Writing well is hard (for everyone)

I've been teaching writing for almost 10 years. I've had a lot of students. The ones who succeed feel challenged and work to surpass that challenge. They recognize that writing requires practice, and they work at it.

But, having just gotten back last semester's round of student evaluations, I am more concerned about those students who don't recognize the challenge and, for various reasons, fail to flourish. The most disappointing comment that I see most frequently is along the lines of "I used to think I was a really good writer, but your class made me realize that I'm not" or other forms of suggestive blame and abject failure.

What these students don't understand or can't imagine is that MOST of us who write have had that moment. The teacher who made me see that I needed to work on my writing remains one of my very most favorite people in the world. The realization that you don't do something well, something that you want to do well, is the moment where you start to succeed.

The ability to write is something that we get through education. First, we learn to speak so we are familiar with the language, then we learn how to read, so we are familiar with seeing it, then we learn to write, and we begin to figure out how to create it. This is a process that took years! And that was just to get the basics.

To learn to do it well takes just as many years; in fact, it is a never-ending process. Language isn't static. Learning to write well isn't like learning to jump over a rock, where you just have to teach yourself to jump x height. Language changes, the words we use change, the technology we use changes, the structures that we use change. Learning to write well is like learning to jump over a moving rock when you have no idea where it's going to pop up next.

There are only two things required in order to learn to write well: 1) READ. Too many people think they can learn to write without learning to read. This is impossible. Exposing yourself to massive amounts of well-written material of all kinds, you are vastly improving your brain's ability to categorize and recognize written genres, sentence structures, vocabulary, and ways of communicating. And then 2) WRITE. If you want to write well, you must write a lot. This is not any different from developing any other skill. Most people can run, but not everyone can race in the Olympics. There may be a very small difference in athletic ability, but most of the difference is in the determination to be the best at that thing. Albert Einstein said, "Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work." Well, that's true about excellence in everything.

Writing is a skill that most people acquire at a very young age, just like running. But the people who do it best work at it, never stop doing it, and most of all never question whether they can.