Friday, August 7, 2020

There Are No Writing Prodigies: What That Means For Writing Instruction

Mozart was composing and performing at the age of 4. Shirley Temple made her first film appearance at age 3, and within two years was a film star. Pascal wrote a treatise on vibrating bodies at age 9. Trombone Shorty was leading his own band at age 6.

But there are no child prodigies in writing. No classic novels composed by a six year old. No world-altering essays written by some young person in second grade.

That means that every writer starts out at the same level of skill and quality—somewhere between very low and none. Every author you have ever admired, enjoyed, or been inspired by started out as a not-very-good writer.

And that means that the path of a writer is always one of continuous growth, an unending journey that takes each individual across a variety of landscapes. Each path is a little different, featuring different obstacles and rewards. Each path varies in length, not because everyone is born with a pre-determined destination, but because so many people say, “That’s it. I’m done trying to go down this path.” Some people are better equipped to make the journey than others, but you’d be hard pressed to find a great writer who says, “Yes, I stopped working on growing as a writer because I figured I simply had no room for improvement.” Nobody arrives at the top of the mountain because they somehow had the gift of magically transporting there.

The implications for teachers of writing are important. Teachers are going to meet students who are somewhere on this journey, and teachers should not mistake the students’ location on the path for their ability to make the journey. The fact that the student has not progressed very far yet does not mean she can never travel far down the path.

So the teacher has to meet the students where they are and provide what they need to continue their journey. It may be support. It may be a critical eye. It may be additions to the students’ background of knowledge; it’s almost impossible to write well about things you know nothing about (even fantasy and SF writers are taking what they know and examining it from a different lens).

It is meaningless to look at a young student and declare she is a “bad” writer. She may be a bad writer today, but she may be an awesome writer five years from now. It’s the teacher’s job to make that journey possible for her.

It’s also meaningless to try to break the craft of writing down into a battery of skills and declare that the student has “mastered” some of them. It’s no more useful than dissecting the golden goose and breaking down and evaluating each goosely muscle; that’s not how this works. The ability to write a “topic sentence” in isolation may satisfy a test, but it has little to do with crafting an effective piece of writing. A piece of writing is an organic whole. The basic building block is not a sentence, but an idea.

Writing is one of the hardest things to teach, because it is complex and messy. Any attempt to reduce it to something simple and clear will lose the essential heart of the work. And seeing students as people who either do or don’t have some kind of writer gene misses the vast reservoir of potential that is in each and every classroom.

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1 comment:

  1. My lesson on "Better Science Writing" for 8th graders includes just a few simple rules. By far and away the most effective (almost magical)rule is: "NO PRONOUNS!" Which of course is followed up with a lesson on common pronouns. When I ask what they should use instead, eventually someone comes up with the right answer. Ah the wonders of the underdeveloped adolescent brain. However when the smoke clears, they become much better technical writers and speakers! For the rest of the year I rarely get responses on lab reports such as, "It changed."