In the class I am taking about teaching writing, I am learning a tremendous amount. My classmates are all fellow-teachers and we all share strategies that have worked for us in teaching writing. One technique that has come up time and time again is the idea of reinforcing writing strategies by saying, “That’s the way professional writers do it.”
Whenever I see this, I think, without any sarcasm, “Really? There’s a way?” I get a little jolt and think that if I could just be let in on the secret, it would make this whole writing thing a lot easier. I am not exaggerating when I say that my heart beats a little faster at this prospect.
The truth is there is no one way to write. Indeed, as often as I hear teachers say we should tell students, “This is how professionals writers do it,” I have heard writers say, “I didn’t learn how to write a book. I learned how to write this book.” In effect, even professional writers don’t tend to have one way of writing.
As teachers of writing, insisting on one way can be damaging. In college more than one writing instructor told the writing workshop I was participating in, “Write more than you need to. You can always cut back.” It took me almost ten years to realize that I am not a cutter-backer. I am a builder-upper. Sure I will cut out whole scenes, and even do the proverbial killing of my darlings (actually it’s more like I put them in the junk yard and save them for letter). Mostly, though, when I am revising, I am adding details. Yet because of this off-hand remark by a teacher, I was convinced that I was doing it the wrong way.
Of course there is a general framework of a process to writing — the generation of ideas, the drafting, the revision — but how each writer works through this depends on many factors: the writer, the project, time constraints, learning style etc. Each writer should be aware of his or her process, and, as much as possible, why he or she is working in a particular way. I believe helping students to figure out their own approaches will be more useful in the long run than simply telling them, “This is the way it is done.” One will help them to move forward in their writing. The other, any professional writer will tell you, is a lie.