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Learning how to be a better writer through teaching

Updated: May 23


Screen shot of the author's tweet earlier that day complaining about her students.

When I first started teaching years ago, I was speaking with a student during my office hours about the fact that they hadn’t turned in the last two papers. They were looking for a reprieve on their grade.

In speaking with them, they expressed how they know how to write but they were having trouble managing their time. They weren’t great at doing what their teachers ask of them. They believed writing was art for expression, and for me to ask the students to consider their audience went against what he believed.

I thought, Great. I’m teaching myself.

It sounds a little self-loathing, but it was one of those moments where I flashed back to myself as a college student spouting off some of my opinions and philosophies about writing, art, and selling out. I was a cliche. And here I was hearing my cliched words being spouted right back at me. He kept talking about what he might write about as a makeup paper. When he said to me, “It’s about a band you’ve probably never heard of … they’re called Tool,” it took all of me to not laugh at this replica of my former self. Child, please.

I love being a teacher. I know many writers who would rather die than stand up and explain the power of words to a bunch of bored teenagers, trying to compete for their attention which is sucked in by TikTok, Discord, and their own personal dramas. I love it. I have a captive audience, a certain amount of power, a regular paycheck, and get to talk about words all day. It’s pretty awesome. In addition to teaching, I am also running a writers' group for students who love science fiction and fantasy genre. They aren’t writing for a grade, but because they love to write. They are volunteering to do it for fun. Regardless of the motivation, writers are writers and speak the same litany of excuses, justifications, and reasons to not write.

Interestingly enough, teaching writing has allowed me to witness students who suffer from my own anxieties, vulnerabilities, and insecurities. They need me – me of all people – to give them strategies, tactics, and motivational speeches to get them moving. I'm learning how to be a better writer through teaching.


The most common ailments I witness regularly are:

Perfectionism

  • This is hard as an instructor. I see smart students who show up for every class with knowledge and insight who do not submit their writing assignments because they are terrified of any flaws. I tell these students to promise me that they won’t ghost me and that they will allow themselves to be flawed because if they don’t, their grade is a zero. I can’t grade writing that doesn’t exist. For years, I have played and tweaked short pieces: essays, short stories, and poems, and keep them buried in my laptop. They're not perfect and I would be mortified for anyone to see them and assess them: particularly the poems. But what I have learned is hiding my words means people won’t see what I’m doing. People who don’t judge me – my friends. One of the many reasons I fell in love with writing was seeing the face of someone who liked what I wrote.

The other perfectionists are students who don’t read their work before they submit it. This is a strange version of perfectionism, which is both it and self-sabotage. Because they are terrified to see the flaws in their work, they won’t reread it. The idea that they didn’t nail it perfectly the first time leads them to turn it in and never look at it again. And they can always fall back on the excuse that It was only a first draft or I only spent an hour on it anyway. Because they know they can’t be perfect, they don’t try. This is also frustrating because, despite the fact that they have read “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott and despite the fact that I tell them that many drafts are necessary, they refuse to look back in order to make their writing better.


Almost writing

  • They call it world-building. They call it outlining. They’re scene-shaping. They’re drafting. They’re conceptualizing. But they’re not writing. I can fiddle-fart with the best of them. My process wall is a prime example. But in the end, it’s not a book, a poem, or a short story until the writer puts words on a page. It’s beautiful and completely without flaws in one’s head. As soon as you type it, it immediately feels flat. But the more you work at it, the more it morphs, and it fills out into a full-fledged product of creativity. Once, I heard the author CJ Hauser advise, “Only writing is writing.” She explained how answering emails, submitting to literary magazines, and talking about writing might seem like writing, but it’s not. Only writing is writing. I have to remind myself of that nearly every day.

Who’s got the time?

  • The answer is no one. Everyone says this. Students say they don’t have the time. Professional writers say it. People in the middle say it. If you have a desire to write, you also have to complain about how you don’t have time to write. I think it’s a law or something. Often when I ask young writers to make small goals for themselves, their goal is to write 10 minutes a day. And then when I check in with them the next time we meet, they haven’t done that at all. We discuss how we can make writing a priority and then I realize that I have not made writing a priority – rushing around to teach, to classes and practices for my kids, to vacations with my husband, to my chair where I am currently binge watching TV shows that I have already seen before. I was preaching to them to make the choice to write instead of doing something else they enjoyed or felt obligated to do. I was a hypocrite. Teaching reminds me that I don’t always practice what I preach, and I can’t live with that. As soon as that happens, I rearrange my schedule to allow time to write. Currently, I am hosting Write-ins and have invited the students to join me. Write-ins are agreeing to gather at a location and do nothing but write. I snag a study room at my campus library and send out the announcement that I will be writing there for one hour. No students have stopped by. But it’s working out great for me. I’m clocking 800-1,000 words an hour. Which is more than zero words, which makes it perfect. The other beauty of being a teacher is there are many designated spaces with desks, WiFi, and mandated silence. I wish my on-campus office was in a library.

Arrogance

  • which is also what I call not listening to good advice. On multiple occasions, I have suggested a student change something only to be met with resistance, hostility, and a defense to match a team of celebrity lawyers. As a result, I must sit there quietly as they explain to me how – with all due respect – they have no intention of changing anything. Their work is their work; I just don’t get it. My husband likes for me to tell them, “Have you considered that I’m the one grading this?” I know that’s a fool’s errand. Because I, too, have frantically mounted a defense of something that was being workshopped. I told a published, respected writer and scholar, that my characters would continue to use the word “Hey” to greet each other because that’s what Harper Lee did, and reading that so long ago made this bookish Southern Girl feel less lonely. He smiled and conceded. What I didn’t hear was that he was explaining to me that so many people greeting each other was slowing down the story – and the story was all that mattered. He didn’t get angry or annoyed. He let it go. It wasn’t the last time I did that, but I learned as both a student and a teacher that day. It’s so easy to feel like you are under attack when someone is offering feedback. And no matter how much I explain that it’s not personal, I know it’s still hard. We want it to improve. We also want it to be the most amazing thing anyone has ever read. And it won’t be, because no matter how perfect it is when you offer something up to be workshopped, people will dig until they find something to change.

The other side of arrogance is something I have had to change about myself: being the arrogant jerk in the workshop. It’s not my best color. I have to watch myself because it’s in no way helpful to be superior to another writer. And there is no excuse for it, especially knowing what I know now. There are no superstars. No one wins by trying to “take someone down a peg”. And it only makes me – the person being snide, sarcastic, sharp, or needlessly nit-picky – look like a jerk. I’ve been in workshops with jerks. I have been a jerk. It brings down the vibe of the group. I’ve learned to be more gracious.


One of the best things about teaching is I get to learn from these mistakes from the viewpoint of an observer and a witness, so I don’t allow myself to get caught up in excuses. I am a better writer for it.

Another part of it is listening to my own advice to them. I tell them that their story is their own, and they have the right to tell it. I tell them to not be afraid of creating, publishing, or showing their work to their families, their loved ones, and their classmates, because whatever they wrote is valid and people who love them will also love it.

This week I am reminded of a quote I used to post often by the French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous,

“I refuse to strengthen [the ways of the past] by repeating them.”

If writers – including myself – tell themselves that the only people worthy of telling stories are the ones who are already telling them, then we will continue to lack representation and diversity in our fiction. Your Point of View is valid. Write your story. Share it with the world.


Often when my students say things that make me laugh, I tweet about it. Check it out @bebebradley.

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