Most people would automatically answer “yes” to the question. My answer is “only if.”
Only if the instruction leaves you room to make mistakes.
I once spoke with a young woman who received writing instruction from a very talented writer. When I asked her about her writing, her expression soured.
“I don’t like to write. I make so many mistakes and I have to rewrite everything multiple times.”
The thought that anyone could hate writing appalled me, so I dug a little deeper. I soon discovered that this girl did not hate writing. She just felt incompetent and self-conscious, because she was never allowed room to make mistakes and learn from them.
Years later, I had the opportunity to tutor a very insecure writer. I gently coached her on how to think like a writer, so that she could identify her own mistakes and find ways to correct them. I applauded the smallest improvement. The result? Her fear melted, and I saw great improvement in her writing—all because I gave her space to learn from her own mistakes.
Only if the instruction teaches writing--not style.
I abhor when an instructor teaches style, rather than the basics of writing. This is like a chef teaching you to cook Mexican because that is his specialty, rather than giving you the skills and experience you need to discover your own specialty.
Of course, I’ve thrown many books across the room in a fit of frustration: “That style drives me nuts!” But the book’s many positive reviews online indicate that the style delights many other readers. How can I say that my style is better?
When I tutor my students, I am very light on stylistic techniques, preferring to focus on “weak” versus “strong” writing structures. This puts the onus on me to defend why certain phrasing is stronger than another type, and gives room for the student to defend his or her own viewpoint.
Only if the writing development occurs at a natural pace.
Twice, a friend and I attempted to write a book together. I was so excited that I ended up writing 75% of the story in the first week, and my poor friend felt that her offering was meager in comparison to mine. Needless to say, both projects were abandoned.
An instructor can do the same thing, teaching with so much enthusiasm that he never allows the student to develop naturally. It takes years to build a style, master grammar, learn what works and what doesn’t, and so much more. An instructor is perhaps decades into that process, but the student is very new to it all. Pumping the poor student full of writing steroids to speed up the growth process only hinders real growth.
Most of my students opt for my six-week courses, so they and I have much to do in a short time span. I take a two-pronged approach: First, I jump-start their writing improvement with tips that they can apply immediately. Secondly, I re-train them to think like writers—a process that will hopefully continue long after the course is over. In this way, they can build on their foundation at their own pace.
Every writer is different. Some writers blossom with instruction. Others are motivated on their own.
I feel privileged to help my students in their writing journey, and they have been gracious when I've made as many mistakes as an instructor as they have as students. We've learned together.
Unlike my students, I personally never received specific formal instruction in writing. Instead, I had to judge my effectiveness by the grades on my papers, and figure out the solutions on my own. However, constant practice, voracious reading, and feedback from friends and family have brought me a long way.
So, I ask again: Should you receive writing instruction? Only if…you find an instructor who is dedicated to developing the unique writing gift that you already have.
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