Saturday, 31 August 2013

MIX: Writers Make Good Teachers

A mixed post: Writing and Teaching
This post has been percolating since February 2013 (the end of Semester 1), back when I wrote Writers Make Poor Teachers. As I said then, I don't mean writers teaching about how to write. I mean writers in the profession as a teacher. Now, it's time to look at the flip side - it can't be all bad.

First, a recap: My main lament in the BAD post referred to the marking (aka grading) aspect. Writers need to pay attention to detail. They also need to justify why certain events occur, to avoid ending up with a character at the mercy of the plot, or a "deus ex machina" ending. And this kind of careful consideration is GREAT... if you're a tutor.

If you have 30 tests to slam through, at four pages each, spending a mere 5 minutes per page means (30x4x5) 600 minutes, or 10 HOURS. Picture getting home from work and then spending 2 hours a night, every night, for the week. Oh right, that's just one class of three! NOT SUSTAINABLE.

Except that's what I do. Because I feel the need to justify the reasoning of the student, before assigning the 72% versus 75%. It's torture, but trying to turn off that aspect of myself is SO HARD. Perhaps I'm getting better at it though.


Sonal Champsee commented on that previous post, talking about trusting your instincts. That, I think, is what it comes down to, and Scott Delahunt's thought on the same post offered a way of building up that self trust. There are (naturally) two immediate problems with the whole idea.

1) It requires time. Teachers new to the profession, and for that matter older teachers new to this style of marking, need time to build up their experience, in order to gain confidence. NOT Professional Development, which saps time while providing little experience. I find it ironic that teachers are told "Diversity is Important! All People Learn Differently!" ... "Here's an Hour Lecture on how ALL OF YOU can implement diversity." (It's okay, if you don't understand the lecture, they'll repeat it ad nauseum...)

2) It requires feedback. I'm fortunate enough to work with colleagues who provide it - because on the student side, you'll tend to hear nothing (so I guess I'm doing it right?), or something negative ("why did I lose 5% here?!"). Notice this is EXACTLY like writing: You post up a piece of fiction and get no comments, or someone saying you made some spelling errors. Thanks, uh, so what about the characterization...??

The upshot then (in theory) is that the grading problem can be solved by doing a lot of it, and assuming that you're doing it right unless you're told otherwise. Except there isn't time for the former, and the latter can be hard for me personally to accept. It might be because I'm effectively my own editor for my writing, so I KNOW there are times I don't get it quite right. It might be a general lack of confidence in myself, on account of my habit of making unfair comparisons to others. It might be something else entirely.

Still, that is only one aspect of the job. I didn't include delivery of curriculum in the prior post for a reason.


As a teacher, every day you're writing, then delivering another short story. (More than one story in a day, in fact.) There are actually tons of posts out there comparing teaching to storytelling. The "Three Act" lesson model (Entry, Analysis, Answer/Sequel) is also a form of this, arcing over multiple days - though in a sense, the tale ALWAYS arcs. All the lessons (chapters) need to tie into the unit (book) to make a course (series) making for a complete volume of work. Which then invites fanfiction, maybe.

The beauty of it is that different teachers will have different styles of presenting, and different students will pick up on different aspects of the plot. So one story can end up being seen in multiple ways. Notice that, just because you might know the conclusion in advance, doesn't mean that the path to get to it is as clear. (Think "Columbo".) There's an element of choose your own adventure within every single math problem, as well as over an entire course. Certain people will also prefer different story genres, and as the teacher you have to try to appeal to all of them at once.

If that sounds hard, it is, but those two problems from above? Not problems here. You're in the class every day, and usually the feedback is both clear and immediate. In fact, depending on the audience (class), the narrative can even be adjusted as you go, to follow one group of characters (functions?) over another. Little edits and rewrites as you go can make the story better.

Consider also, as a writer, there are times when a character will do or say something unexpected. Perhaps it even changes the climax of your story on you. What to do? Well, you run with it, you adapt, the same way a student question can completely change the landscape of your lesson plan. To do otherwise would be to deny the character their autonomy. Again, it doesn't mean you can't reach the same conclusion in the end - you're a writer, you'll figure it out.


Observation. As a writer, you need to see what's going on in the world, to get ideas for your writing. Could be for characters, for plot, what have you. As a teacher, you need to see what's going on in the classroom, to know what students are understanding, what students are not understanding, and what students are using their cell phones.

