Can You Be Taught To Write?


My degree was in Creative Writing and Law; and as a student of Creative Writing, a question that often popped up was – can writing be taught?

Achebe didn’t place much weight on Creative Writing as a course: ‘Many writers can’t make a living. So to be able to teach how to write is valuable to them. But I don’t really know about its value to the student. I don’t mean it’s useless. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write. That’s my own taste.’

I recently came across an article on Guardian which I found hilarious. Basically Hanif Kureishi stated that 99.9% of his students were ‘untalented’ and that writing a story was a difficult thing to do and a great skill to have. ‘Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.’ Now I found this particularly funny because it turns out he teaches at Kingston University which is basically where I went (though, he was not one of my lecturers or tutors and I don’t believe I have ever met him)

But I do understand where Achebe and Kureishi are coming from.

Writing is a difficult thing and it incorporates two elements – Imagination and a way with words. There are people who come up with five plots a day but can’t write a single, plausible sentence and then there are those who are good at stringing sentences together but wouldn’t be able to devise a captivating plot. Without these two elements, you don’t have a lot to go on.

Now I believe that imagination is a gift. But whether or not you were born with it, your ability to imagine can be stretched in various ways. Then there is the skill of putting pen to paper and creating an engaging sentence which is a skill that can be transferred, that can be taught.

I had been writing stories and poems long before I entered Kingston University. I had self published a book of poems, I had written articles for magazines but I wasn’t a confident writer. Taking the Creative Writing course did not teach me how to write, but it did teach me how to improve on my writing and I will list some of the various ways it taught me to do this:

1) I participated in various exercises that stretched my imagination, my plotting and my style of writing.
2) I was introduced to fiction, non-fiction and poetry that were notable and unique. Many of which I had never heard of before.
3) When I produced work I was given more than ‘it’s good or it’s bad (which is all we can really expect from friends and family); I had my strengths and weaknesses pointed out to me.
4) In my time at Kingston I wrote stories, plays, poetry, scripts, memoirs, songs. I was very encouraged by the reaction of my lecturers towards my script which is a form I had never attempted before and was surprised to find I had a knack for. Next stop – musicals!
5) I began to recognise for myself what made a story good. If I like a story now, I pause and look more closely – Why did I enjoy reading it so much? What did the author do right?
6) I learnt to pay more attention to the words I used. Why did I put that word there? Was this sentence really necessary? Was I moving the plot along or simply filling up the page? Was there a reason her scarf was green rather than yellow or blue? Could I find a way to show her angry she was instead of saying ‘she was angry’; perhaps by drawing attention to the narrowing of her eyes and the pursing of her lips?

Taking a Creative Writing course won’t turn you into Malorie Blackman or Philip Pullman if the seed wasn’t already there, the lecturers are not magicians. But it will propel you at least two levels from where you were at the beginning of the course. It will make you a better writer.

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Oyinkan Braithwaite

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June 2019
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