How do we learn to write? I don’t mean the physical act of writing – of picking up a pencil or crayon or pen, or even of tapping on a keyboard – rather I mean write as in stringing words together to make meaning. How does that happen? Some people, like Amanda Lydon, write beautifully, but her writing goes beyond simply stringing words together. Amanda’s writing is underpinned by great ideas, metaphors (did you read her post on juggling?), symbolism (the different coloured ball symbolised aspects of her life) and humour, warmth and openness. Where, how, when did Amanda learn to write like that and can we all learn to do that?
Are writers born or made? Did Amanda learn those skills or was she born with them? Is writing something you can learn how to do more effectively? If it is, where might that process start? With a desire to write more effectively? With a desire to communicate a point of view creatively, clearly, concisely? And then what? I know I want to write more effectively, but how do I make that a reality?
So many questions! How about some answers Sharon?
My view is that you learn to write by reading, and you learn to write by writing. I once was an adult literacy tutor and one of my students was an older Dutch man. He couldn’t write … but he couldn’t write letters (Aa, Bb, Cc …). His words didn’t flow from his pen because he couldn’t physically write well, or speedily. He wrote in upper case only and it was only when he learnt to write in lower case that he finally began to write with some fluency.
I use the keyboard a lot – it won’t surprise you to know that I’m using it now – but when I have a good idea and I want to get it down on the ‘page’ my fingers have to move more quickly. I watch the letters appear on the screen and when I see the red wriggly line, or when I type ‘like’ instead of ‘line’ I have to go back and correct it. My thinking moves more quickly than my fingers and so by the time I have corrected all my errors the words that are in my head are fading. So fluency – the speed with which you physically write – might hinder your writing.
So that’s one issue. The physical act of writing and the speed with which that happens. Writing slowly (whether that’s typing or with a pen in your hand) can inhibit your ability to communicate effectively. The same is true of reading. Have you ever listened to a poor reader reading? Poor … readers … have … to … p … pause … after … every (is that every Miss?) … w … wor … word … and … me … meaning … is … lost. It physically hurts those of us who read fluently. We want to jump in and read it for them. And we want to do that because meaning is important. Why read if we don’t gain any meaning from what it is we’re reading? If we aren’t gaining meaning, if we’re just reading words on a page then we’re doing what some call ‘barking at the page’ (see http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/reading.htm).
Barking at the page shouldn’t be the goal of any reader, or of any teacher of reading. Stabbing at the page with a pencil or pen shouldn’t be the goal of any writer, or teacher of writing. Meaning … understanding … comprehension … these things are important because it is through gaining meaning that we come to understand things better. By ‘things’ I mean the world, what’s right and what’s wrong, ideas, others’ points of view, ourselves, abstracts concepts such as institutional racism, imagination, education. When we get to understand things better we become empowered. If we know how our bodies work we can recognise signs of a cold and take action to slow it … otherwise we might imagine that a cold is the work of the devil. If we are not empowered we are unsure of what is causing the pain/runny nose/aches/stuffy head. We attribute it to things outside of our control, we won’t think to wash our hands, or not sneeze on others, or cover our mouths when we cough. We would act in ignorance.
So we read (and learn) and through that process become empowered. How, then, might we become empowered in our writing? How might we learn how to write? What does ‘good’/effective/high distinction worthy writing look like? How might you learn to write high distinction-worthy writing? The goal, of course, is not just for the grade (you might remember learning that external motivators don’t work over the long term), but for the empowerment that being able to write clearly and concisely brings. You’ve all read great writing, whether that’s writing for children or for adults, but you may not have stopped to think about what made it ‘great’. Next time you read a book, an article, a newspaper report (actually, probably not that) think about the ‘how’. How did the author bring me to tears, make me laugh out loud, make me angry enough to take some action?
And then use what you’ve learnt from reading in your own writing. Write. Write. Write. And read, read, read.
Reading and writing … writing and reading.
And speaking … but that’s for another time.