use it is because I both enjoy and am personally enriched by this style. It allows me to be precise with each paragraph and curb by tendency for rambling to a minimum. Part of my style is to employ humor, illustrations, and other little things that make me happy while I write my tutorials. It is effective and enjoyable for me, and I truly think that this is why it can be so for those who find my tutorials helpful. Likewise, if you want to make your teaching style effective, it has to be effective and enjoyable for you. Borrow elements that you enjoy from other teaching styles, but focus on making your teaching methods your own. And note that this may take a while. Finding your style—like finding your own literary voice, or even discovering your authentic self—is something that takes time. For example, I dabbled in book reviews, comic reviews, and a few other ways of attempting to teach, before I ever created my first list-based tutorial. And even when I did start making these tutorials, I had to write about fifty of them before I really began to understand what I was doing and begin to write them with enjoyment and confidence. So I encourage you find yourself, and not to be in too much of a hurry to do so.
Tip 4: Teach from your own failings.
If you let them, your writing flaws and weaknesses can be your greatest strength. It is only through seeing your own weakness that you can really understand the nature of your failings. By looking at your mistakes, you learn why you made them. The reasons can stem from a lack of knowledge—like grammar, form, or punctuation; or even stem from personal tendencies like creating shallow characters that betray your feelings toward people in your life. Once you figure out your flaws, learn how to overcome them. This process of learning to overcome will create the most rich teaching material that you can share with others. These will be the things that you will have put the most thought and effort toward creating structured solutions for, as well as the things you will be able to create examples for the benefit of others.
Tip 5: Create analogies and explanations from your other areas of expertise.
You may notice that a good bit of my explanations comes from martial arts and movie analogies. The simple reason for that is that those are two areas of expertise that I happen to be fairly familiar with, and that I find helpful in illustrating concepts. The creation of abstract illustrations is important for helping students to grasp what you are talking about, particularly when teaching something as technical as writing and story-craft. Additionally, the creation of a good illustration will create distinct memories for your students, sort of like how vivid and creative parables are better suited for teaching morals to children than didactic commandments of what to do and not to do. By conceptualizing concepts this way, you will also be performing an invaluable writing exercise for yourself—learning how to discuss a topic abstractly. Writers interested in teaching complex themes in their novels will find particular use in this skill.
Tip 6: Write down everything that you learn, before you teach.
In addition to my first tutorial being a product of frustration for not having found any writing guides that I felt were helpful to me, I wrote them as a catalog of the things I had learned. You see, my writing instructor had taught me that once you learn something, you forget how you learned to do it because it became instinctive. Think of it like riding a bike. You can do it, but can you remember the exact techniques that you subconsciously used to improve? I can't. All I remember is being a child and crashing over and over. For this reason, I could never write a manual for others to use to learn to ride a bike because I no longer know how I do it. The same goes for writing. As soon as you learn new writing techniques, and they become natural to you, you forget how you learned them. For this reason, my beginning tutorials were simply that—the notes of an amateur novelist just jotting down the basic principals I learned that made my stories better. Likewise, I encourage you to write down everything you learn, so that you forever remember how you overcame and are able to share it with others.
Tip 7: Learn to research both your own and your students' questions, and log your research.
One of the most important thing to learn in writing is to direct your own studies. With all of the writing schools and authors who exist, you are not likely to find any who share your exact same interests. Writing is simply such a broad field and so particular to every writer, that you need to learn to be self-sufficient. The best way I've found of doing this is to take my questions (like how to create a properly flawed character), and then to compare my question to novels that did this well. I note down the exact methods that the author used, and how the effect that the methods had on my experience with the story. Additionally, you can look up writing guides (like this one), but I really think that this is more of a first step for beginning critical thinking and research. While you perform your research, be sure to write down your questions, the questions your students have asked of you, and any answers you find.
Tip 8: Create research projects for your students to do their own learning.
My writing instructor has given me lots of good advice when I have asked him direct questions about storytelling. However, none has been so important and as frustrating as to direct my own research studies and to do boring writing exercises. Often, the last thing a writing student wants to hear, when they pose a question, is to hear your reply “check out this book and see how that author did it,” or “go find some free grammar exercises online.” But as I said before, self-sufficiency is one of the most vital traits a writer can have, and so it is also one of the most important skills to teach. Of course, if a question if a fairly simple one, feel free to just explain it. But when a student's question starts coming down to establishing style, expressing their voice, or learning complex writing skills, begin to direct them toward their own learning.
Tip 9: Recognize your feelings of ego and defensiveness.
When I first began my tutorials, and even when I taught in study groups, one of the first problems I dealt with arose from my own instincts. I felt myself becoming angry and defensive at anyone who would dare question me. As humans, we crave acceptance and praise from others. We are also territorial, and can feel like anyone who lifts their head at us is issuing a challenge or threatening us. Yes, I can be a bit of a gorilla—minus the hair and the killer muscles.
These feelings become amplified if you teach on the internet, where people seem to feel entitled to be as cruel as they can be. Additionally, even well-meaning people do not always know how to word innocent comments in a way that is not charged, or they feel attacked and triggered because your opinions make them feel invalidated. Lastly, it can feel really good to put yourself in a position where you are more powerful than others—a real boost to the ego. But the more egotistical or defensive you become, the more out of touch you will be to your students. The result will be damage to both the concepts you are trying to teach and to your own learning.
If you begin to feel frustrated when someone you are mentoring disagrees with you (politely), or you begin to feel like your work needs to be defended, then you may be becoming defensive. If you begin to feel offended that people do not take your word as gospel, note that you may have a problem of ego. Once you recognize your emotions, accept them and value them (after all, there is no such redundant and tricky a problem as becoming defensive about your defensiveness). And don't be ashamed and feel like less of a person because of it. We all deal with these instincts, they are part of what make us human. I get both defensive and gorilla-like, at times. What is important is to recognize it, accept it, and deal with it.
