The Development of a Writer: Write Now, Write Away

Here’s Paul Collins over at Slate taking a look at the first ‘How-To’ guide for fiction writing and reminding us that much of today’s advice to aspiring writers bears remarkable similarity to what was dispensed over 100 years ago.  The first known guide offering systematic advice on creative writing  (as contrasted with ancient Greek works on the essential elements of drama) was How to Write Fiction by the 26 year old Sherwin Cody.  There’s nothing all that startling in Cody’s suggestions – at least not by today’s standards – and most of it is by now familiar enough that there’s little need to belabor the details: write what you know, show don’t tell, and, of course, don’t plan on writing full-time.  As an aside, Cody’s Victorian upbringing shines through in his admonishment that art should shy away from controversy or his warning that a good writer does not make the reader uncomfortable with stories about ‘peculiarities’.   Today, Cody’s work strikes us as a bit quaint.  But that’s not entirely fair.  The idioms may reflect today’s culture, but many of the contemporary ‘how-to-write’ guides proffer the same sort of generalities as Cody.

What is useful about Cody’s work, however, – and other ‘how-to’ works, more generally – is what it represents, or, more accurately, what it implies.  Implicit in Cody’s work is the idea that good writing is something that can be improved through effort, that good writers can be developed through hard work and by applying certain principles of practice to their work.   Despite the occasional insistence that great writers are born, not created, there’s nothing inherently strange in the idea of learning how to write.  Expertise in writing, like any human endeavor, is an adaptation acquired through repetition and hard work. 

We’ve written before on the work of Anders Ericson and on what it takes to move novice to expertise.  Ericson found that attaining expertise in a chosen activity required the following attributes:

  • Targeted Practice: practice at a developmentally appropriate level
  • Real-time Corrective Feedback: specific and based on one’s performance
  • Intensive Practice: practice performed on a daily basis (or often)
  • Distributed Practice: practice over a long period of time; allows for monitoring growth toward expert performance
  • Self-Directed Practice: practice in the absence of a coach, mentor, or teacher

There’s no reason to think that the act of writing is any different, or that writing somehow exists outside the range of other human activities and belongs to a special distinct class of human behaviors.  The qualities of a good writer are no more ineffable than what makes a good reader or a good cook.  If we think of writing as just one more human activity, as on a par with other endeavors, like swimming, mathematics, or chess, then we can dispense with the whole notion of treating writing as an essentially distinct activity and as somehow beyond the influence of practice.  Instead, we have much to gain by treating the practice of writing as one more useful skill that can be trained.

The idea that writing can be improved through practice and that great writers can be trained applies to all forms of writing – even fiction.  In fact, there’s been recent evidence to suggest that creativity – presumably the essential element of a great fiction writer – is a skill like any other, one that, in addition to responding to environmental cues, can be cultivated and learned.

Sites, like Figment, are attempting to do just that by providing a forum where students can read and write fiction.  By providing a social network, Figment allows students to present their writing to a peer community for review and criticism.  Our own work at MetaMetrics has incorporated Ericson’s research into our metrics.  In fact, The Lexile Framework for Writing (and its applications: MyWritingWeb and Oasis) is built around the idea that students have the ability to improve their writing skill through frequent, sustained, and targeted practice; and that writing performance – like reading comprehension and math readiness – may be measured.  Writing is a measurable skill, and by providing an automated platform in which students may practice, it is our hope to facilitate an environment where students may improve their writing ability through sustained and deliberate practice.

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