Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Writing Can't Be Taught

Via OrgTheory (thanks Fabio), Joseph Epstein gives it to us straight:

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping.

I don't have an opinion of Fish's book or Epstein's review of it. I just really like that way of putting it.

So why do I bother trying to teach it? Because you can actually help someone learn if they are willing to put in the effort. At bottom, piano playing or skating or drawing can't be taught either, but someone who has learned how to do it can help someone who does not yet know how (but really wants to) figure it out. It's all in the figuring-it-out-by-yourself. Read other people and try to work out how they did it. And practice.

If you just want to write, you probably already know how. If you want to know how to write well you've got some work to do. And only you can do that work.

There are lots of tricks, but they are not tricks to writing. They are things like: first, clarify the key sentence in the paragraph, then write the paragraph three different ways. Or: make the five key sentences in a section of your paper so clear that you can memorize them and when you tell them to someone else only once they can give you the gist of the section back.

The knowledge you lack will be acquired simply by writing. There is no other way.


Andrew Shields said...

The irony of Epstein saying that is that his own style is execrable. So he has both failed to teach "prose style" and failed to learn it.

Andrew Shields said...

I just skimmed through Epstein's article, and the huge irony is that such a poor writer accuses Fish of being an undistinguished writer. Pot kettle black, as the Wilco song puts it.

Thomas said...

That was my impression too. But I didn't look very closely at it. Maybe even the aphorism is wrong: writing can be taught. The point is just that it must also be learned. Maybe that's what I'm trying to say by comparing it to skating and drawing--writing's not special in this regard. So he may as well be saying that nothing can be taught.

Still "Good writing can't be taught. But can be learned" is a pretty good koan. It shifts the reader's (i.e., the writer's) attention onto the right spot.

Jonathan said...

Epstein is awful, and Fish's book looks awful too, though in other book Fish would be able to run circles around Epstein.

Presskorn said...

"The knowledge you lack will be acquired simply by writing."

As you might well know this echoes Aristotle's view of the acquisition of virtue: "...what we need to learn before doing, we learn by doing."(Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a33-34).

The acquisition of virtue is not a two-stage process, in which it is first acquired and then exercised. Rather it is a single-stage process, in which the acquiring of virtue gradually becomes indistinguishable from its achievement. That is to say, there is no clear temporal boundary between merely acquiring virtue and mastering it.

What holds for all virtues also holds for the virtue of writing well.

Thomas said...

Thanks for this, Thomas. I hadn't realized (though, you're right, I should have realized) that my approach is as ethically sound as Aristotle ... which is to say, true, but ultimately trivial ;-) which is why we're all dealing in stupid motivational tricks, right? Or what Wittgenstein would call puns and reminders.