How much of writing can be taught?

I was recently asked by my local library to teach a series of classes on writing. I said “sure” and then was immediately assailed by doubts. (When am I not?)  Ten years ago, I was just embarking on my own voyage into the publishing realm. Oh, I’d been writing since I was about seven, but no one ever got to read my writing. That was just for fun, for me. So when some friends said I should try to be published, I figured there was rules that had to be followed that would make my stories better. And sure enough, when I joined some writers’ groups, I was assailed by “the rules of writing.” Most of which included the word “never.” Never use a prologue. Never start your story with dialog. Never use the word was. I even took a course that was based on the “12 rules of writing”. Oh, and then there were all those grammar lectures about not using fragments or run-on sentences.

And for each one, I’d pull out a book I’d recently read that broke every rule.  Thank heavens for Molly O’Keefe who talked about how the “rules” are more like “guidelines” and Margaret Moore who said whenever an author stands in front of a class saying “I’m going to teach how to (fill in the blank with): write a synopsis, write a tighter middle, write a great kick-ass heroine” you should also be hearing “the way it works for me, but it may not work for you.” I love those two ladies!  

But still… when I write I worry about making my writing stronger. I stress over whether I’m “showing” versus “telling.  But I also need to explain sometimes there are times it’s better to tell – “four hours later” instead of trying to explain what the character had been doing for those four hours. Then there was a conversation I had with a big name (in the industry) editor at a convention in Kansas City who said that often showing is over the readers’ head and they need to be told the character was “anxious” because most readers won’t get the subtleties of body language. (Don’t ask which editor, suffice it to say it wasn’t one who edited any of my books, but she did edit one that sold millions of copies so maybe she’s right?)

I have no idea how to teach them about writing description and trying to balance how much is too much or not enough. It really comes down to the readers’ preference and the author’s voice.  I tend to prefer the less-is-more theory, but I know readers who want to know every detail of the heroine’s dress, right down to the last stitch of sarcenet lace (what is that anyway?)

As a reader, before taking all these classes, I’d never noticed or worried if Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts head hopped. While I found George R.R. Martin or Tolkien wordy, I never thought of telling them to use less description or to cut down on their sentence length on occasion.


Okay, I may have muttered some of that as I skimmed some of GRRM or JRRT’s extra-long books, but it didn’t stop me from reading them. (Though I really think Tolkien could have cut the whole Tom Bombadil scene…) And yes, I’ve heard the arguments that say that if Tolkien submitted Lord of the Rings today, it wouldn’t be picked up by a publisher. But all of the authors I’ve named here have created such wonderfully in-depth characters, have built such fantastic worlds that I could overlook if a sentence was clunky or if one paragraph was in someone’s POV and the next was in another’s.

So now as I face “teaching writing” and also while writing my current manuscript, I am wondering: if it doesn’t bother the average reader, how much should I stress over any of it?

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at

Okay, that sounds wrong, I am not saying editing isn’t necessary. It is. It most definitely is imperative to have a well-edited book. As an author, I want to give my readers the best possible book I can and as a reader, I want to read the best possible book another author can give me. But we all have read stories that have sold millions or have received Pulitzer prizes that have made us go “huh? How did this even get published?” And read wonderful books, well-edited books, that have faded into obscurity.

So I was starting to worry about how to teach my students about that balance. And then I found this quote from Neil Gamain on Tumblr:
Neil Gaiman on writing_comp

Now to apply that to my own writing…



How much of writing can be taught? — 6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the love, Leah! I’m so glad my words were helpful. I think sometimes beginning authors are overwhelmed by all the necessary ingredients to their story and want some sort of rule or formula to guide them and relieve them of some of the tough decisions. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work that way. That’s why writing is more difficult than it looks to those who don’t try it. But how an author chooses and combines those elements helps determine that author’s style or “voice,” another concept beginning authors think is something high-falutin’ and fancy. Style and voice are really just about choices of words, punctuation and story elements. I myself am big on commas. And sentence fragments. Also dialogue. Description, not so much.

    • I hate to admit the number of courses I took that first year I joined the RWA. Or how they paralyzed me from writing for a while until I remembered those words when you started your talk at the TRW Romance 101 event. And yes, it really comes down to voice and the author’s ability to weave a good tale. I’m big on commas too. And em-dashes. Much to my editor’s dismay, LOL.

  2. I think we can be taught all kinds of things about writing, like grammar, and sentence structure, effective dialogue and so on. Through practice and reading, we might pick up ways to make our writing better. But I still believe there is something innate in a writer that makes them a storyteller. If there’s a good story and memorable characters a reader will overlook the occasional clunky sentence or run-on description. Can you teach people to tell a good story? I’m not sure.

  3. All those “rules” feel so intimidating, especially when someone you respect utters them definitively. But the rule police aren’t always right. There are lots of rules that don’t bother me when they’re broken. (Head hopping isn’t one of them. That drives me crazy.) As long as the story is engaging and well-told, I’m on board.

    You’ll do great with your class. :-)

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