Recently, I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought about how people learn to write, and in particular how they learn to write fiction. You might assume that this is something which they learn at school, but I think in many cases this is not true. Instead, all school teaches you is a few of the most basic rules about the English language and then leaves you to get on with it. For example, despite them being important to writers, I don’t think I was ever shown how to use a semi-colon or colon by any of my teachers. In addition, while I might have been taught the mechanics of how to put a sentence together (all that stuff about having a subject, an object and a verb to tell you what the subject was doing to the object or visa versa), I was taught little about how to do it in a way which would have any sort of impact. So, if writers aren’t taught how to write in school where do they pick it up from?
Well, I think the answer here is from reading other people’s writing, and working out what you like and what you don’t, and then applying these rules to your own work. I think it’s no accident that most writers are also avid readers, often from an early age, and that it’s this experience with other people’s books which inspired them to become the writers they now are. This means that the only way in which you can hope to become a better writer is to read lots and write lots. Yet, this is not how we’re taught, at least not in British schools. Instead, at least in high school, we were generally assigned maybe one or two books a year which we would read and critique in detail, seeking out meaning in the most minor and mundane of details. And to be honest, most of what we were assigned to read was by dead white men (some of whom had been dead for a very long time) and were things which were considered classics.
Yet, these weren’t the books that interested me, or the type of thing I might actually want to write myself. The result, and I think this is the same for many people, I pretty much lost interest in creative writing, and indeed in reading fiction at all. Instead, throughout much of my teenage years and into my early twenties, pretty much all I read were non-fiction books (primarily biographies, travelogues and popular science books). It wasn’t really until my late twenties when I was spending a lot of time on boats, where sharing your books around is the social norm, and to not do so would be considered rude, that I started picking up fiction books again simply because that was what was available. Except these weren’t the dry ‘classics’ of my youth. Instead, they tended to be what my teachers would probably have called (using air quotes and a derogatory tone) ‘popular’ fiction. I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on (when you’re sitting on a boat waiting for the weather to clear so you can get to work, you get bored very quickly without a book to read), and while I’d be the first to admit that a lot of it was pretty bad, there were some hidden gems in there too which have been really influential on my own writing style. Things like the work of Carl Hiaasen, the novel Spares, and, indeed, the Harry Potter books (which I first picked up as a last resort because I’d read all the books written for grown-ups). Later I got into the works of writers such as John Wyndham, Iain Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre and the late great Iain Banks.
Through this, I started to learn what I liked and what I didn’t, and also things like how pull a plot together, how to develop characters and so on. This was all the stuff I should’ve been taught at school if my teachers had really wanted to inspire me to love the English language rather than alienate me from it, and I think it’s no coincidence that it was also at this time in my life that I started writing short stories for what was probably the first time since I was in little school.
My point in all of this is that our education system seems to have it all wrong when it comes to teaching kids how to write. It tells them read this book, and only this book, which the education system has deemed acceptable and if kids don’t like it, the aren’t provided with an alternative. As a result, many simply choose not to read. Yet, there’s no reason to think you can only learn to appreciated what’s good writing and how to do it by reading classic literature. Instead, I would argue that you can learn this from reading almost anything. This means what we should be doing is letting kids choose what they wish to read, and if they don’t like it, then get them to think about why they didn’t like it before allowing them to move on to something they like better. The key thing here is to make sure they keep reading, and exploring literature in all its forms rather than telling them that it’s the classics or nothing. In this way, we would be giving them the tools to write if they want to (or not if they don’t – and there’s nothing wrong with that) rather than leaving them with so little knowledge that they can write their name and little else simply because they were put off learning about English because of the books which were forced upon them.
It may be that it’s different in other countries, but I suspect it’s not. And I suspect the reason for this is because of a fundamental problem with education. This problem is that it assumes that every teacher is capable of teaching every pupil, and that everyone can be inspired by studying the same set of limited texts. Yet, this fails to recognise that not everyone’s brains work in the same ways, and nor does it take into account that all humans, even teachers, have personalities. This means that not everyone sees the world in the same way, and it can be very difficult for some one who sees the world one to teach, or be taught by, someone who sees the world differently. This is, after all, why one person will absolutely love a particular book while another will absolutely hate it. And this is why each writer has their own set of books and stories which have inspired them to write.
So, learning to write isn’t about learning a set of rules, or about learning what someone else thinks some long dead author meant when they were writing a book which has, possibly more by chance than quality, survived long enough to be considered a classic. Instead, it’s about reading everything you can get your hands on (whether classics or not) so that you can learn what you like and what you don’t, and then apply in to your own writing. Of course, this is all just my opinion, and if you see the world differently, feel free to disagree with me.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.