Tip 10: Replace defensiveness with vulnerability.
The best way I've found to deal with these instincts is through vulnerability, by admitting one's own human limitations, if only to one's self. Your instincts may tell you to puff out your chest and redouble your fortifications from being attacked, but this will only trigger others to puff out their chests in return. Be honest about your limitations, and be honest with those you are teaching when you do not know the answers or are only stating an opinion. And be okay with their polite disagreement. Remember that we humans (just like the characters we create in our stories) are empowered and enriched by our limitations and flaws. And if the people you are invited to teach cannot keep themselves from being rude, angry, and aggressive, don't fight. Remove yourself from the situation and accept that they are also flawed characters who need time to heal and grow.
Tip 11: Don't allow students to put you or your opinions on a pedestal.
As some of you know, I prefer to be addressed as “Blake” and not by any teacher title, formal address, or last name. The reason is two-fold. First, I have a tendency to allow my ego to swell to monstrous proportions if I'm not careful, and I believe titles to be a show of power and authority (though I completely respect your opinion if you disagree). Second, I don't want my readers to think that my opinions are the de-facto holy grail of writing knowledge (in fact, I see them as a tool and an aid to be used only if necessary or desired). For them to do so would be unhealthy for me, and would lead to my readers feeling disappointed when they discovered the errors and flaws in my ideas. I want to aid other writers in any way I can, and teach them everything I know, but I don't want them and their writing styles to be perfect copies of my personal writing philosophies. I want them to grow and find their own style, and for my tutorials to simply serve as a ladder for them to get there more quickly. So both for your own psychological health, as well as the growth or your students, I recommend as much humility and honesty in your teaching as you can manage.
Tip 12: Avoid talking down to your readers.
When I read other tutorials, I sometimes find something that I find quite disturbing. The person writing the tutorial adopts a so-called “tell it like it is” attitude and begins to berate the readers. This often sounds like, “Nobody cares about your opinions, and we all think your damn Mary-Sue is stupid and boring. And if you don't like me telling you like it is, feel free to hit the 'x' in the corner of the screen.” I also see the same attitude when writers ask for critiques, and the replies go far past blunt and into abusive. To me, this does not seem like strength, but like the teacher is already defensive and scared from the get-go, and feels compelled to attack before they can be attacked. Or else, it seems like they have the psychological need to make themselves feel big and important by putting others down. And the worst part about this tone, is that so many readers respond to it. Out of some human instinct, they seem to desire being belittled and disrespected.
Don't get me wrong, I fully believe it telling the truth and being completely honest. But with my opinions on the value of the student growing in both knowledge in health, in the importance of humility and vulnerability to the teacher, and in the importance of respect for any healthy relationship, I cannot endorse this style of teaching. Please do not give in to the temptation to protect your ego by putting on a facade of strength, be truly strong by believing in your ideas and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to attack. Instead of a dog who barks wildly and loudly in an attempt to seem vicious and not to be attacked, know your strength so that you don't need to act in aggressive fear. It's difficult, but I genuinely believe that it is worthwhile to you and your students.
Tip 13: Beware the angry professor mentality.
When I was in college, I had some professors who would often chew out the class and yell in angry tirades at the students present when they noticed a large number of absences that day. I think that many of us have experienced this, a professor who cannot control their emotions and takes out their anger for lazy students on the hard-working ones. I've noted this tendency for teachers also applies to online teaching and even entertainment. The teacher will get disrespectful and rude comments, and then address all of their students as a single body that has offended them. Or a someone critiquing a story will automatically assume that any mistake that the author makes is one of laziness or malice. The result is that the respectful students begin to lose their respect and leave, and the disrespectful students and trolls gain fuel to continue their fighting. Always remember that even though they are quiet, the majority of your students will learn from and respect you. Give your students the benefit of the doubt, and remind yourself that it is always the small minority of the rudest people who speak the loudest. It's difficult at first, but it will make you into a more powerful, adept, and wise teacher.
A special thanks goes out to Dr. Mark Rutland, who taught me the power of teaching by always making his students feel respected, empowered, and loved—no matter what. If you read this, know that I'll never forget that lesson.
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I would also add that if you're aiming to teach people, you should be willing to put your own writing out there for scrutiny and allow people to judge for themselves if you know what you're talking about. I've noticed (again in the fanfic communities) that you'll see people post "tutorials," but there is literally nothing else on their gallery. Why should we, the readers, adopt your advice into our writing if you have nothing to prove that your advice works?
Well, I think there is some good that comes from the inexperienced writing tutorials, if done with the right spirit. It gets them started on the path to critically thinking about storytelling elements, and putting them into concrete terms. Also, there can be some wisdom to them, if they take the point-of-view of having experienced stories that they either liked or didn't like for specific reasons. I sometimes read them, just to see what their opinions as readers are. Even if their level of experience is low, I can get some insight on how readers in my target demographic might see certain elements of my story. But, on the other hand, I also agree that many write their tutorials in a tone that doesn't seem to match this.
I'm not calling students stupid. Just saying that most knowledge in the world(including how to write a story) is actually based on simplicity, not complexity. Complexity in lessons is what makes mountains out of molehills and worse confuses the heck out of everyone including the smartest students. A personal example is that I could never get a handle on the whole painting thing. All the guides/tutorials/instructions read like Rocket Science. Then last month I watched a couple of 'The Joy Painting' Episodes with Bob Ross. . .and a whole lot of things about painting and art suddenly made sense. Not because I was slow to catch on but because Bob's instructions were simplistic in a way that even newest of n00b artists could understand the instructions.