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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Learning to Write Is Hard, But It Ain't Complicated

Some lessons in teaching and learning from John McPhee and one of his former students.

September 20, 2018

Teaching writing ain’t complicated, but it sure is hard.

The same is true from the learning to write side of the equation. There is no magic switch to be thrown where all is suddenly revealed and Shazam! – you’re a writer. 

Learning to write is about practicing writing and learning from that practice. Because it can be difficult to have the necessary perspective to learn on our own, access to a more experienced practitioner who may give us feedback on our work is a useful, maybe even necessary thing.

This simultaneously straightforward, yet difficult process is nicely illustrated via a recent interview between Jeffrey R. Young of EdSurge and John McPhee, living legend of non-fiction writing.

In addition to his writing, for the last 43 years, John McPhee has been teaching a single writing course every spring at Princeton University. Jeffrey Young was once his student, as was the current editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, as were many other accomplished writers.

My favorite part of McPhee’s recent book discussing his work, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, is how difficult he makes finding the best form for a particular piece seem, but at the same time communicating the pleasure in grappling with that difficulty.

The central concern of McPhee’s process is structure, the shape of a particular piece, and he reports being stymied often, but ultimately managing to muddle through until the best, often highly elegant solution appears.

That solution sometimes seems to appear as if by divine intervention, but McPhee shows the sweat that underlies the triumph.

Young focuses on McPhee the teacher, the man who he says had “this enormous impact on me when I sat there in his wood-panel classroom as a baby-faced, out-of-place, middle-class kid from Georgia. Since then, I've wondered many times, what's the magic? He taught me how to write, but how?”

The how is straighforward. I’ll let McPhee’s description to Young do the work for me: “I think writers are unique, and that would mean that each of the 16 kids in my class in a given year is different from all the others, and no one will ever be able to write just the way you do. It's like a thumbprint, and my work with them is based on that. The core of the course is private conferences about their writing, but the private conferences are not to try to teach them that it must be done this way, but to help them do it their way.”

Young describes his experience in one of the conferences, where McPhee had circled a word and walked him over to a dictionary on a stand in McPhee’s office, reading the definition together and asking if it was the best word for what Young had meant.

Young remarks to McPhee, “After all these years, it's really stuck with me, this kind of care and crafting of every word. And from your book and from your comments now, I can see that this is something you probably did with many of your students.”

Let us stop for a moment and admire the simplicity of it, asking a writer to consider the impact of a single word choice as a microcosm for all the other choices that go into creating a piece of writing, a small act that has resonated with Jeffrey Young for over 20 years.

I can attest to the power and efficacy of the one-on-one conference. My favorite thing is to simply read the student’s work together, talk over their choices, what they were considering when a particular choice was made and suggesting where a choice may not be having the impact they wish on an audience.

McPhee says that in preparation for conferences he pretends he is the student’s editor, not prescribing fixes, but suggesting the places that need a closer look.

From 2003-2008 I was simultaneously teaching full-time and editing the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency website full-time, and in fairly short order recognized how differently I was treating students versus the contributors to the publication I was overseeing.

Because I was holding two essentially full-time jobs, particularly with my McSweeney’s work, my editing was largely limited to responding and prodding, telling the author what happened to me as I read, and encouraging them to address spots where what we hoped would happen (laughter) was not happening. Very occasionally I might tweak a line, but I just didn’t have the time to work things over in detail.

That said, once I’d accepted a piece for publication, I was happy to send it back to the author for reworking as many times as it took to get it to what I felt was “can’t make it better” or what McPhee identifies as the end result of “draft no. 4.”

I contrasted that process with the comments I was giving my students at the time, a lot of corrections, plus a lot of verbiage about what I was responding to in order to justify the grade I was awarding.

While the writers who were submitting and getting pieces accepted at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency were often further along in their development than the students I was working with, I soon found that the same kind of feedback I was giving those authors worked just as well with students.

It saved me a lot of time in writing those grade-justifying comments too.

The image that emerges from Young’s conversation with McPhee is a kind of platonic ideal of how to teaching writing and illustrates something I’ve been bleating about for more than a decade: the conditions matter more than the curriculum.

One teacher, 16 students, sufficient time to read and respond with the closest possible attention. Some students will have to settle for a John Warner rather than a John McPhee, but that’s alright. There’s plenty of us interested in working with students to go around.

Consider how few teachers and students are allowed to work under these conditions. Heck, I’m willing to compromise, give every teacher two sections of 16. We could probably make do.

As I say, it may be hard, but it’s not complicated.

We know what works in teaching writing. It’s this.

Do we have the fortitude to pursue it?


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