Thursday, October 11, 2007

Writing in School

Jessica at BookEnds posted a great article on Editors and what it is exactly they do. Part of the conversation wound around to the argument that they spend too much time in school teaching grammar and sentence diagramming but fail to teach students how to write – to a rousing bit of agreement by the readers. While I see the point, I have to respectfully disagree.

They do teach writing skills in grade school and high school. What they teach is academic writing, and while discussing the failings of the public school system in preparing young minds is too lengthy a subject for this particular post – I’d just like to diverge for one minute to say, the information is there, the responsibility falls on the parent to make certain their children take advantage of the education... sorry folks, I know it’s easy to blame a failing system. The truth of the matter is, without parental involvement all but the heartiest students will fall short of their potential... this is true whether you want to believe it or not. Some schools are better equipped with better curriculum, but the key factor in success is a parent who not only shows their child that they feel education is important but takes any steps necessary to make certain their child stays challenged, involved, and stimulated... and, no, I’m not a teacher.

Okay, enough of the side rants. The question is whether high school teaches writing... yes, it does. They teach academic writing, which is imperative for anyone who wants to write a concise essay, business letter, or any type of correspondence with any sort of intelligence. Essentially, the high school focuses on writing skills that everyone needs to excel in their future – not fiction writing, which only a small population needs to excel. What’s the difference between academic writing and fiction writing? Ask any editor and they can tell you rather quickly.

Academic writing is largely passive. It’s useful in every area, from higher academic course work to business affairs and, by the way, is also imperative for the fiction writers among us who do need professional business skills in order to sell their creative prose in the publishing market place. Fiction writing, on the other hand, is largely active. Fiction writing’s focus is on telling the story, evoking the scene and emotions in a realistic way, and compelling your reader to experience both the characters and the action. It is a special writing skill and it is not taught in normal coursework largely because it is not needed for the majority of the students – though it would make a fabulous elective... My high school had creative writing, which was similar to fiction writing in that the grammar rules weren’t the focus. It was a wonderful class, but it wasn’t so much a teaching of fiction writing but the teacher did encourage my reading and use of dialect in stories, which, of course, is frowned on in academic writing.

Here’s my take on what’s being taught in high school. Academic writing is necessary for anyone who wishes to pursue higher education or a professional life. Fiction writing is not. If taught, it should be taught as an elective, and I think that would be a fabulous outlet that I would definitely have taken advantage of... but artwork, fiction writing, music, while valuable and worthwhile classes for the future artists who will take them will not serve to help the students who don’t want to learn them... Remember high school? How many kids took your art class as a blow off? About half of my art classes, and it was annoying to those of us who really took it seriously.

Okay, so that’s my take. No, most students don’t learn fiction writing in high school, unless they are learning it outside of school. But fiction writing is both a craft and an art form and, if you study artists you’ll find that most of them enhance their craft in a multitude of places, but never exclusively from any class or school.


writermama said...


I'll be in Chicago on Sunday at the Columbia College Chicago Creative Nonfiction Week kick off.

Come if you are free!

:) Writer Mama

Merry Jelinek said...


Thank you so much for letting me know you'll be there - you have great timing, too, I just started your book, Writer Mama

I left a comment on your post, but if I can get free, I'll definitely be there.

Anonymous said...

my son wanted to sign up for a creative writing class at his new school, it was in the catalog but the class didn't make-not enough students. they said they would have to hire another teacher to teach it. I was surprised by that, but maybe what you have said here sheds light on why a "regular English" teacher would not be able to teach a creative writing course...


Ello said...

I think creative writing should be mandatory for high school students. I think creative writing is an excellent way for people to explore themselves and their world through observation of life. even if they don't like to write, making them think creatively is a great way to broaden a student's perspective. But i agree about the academic writing part = it is mainly what they focus on and it is up to the parents to help their kids become better writers.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Silken,

I don't know how your son's school district does it - but usually the creative writing courses are taught by english teachers... maybe their current English department had a full schedule and they'd have to hire outside for the course, which wouldn't make sense if there weren't enough participants.

I do think, though, that schools today spend a great deal of time on creative endeavors. I know my daughter's classes all put emphasis on creative writing, they do take points off for misspelling and grammar mistakes, but I think that's a good thing - it teaches them to be careful with their work and you do need that in life - I think you especially need discipline in creative life otherwise you'll never bring your work to fruition or stick with it through sale.

Hi Ello,

It's been my observation that creative students find their way to learn. Whether that's through trial and error, studying their favorite writers and artists, or a good mentor, they do find a way... I think fiction writing coursework was a God send for me, but I would have kept writing and learning regardless - I still am and I've been out of a classroom setting for over ten years.

On the other end, I don't think we should discount academic writing. If you can't master that, you'll have a hell of a time mastering fiction. Fiction needs a different tone and craft, but the basics are all learned in academic writing.

Travis Erwin said...

I never had the oppurtunty to take Creative Writing until college, and there I took both I and II. But even at that it took my another eight or nine years to decide I could write a novel.

ANd in truth a think reading two ot three novels a week taught me more abotu the craft than those classes, the half a dozen or so fiction courses I have since taken, or all the conference workshops I have attneded put together.

By the way, I couldn't write academically if I had to.

This is a timely post for me as I have recently gegan to help a frined of my wife's daughter. She is seventeen and wants to write fiction. I have been trying to teach her the difference between active and passive writing.

Mary Witzl said...

At a party recently, I talked to a man who insisted he was going to write some day, but he didn't want grammar and semantics to get in his way when he did. Why do people think that learning how to write creatively means that you shouldn't muck around with boring things like grammar and punctuation?

I was an art major, and I know that even the masters of nonrepresentational art can draw, do perspective, understand color theory, etc. If you want to break the rules, it helps to know them first.

Mama Zen said...

All of my academic writing classes emphasized active voice. Whether you liked it or not!

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Travis,

What a treat for your student - many writers don't learn the difference between active and passive voice until they're much older with more experience.

I took creative writing in high school, though it wasn't nearly as informative as my fiction writing course work, it did give me a chance to branch out in the type of writing I was doing.

Hi Mary,

You know, I think a lot of people point to great works of the twentieth century, like Catcher in the Rye, and think that grammar is optional. What they don't realize is that Salinger actually did master writing beforehand and the lapse in grammar had nothing to do with a disdain for it - he was writing from the perspective of Holden, not from himself.

Like you, I think you have to crawl before toddle, and toddle before run... you can't write brilliantly without mastering the basics. There's a flow to well written prose and even the best storyteller can't get around knowing how they're formed, or at least having some knowledge of it... even with a good editor, it would ruin the music of the writing if the author didn't understand why the edits were necessary.

Hi Mama Zen,

Thanks for stopping in and nice to meet you. I don't mean to sound contrary, but where did you study? I've never heard of an instructor mandating active writing in academic prose.