Why English Departments Rarely Produce Good Writers
And what educators can do about it
English departments rarely produce good writers because they often force the mechanics of "good taste" on their students long before they've found their own voice, their own taste, or a subject they actually care to write about. What they end up learning makes them hate what they write, and their writing journey ends before it ever begins.
Students should be encouraged to discover their hidden talents. They should be inspired to develop a love for learning and growth. And students should leave classrooms with a genuine desire to improve their skills.
"But I have nothing interesting to write about!"
Maybe all it takes is stepping outside and looking around. Have your students see with their ears as well as their eyes. Have them take a photograph of anything that stirs their spirit and then prompt them to write about how the image made them feel.
The goal, of course, is to show students how their writing can expand under encouragement. Students are more likely to write with real imagination and intelligence about something they care about. Let the experience and the photo inspire them to write. The mechanics and style can be worked on later. There's progress when students are describing things, when they put down what they saw and felt.
Noticing Things of Beauty
If you really look and listen, you'll notice that nature is full of feeling. This is what writing students should be challenged to tap into: feeling. They should be encouraged to notice things of beauty: in music, literature, art and nature; from grasshoppers to mountains, lakes to oceans, waterfalls to rivers, and other infinite expressions of life.
Photography helps anyone struggling for words. Snap the shot and write about it. By getting out and capturing things of beauty and putting pen to paper students are able to see things, adore them, and recall them better than if they had just looked at them. In the end, students will learn that photography and writing is not a performance, but a generous gift.
How can one look at the image above and not feel the utter joy between these two?
Prompt: What does utter joy mean to you? How does it feel?
How can one look at the mountain above and not be drawn into its magnificence?
Prompt: The mountains are calling. How do they call on you? How do they draw you in?
Included below are some more suggestions to encourage students to want to write and share their stories.
Remove your air pods. Listen for stories in everyday conversations: at the beach, in grocery stores, coffee shops, on the bus or train, at airports and restaurants. Ask more questions, get others to share what's on their mind. Be curious not only with the beauty of mother nature but also with the stories others have to tell.
"That's what stories are for: to teach us how to call on ourselves in good times and in bad. Stories are a compass for the heart." ~ Bernadette Jiwa, What Great Storytellers Know
"But I'm afraid to write..."
Here's how I respond to my students when they say they fear writing: Writing takes courage. Don't let your fingers rebel! You are talented. You have something to say, something to write, something to share, and we want to hear it. It's a matter of finding out what you really care about. The work is in getting better at seeing and describing things. Get your words on paper without concern for where you place a comma, etc. The mechanics and your writing style will follow the passion and these things can be improved upon later.
"Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent
to the dark place where it leads." ~ Erica Jong
Ernest Hemingway said, "good writing is true writing." And he said a good writer should have a good imagination. "The more he learns from experience the more truly he can imagine."
To sum up - if educators in English Departments want to produce better writers:
Believe in your students. Believe in the fact they, like everyone, are innately talented, original and they have something important to say.
Encourage your students to find their own voice, their own taste, and subjects they care to write about.
Inspire your students to become better noticers of beautiful people, places and things. And have them write about these things as often as possible.
Have your students write freely, recklessly, truthfully and candidly in their first drafts. Teaching writing technique and style is infinitely easier with students who enjoy writing vs. those who despise it.
If students are still discouraged with their writing effort, even after finding their own voice, taste and subjects they care about, remind them what Vincent Van Gogh said: "If you hear a voice within you saying, 'You are no painter [photographer, writer, etc.], then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working." In other words, do the work. Write, and write often.
And why should your students want to do all these things? Why should they want to find their own voice, taste, and subjects they care to write about? Why should they want to become better noticers and share their stories with us?
"Because," says Brenda Ueland, published author of more than six million words and one of my favorite books on writing, If You Want To Write, "the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it, i.e., share it with others?"
Educators should be fiercely committed to encouraging students to discover their hidden talents, their creative flow and their voice. When educators help students become better noticers, and they invite their students to share their experiences with us, they can't help but become better thinkers, storytellers, and writers. Finally, when students think, speak and write with greater clarity, the more they become aware of the truth and beauty not only around them, but within them.