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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 2. The Trouble with Workshopping

These days, most people who want to write find themselves at one time or another in a writing workshop, perhaps a course at a college, or a group that meets in someone’s home. That’s because the workshop model for learning prevails in the teaching of creative writing (and often composition as well). Participants in the group present work in progress, and give each other “feedback” on their work. This is supposed to help them improve as writers. But does it?

Now, imagine a group of kids who want to learn how to play baseball. Each one swings at pitches in front of the others, who give him “feedback” on his swing. How much do you suppose these kids are learning about hitting a baseball?

This example may sound silly, but in fact it’s quite similar to what happens when a group of inexperienced writers give each other “feedback” on their writing: they don’t really learn anything. Even with a teacher guiding them, it’s very difficult for people who don’t know much about writing to offer helpful comments to other writers.

Think, for a moment, if you will, about what’s really happening in a writing workshop: people are talking about writing; they’re not doing it.

But writing—like baseball or cooking, car repair or painting—is a practical activity. You can’t learn how to do it by talking about it; you can only learn how to do it by doing it.

Perhaps this is why so many writers teachers tell their students, “Just keep writing, you’ll get better.”

But this approach doesn’t work either: it dooms aspiring writers to frustration and despair and the wasting of vast amount of time. That’s because if you just keep doing only what you already know how to do, you’ll never learn anything about how to do it better. Think about it: would a baseball coach ever tell an aspiring major-leaguer, “Just keep swinging the bat, you’ll get better”?

In baseball, no one gets any better without plenty of teaching from a knowledgeable coach or a highly-skilled player. The same thing is true with writing: if you want to get better, you need a good teacher.

Good writing teachers do exist, and you may be lucky enough to find one. It’s also true, though, that many writers don’t know much about how to teach. They may create a workshop atmosphere that is uncomfortably critical; they may promote the unhealthy attitude that writing is all about the writer’s self and personal experiences or feelings; they may pass on as truth the latest clichés of writing advice—Show, don’t tell! Eliminate all adverbs! Never use the passive voice!—thereby depriving their students of techniques that are sometimes useful.

Most of all: in a writing workshop, you are unlikely to get the opportunity to do the real learning every writer needs: namely, the learning of skills.

You’ve probably never thought about writing as requiring skills. It's more likely that, like just about everyone else, you think about writing in terms of talent: Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.

Let me tell you how I discovered that talent doesn’t exist.

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