Do You Think Writing Can Be Taught?


How many times do we have to revisit this question of whether writing can be taught? Of course writing can be taught. Painters are taught how to use colour, or wash brushes, or draw a dog in motion or at rest. Gardeners are taught how to make acid soil more alkaline  or to adapt by planting acid-loving plants.

I have in my time frequently encountered the view that that writing can’t be taught, but I have little patience with dinosaurs and dullards who resist the idea of learning. I do however understand that sometimes the teaching of writing is uninspiring, clunky, or wrong-headed – or simply of a style unsuitable to what the writer needs right now.

The other day I read an interview with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard where he answers the question ‘do you think writing can be taught?’ like this:

No. You have to learn it yourself. It’s like playing, you know? And you have to find your own way. So no, you can’t teach that. But there are so many other things you can teach.

This is what I believe. I’m a teacher, so I believe in the idea of teaching and learning and studying. I believe in the principle of improvement. Even the most experienced writers learn new things all the time, or learn to see things afresh (seeing things afresh is an important lesson for writers who are switching from, say, journalism to fiction, or vice versa).

I do think that writers need to take charge of their own learning. Sometimes writing students can seem to get a little locked into the idea of finding easy solutions, and some teachers or courses are perhaps a bit too tired or prescriptive in the expectations they create – that goes for publishers and agents too. And creative writing doesn’t really work like that. The imagination needs to find its own way.

Yet the best answers usually come through a process of searching, and there remain many things to learn (or be taught). Nowadays there are so many options available to writers: workshops, academic writing programmes, online courses, creative writing manuals, writers’ conferences, genre conventions, literary festivals,  manuscript critiques, writing groups.

I’m a big believer in writers and artists making their own way – and even if you’re following other ways (such as an MA or a PhD), they are rarely enough; a formal qualification usually needs extending in some way or other to become meaningful (to finish the manuscript; to get published).

I’ve discussed this in another blog post on the idea of a DIY MA in Creative Writing, and I shall be taking some of these ideas further in an afternoon-long course I’ll be teaching on the Friday afternoon of the 2016 York Festival of Writing, which runs from 9 to 11 September this year. I’ll be offering suggestions, guidance, and recommendations for writers who want to develop their own self-directed programme of studies, and I’ll be promoting ways in which writers can develop an instinct for what works in their writing, for what holds up, for what feeds their imaginations.

Also in attendance at York will be plenty of excellent teachers and writers (or teacher-writers?) offering their own perspectives too; the editors and agents who’ll be there looking for new talent will be there in some capacity as teachers too, with lessons to share for those listening.

I’m also teaching workshops on the related but distinct topics of voice and tone at York, and I’ll be book doctoring there too. Later in September in London I’m also hoping to teach a fuller, day-long workshop on voice, which will look more closely at aspects of craft such as point of view, narration, tone, and prose style, using examples from popular and classic books as the basis for discussion and spurring writers to try new things in their own work.

And before that I’m also leading a workshop on Showing & Telling & Storytelling at the Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon at Waterstones Piccadilly on Friday 27 May.

Can writing be taught? Of course it can!


  1. Sandra Davies

    It took me a long time to accept that, yes, writing can be taught. Emma Darwin’s ‘This itch’ advice and Debi’s York 2013 workshop on ‘Psychic Distance’ persuaded me to do a Self Edit course in January 2014.
    Last week I looked back at my offering for the first exercise. And cringed.
    And, btw, I’ve a book doctor session with you in September, aware I still have a lot to learn.

  2. Jennifer Heath

    Good post. Knausgaard is absolutely right. Skills can (and should) be taught, but the soul of art/writing/any artistic discipline comes from the struggle ultimately with oneself.

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