As a literature teacher, parents often tell me, “I want my son to become a better writer over the course of the year.” While it is not inappropriate to tell the literature teacher this, a literature class is not a writing class. It is the responsibility of every teacher of every subject (from rhetoric to English to biology) to discipline students in the art of writing. If we conceive of writing instruction as something appropriate only to literature class or rhetoric class, we have not conceived of writing properly, nor have we conceived of geometry, biology, or chemistry properly. Learning to write is not exactly like learning to juggle, for which a juggling class would do. Writing is something else.
As someone who has written and published nearly a million words online in the last five years, I offer the following ten theses on how parents and teachers can help develop their sons and daughters into good writers.
1. No one may become a good writer until he wants to sound like someone other than himself. Mere self-expression is not particularly important to good writers because “good” is a standard which is indifferent to your personal beliefs and desires.
2. If reading Shakespeare makes a man want to talk and write just so he can say the things Hamlet says, then he can become a good writer. If he finishes Hamlet and cannot wait to be asked, “How are you doing?” just so he can reply, “As the indifferent children of the earth,” then he can become a good writer.
3. If reading the Bible makes a man want to talk and write just so he can say the things Solomon, Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John said, then he can become a good writer. St. Augustine was a great writer not because his teachers marked up his juvenilia with a red pen but because every line of his work succulently drips with the words of Cicero and Moses.
4. Many classical schools regularly overhaul their writing programs, but I wager the problem is rarely the writing curriculum (even though some workbooks and textbooks are much better than others). Rather, the problem is inventory. The problem is a lack of grammar. Grammar, logic, rhetoric… but we have too little respect for all that is suggested by grammar. Until your students quote Shakespeare and Dante as freely as they quote Drake, they won’t become better writers. More grammar means more reading, more recitations, more plays performed, more poems read aloud, more students referencing Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Dante, Donne, Bronte, Austen, Whitman, Hopkins, and so forth. There is no point in teaching students the art of arrangement when all they have to arrange are trite feelings, dull sentiments, and trendy turns of phrase. Thus, the solution to poor writing is not more writing but more memorization of beautiful, canonical texts. More catechisms and fewer papers in the meantime. We are slow to believe this, though. We nod sagely when French, Italian, and Japanese chefs of great renown say, “Good food only comes from good ingredients,” but then we go out and buy cut-rate meat and vegetables and expect an excess of butter and salt to hide it all. So, too, we want to believe phone junkies, screen addicts and non-readers can become competent writers. They cannot.
5. A good writer is, to borrow a phrase from David Bowie, a “very tasty thief.” Students raised on books, films, and sermons which encourage hearers to Be yourself, Trust yourself, Love yourself, Take care of yourself, Express yourself, Shine in your own light, or Be unique will not become good writers because they will not have good taste in ideas and won’t know who to steal from. They will steal banalities from sophists. They will buy snake oil from charlatans. Their words will heal no one.
6. “All things by imitation,” that great classical motto, means that poor writers cannot be analyzed into good writers. The only value of critique is showing students how they have failed to imitate masters well. If a student does not want to imitate the masters, critique will do nothing for that student.
7. Students who tend to write well on Day 1 tend to show progress by Day 100, but students who do not write well on Day 1 tend to not show progress by Day 100. To the writing student who has, more will be given; to the writing student who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This said, what the student needs on Day 1 is not talent, but heroes. A hero is an icon of faith the size of a mustard seed.
8. If a student shows no talent or gift for writing, there is yet hope, but the path to progress for that student involves the surgical removal of his cell phone, extreme video game deprivation, an abundance of reading time and many long walks. You have seen Ken Burns’s Civil War series. You have heard the gorgeous prose of common soldiers writing home to their sweethearts. You have wondered how they did it. No cell phones, that’s how.
9. Of cooking, Jiro Ono says, “In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food.” So, too, in order to write beautiful sentences a man must read beautiful sentences.
10. To improve as a writer means to improve as a thinker. Good thinking leads to good writing and vice versa. There is no improvement in writing without improvement in thinking.