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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.


Skills Students Need

Students ask me for advice on what they need to succeed in the writing world. This is what I tell them.

March 25, 2015

Occasionally, young people come to my campus office and they express a desire to make some kind of life in writing and they want advice.

They come to me because, to them, I appear to be some kind of success.

Heh. Heh.

Most of them are hopeful, but despite their youth, they are clear-eyed. If they have been one of my students and expressed a previous interest in teaching, they have already heard my lecture on how an MFA degree is nothing close to a guaranteed path to a stable, decent-paying college teaching job.

They also know that the lightning strike of sudden publishing success is unlikely, that they are looking at years of apprenticeship and struggle and that even if publishing comes, it may not arrive with all that much money.

Some of them are poets, so they’ve long abandoned hope of earning any portion of their living on their art already.

And yet, they want to do this stuff, so I have to do my best to start them down a path that stands at least some chance of success.

I think back on my own long and winding career during which I’ve managed to forge a place for myself doing work I enjoy while keeping my head above the financial waters, and I ask myself, given the world we live in today, what should students know?

What should they be able to do?

I tell my students that they should be able to write as many different things as possible. They should be able to write straightforward news as well as long form reported work. They should be able to write book and restaurant and music reviews.

Ideally, they’re also versed in business and technical writing (particularly grant applications) as well as ad copy or catalog writing. I tell them they should be familiar with the rudiments of web design and be able to code in at least one programming language to the point where picking up another would be relatively easy.

They should have a working knowledge of layout software like Adobe InDesign and image editing software like Photoshop, and also be able to pass a copyediting exam utilizing all industry standard marks and notations. They should be able to shoot and edit video.

Ideally, they should know how to produce a podcast from soup to nuts.

And really, if their goal is to publish, given the trends in literary fiction and poetry, they should probably be prepared to publish themselves, which means being versed not only in the above mentioned skills of writing, editing, copyediting, and designing, but PR and marketing and distribution as well.

Oops, I forgot accounting, since they’re going to have to set up and manage their own LLC as a publishing company to reap the tax benefits and avoid any personal liability.

Oh, and contracts. You can’t be a publisher, even of yourself, if you don’t understand contracts.

Okay, so I don’t actually tell them any of these things because I don’t want them to freak out, at least not in my office. We can’t afford to replace the carpet.

Instead, I tell them that they have to take what they’ve already learned and then be flexible, open to opportunity. When opportunity comes, they need to be capable of learning what they need to know to take advantage.

I tell them about how I had a relatively brief, but successful career in marketing research despite never having heard of such a thing before I started working in the field. I tell them I got the job through a reference earned by ghostwriting a book, even though I'd never ghostwritten a book before. I tell them how once on the job, I learned how to write a focus group report by reading other focus group reports and emulating them.

I tell them how I started moderating focus groups after watching other people moderate focus groups. I tell them that I’ve been editing a reasonably successful website for more than twelve years, despite never having edited anything before I took the job.

I tell them that the smartest thing they can do is to be on the lookout for people more talented than them and to become their (genuine) friends and allies, so that when one of these talented people breaks through, there may be an opportunity to follow at some point.

I tell them how grateful I was for my education, particularly my graduate education where I learned things like how to explicate a poem, how to teach a course, how to grade an essay, how to write 100,000 words in a single year while having no idea what might come of them, how to rebound from disappointment, how to give my efforts to others in helping them make their work better, all things I had little experience with prior to that time.

I did not know how to teach a class until I did it. I did not know how to write a review until I wrote a review. I did not know how to write a blog until I blogged. No one taught me how to write a novel, but I managed to figure it out.

I have not explicated a poem since my form and theory of poetry class, and yet I see a direct line between the work of understanding every last nuance of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” and interpreting consumer opinions regarding fast food roast beef sandwiches, and now, figuring out how to express my thoughts to the world inside of this little box[1].

When I read of the present mania for skills, and job training, and badging, I get mental because it is exactly the wrong approach in arming students for the job market of today[2]. The truth is, it is impossible to expose students to all the skills they might need. Look at the size of that list above, and it’s not even complete.

This is why we must continue to give students something better than skills, something I received, an education.


[1] The word “blog” did not even exist at the time I wrote that explication of “God’s Grandeur.”

[2] Or yesterday, or tomorrow.


I didn't know how to use Twitter until I started tweeting.


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