Communication. As a writer, you need to clearly express what you mean in your writing, so that readers can follow it. You also need to know when to repeat things that might have been forgotten, and when to assume the reader knows what's going on. Finally, you also need to be able to express your intentions to editors. For teacher, replace "writing" with "teaching", "readers" with "students", and "editors" with "parents".

Researching. As a writer, you need to make sure you know what you're talking about, in terms of geography, professions, races... even in fiction, which vampire traits will you use, which will you ignore, and why? As a teacher, same thing, you need to understand the material - and even if it's an extension beyond your expertise, hopefully you can offer up a website to those students who do want more information.

Perseverance. As a writer, you need to keep at it, even if you're only writing for yourself. As a teacher, you need to keep at it, even if some days you're not sure if you're getting through. There's also the fact that it's so much extra work if you're sick one day.

Finally, creativity. Creating resources from nothing, and making it all interesting and engaging. All of these have connections to the teaching profession, regardless of subject.

So yes - writers make good teachers. Of course, a lot of those skills can be applied to other professions too! But I'll argue that very few of them (outside of the entertainment industry) involve playing to the same audience, day after day, trying to keep your story interesting. Claim: Your writing abilities will help with that. Which may relate to why a lot of teachers keep blogs... heck, it can work the other way too. I wonder how many teachers have published books.

Did I miss an obvious skill, or make a mistake in my analysis? Then let me know below!


  1. I may have mentioned this last time--you say "writer" when you mean "novelist" or "fiction writer". I am at the point that, when asked what I do, I say "I teach and I write". It's a big part of my identity. But I'm not a fiction writer.

    For that matter, most of us teacher bloggers are writers and we're not involved in fiction.

    1. Fair point. I grant that when I'm thinking about writing, since I trend towards fiction writing, my articles have a natural bias - but I think some "writing" aspects I listed can apply in either case. I simply haven't turned my eye towards some of the more reality based writing I do for this blog.

      For further reading if anyone would like, here's an article written by someone who does both fiction and non-fiction writing, comparing them better than I likely could:

  2. Two thoughts:
    1) There's a large percentage of teachers among the creative writers I know... perhaps half or more? Next most common is some kind of professional writer (journalist, technical writers, copywriters, etc.) then full-time creative writers (not all of them get paid for this), then an odd mix of professions (nurse, lawyer, musician, engineers.) But teachers dominate.

    2) I wonder if you should conduct a small marking experiment, by recording the first gut reaction mark, and then doing your usual fully-reasoned marking. Then, sometime long after when you have a few minutes, compare the two and see how much difference it makes. It'll give you a better sense of how good your own instincts are, and also a better sense of the cost/benefit of your time. This may in turn help you realize that you can let go and trust yourself more.... or at least help you feel more confident about why you put in the time you do. (And, over time, it gives you a concrete way to see if you're instincts are improving or not.)

    1. I haven't noticed the backgrounds of the authors I read, but I am aware of several contemporary writers who were teachers. There's a correlation, definitely.

      That's not a bad idea, though this would be Greg's decision. Would a small quiz in one class be enough of a trial run? Something short enough such that it wouldn't take too long to mark, especially if there's no other quizzes or tests waiting, but long enough to get a good feel?

      (Heh. "Let go. Trust your feelings." Greg, you need an Obi Wan. :) )

    2. I find that first point fascinating. Seems like, if one doesn't lead to the other, there is at least some third variable that causes a predisposition for both. I wonder what it is. Perhaps there's a sign in what level, and in what subject area, the majority of teacher writers are from... but then, perhaps it's more homogenous.

      Regarding the second point, it is actually a similar idea to what Scott suggested way back on the previous post. Quizzes are kind of pointless though - being only one page, and not counted in the grade, I don't give them as much thought. It's definitely something to consider though... often comes back to confidence. The other thing I'm realizing is that I rather like editing, which is probably taking up too much of my time as well.

      (Scott, you're making me think about casting my characters in the Star Wars universe. How awkward!)

  3. Found an interesting quote by novelist Ilona Andrews on her blog:

    "People have an unlimited capacity to learn and a writer can teach the readers pretty much anything through the narrative[.]"