5 Life Lessons for Writers I Wish Every School Would Teach
With kids headed back to school, both in online classes and socially distanced classrooms, I’ve been reflecting on the teachers who guided me in becoming a professional writer and inspired me to create The Story Engine deck to help other writers come up with their own creative prompts.
The right teacher at the right time can make a world of difference for a fledgeling writer.
I never would have started taking writing seriously until I met Ms. Ashworth and Mr. Kowalczyk, my high school English teachers. I wouldn’t have decided to make a go of writing professionally without Professor Whetter’s mentorship in university. And there are so many more who had a hand in making me unlock my potential as a writer and researcher.
The best teachers don’t just give you the nuts-and-bolts lessons for crafting a sentence or spinning a yarn. They also teach what it means to be a writer and think like a writer.
They help you learn the habits, mindsets, and lifestyle that support writers in achieving their creative goals, whatever those may be.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from my writing teachers that I hope every future writer gets to learn in the classroom.
Lesson #1: Make time to write every week—or more often if possible.
I meet so many writers who have trouble finding the time to write.
I totally sympathize. Life happens fast. Between school, work, and having anything approximating a social life, it feels impossible to find a quiet moment to be creative.
That’s why I think the language of “finding time” to write might be misleading. Time is time, and you won’t find more or less of it if you look harder.
You need to make time for the things that are important.
If writing is one of those important things, commit to setting aside time to write every week. I recommend reserving 1 hour before you start your day and the pressures of life pull you away. If you can, put your phone away and keep your computer offline so you resist the temptation to check messages.
You’ll find pretty quickly that you want more writing time (and it’s easier than it seems to take it). You'll also find you can make more of the writing time you have as you build habits and creative muscle memory.
- Tip for teachers: Set up an hour of class time for students to do nothing but write.
- Tip for writers: Put aside at least one hour one morning a week for writing, or join a friendly writing workshop. Having a weekly deadline to submit new work to discuss with your peers adds friendly incentive to reserve time to create something new.
Lesson #2: Give yourself permission to write bad first drafts.
Writer’s block comes from the pressure to write something great, or even just good, on the first try. The issue is less that we don’t know what to write about, and more that when we face the blank white page, the sudden pressure makes our ideas feel deficient. Or we’re afraid that if we start out by writing something bad, it means that we are a bad writer.
The idea that there is good/bad writing and good/bad writers is unhelpful, if not flat-out untrue. And more importantly, it’s completely counterproductive to judge writing by the first draft. “Good” writing takes time and revision.
Encourage writers to embrace their messy first drafts, or to forget the pressures of good and bad when they start. The first draft is the raw material the writer will use to shape the final piece—the block of marble the sculptor carves a shape out of. As they finish the first pass and they can step back to assess the goals and structure of the piece, they can decide which bits serve or do not serve the goals of the piece.
I find this produces happier writing students and “better” results than stress-addled writers staring at an empty page or filling the recycle bin with scrapped drafts, and the mindset shift will help you throughout your career.
- Tip for teachers: Allow students to revise their writing assignments and resubmit. Favour the final, revised draft when grading.
- Tip for writers: Start writing from a writing prompt as a 5-minute exercise before deciding what to write, just to get yourself started. (I’m totally biased, but I recommend The Story Engine deck for this!) Or intentionally write a bad sentence, just to get it out of the way.
Lesson #3: Talent is all well and good, but there is no substituting for practice and persistence.
I don’t like to get fixated on “talent” when I talk to younger writers about creative writing. It’s not that I don’t think it exists—it’s more that it often discourages the “untalented” writer from feeling like their writing is valuable, and convinces the “talented” writer that writing should come effortlessly when this is rarely true.
Most of the time, writing is hard work and it feels like you’re getting nowhere. This is true, even for the talented. But if you approach writing thinking that the struggle means you are talented/untalented, you’re more likely to give up when the going gets tough.
The writers who are still writing 10 years later are the ones who learned to grind it out. This means valuing your “talent” enough to show up for yourself during your scheduled writing time, but not being so invested in your brilliance that you get discouraged when writing gets hard. It’s a delicate balance, but practice and persistence help writers more than anything else I can think of.
- Tip for teachers: Allow students time to take home writing assignments to work on them. Not all challenges with a piece can be resolved in a flash of brilliance.
- Tip for writers: When you break through a challenge with your writing, take 5 minutes to write a note reminding yourself why it was worth slogging it out. Pick it up the next time you’re struggling with a draft.
Lesson #4: Read widely, including writing outside your genre.
I like to think of writing as a mental fitness routine. The time I spend at my writing desk is my daily workout, but the time between sessions is just as important for growing creative muscles. In the same way your diet supports your fitness goals, you want to make sure you’re reading a lot between your bouts at the keyboard or notebook. And not only that, but you want your intake to be varied.
Read outside your genre. You’ll be amazed at how much a memoire can teach you about first-person fiction or the perspective of the speaker in poetry.
Read work by writers of different races, genders, sexual orientation, and disabilities. Learn to recognize the assumptions you bring to your own work because of your particular experience of the world.
Experience work outside your medium. Try podcasts, television shows, or graphic novels to see how the medium changes the composition of the work.
- Tip for teachers: Vary reading and writing assignments on your syllabus.
- Tip for writers: Keep track of what you read, and set specific goals for achieving variety. Check in on your progress every few months and make adjustments as needed.
Lesson #5: Unpublished writing is just as valid as published writing.
For most writers, getting published is the end goal. That’s fair. We all need ways to visualize our success, and on some level, we all like to imagine seeing our book in a bookstore window, or going to the movie adaptation premiere, or maybe just publishing online and getting an encouraging comment.
But the pressure to publish as proof that you’re a “real” author makes it very hard to disentangle the act of writing from the act of publishing. The truth is that they are very different acts with separate goals, challenges, and rewards.
Publishing is a fickle industry. Everything changes: publishers’ budgets for new authors, readers’ preferences, genre popularity, submission guidelines, the price of ink and paper. There are countless factors outside a writer’s control that could lead to their manuscript being rejected. If you entangle your writing and publication goals, those rejections hit hard.
That’s why, as much as possible, I encourage writers to stay connected with their personal motivations for writing aside from publication. Those tend to hold true, even when the publishing world is in flux.
Writing, just like cooking or doing yoga, can be a beautiful daily practice that nourishes you and grounds you—whether or not anyone sees you do it. And just like you don’t need to be a professional chef or yoga instructor for that practice to be valuable, you don’t need to be published author for your writing to be valid.
- Tip for teachers: For a set period of time, have students write every week and also journal and reflect on why they are writing and what they are getting from the experience. Allow them to choose if they will be assessed by their writing, or their journaling, or both.
- Tip for writers: Reserve five minutes after you finish writing to make a note of what you’re proud of in the work you did today, or something you learned from your writing. Read that note when you start your next writing session and use it to reconnect to the benefits of daily practice.
One final note: this is going to be one heckuva school year, with teachers having to learn and apply new technology for online classes or new policies for socially distanced classrooms as they're invented.
Educators have joined the frontline fight against COVID-19, and they deserve admiration, respect, raises, and a whole lot of slack as they figure things out.
I hope this blog provides some tips from one grateful writer to teachers who want to inspire a new generation of writers.
But if instead they add pressure to your already hectic workload, don't sweat it Just know that one former student of writing is grateful for all you do and cheering you from the sidelines.