Can Great Writing Be Learned?

by syaffolee

In the article Does School Kill Writing, Bill Morris posits two things: 1) having “experience” (whatever that may be) does not necessarily make you a good writer and 2) while going to writing school might make you a competent writer, it is not the magic bullet which will make you a great writer.

I think Morris touches on an interesting point.  Can great writing ever be learned?  Certainly, writing craft can be learned.  The mechanics of writing can be learned.  But what makes great writing? And whatever it is, can any writer obtain proficiency at it?  When people talk of great writing, they say that the writing speaks to them.  The writing has soul, anima, something that sparks recognition in the reader.  Good writing might make people admire it like a perfectly shaped watermelon found at the grocery store bin, but great writing actually makes people care even after it’s been consumed.

If you are a reader who reads a significant number of books per year and reads books that have not already been vetted by other people, you have probably come to the conclusion that there are only a few books out of that pile that could truly be considered great.  Even if you take into account that people have different tastes or the notion that every book has an audience, no matter how small–you’re still going to get a number of books where a majority of people think of as great and that, as they say, stand the test of time.

So with the proliferation of writing schools, one would expect that if greatness can be learned, the number of great books being published would actually increase.  Is this really the case?  As I do not have the statistics for such a thing, I really don’t know.  But in my experience as a reader, my gut feeling would be: no.  This does not mean that most writers are bad writers.  It just means that when you take an aggregate of the literature, someone has to be average.  Mathematically and philosophically, most people are either below average, average, or just above average.  Few are exceptional.

What does it take to be exceptional? Well, you need the ability to distill an idea into words that will make the readers care.  As emotions are wired into all human beings in a similar way (a fact, thanks to neuroscience), I think there are probably patterns of words–patterns not merely consisting of ten or fifty words, but thousands–that could elicit a response from a reader.  And since there are patterns, this can probably be learned.  This probably also explains why some writers continually write great works (the knowledge of these patterns are an innate talent), why some writers write great works at the end of their career (because they eventually learn these patterns), and why some writers write one great work but everything else falls into obscurity (they’ve stumbled onto the pattern by accident).  It’s all speculation on my part, of course.  If writing is just a series of meaningful patterns, someone someday is going to invent a machine to write the next Hamlet.  Meanwhile, everyone is content to describe great writing with the nebulous term, “art”.

However, most writers these days are not really concerned with making great writing.  They’re concerned with making good writing that sells.  While great writing and writing that sells are not mutually exclusive, they are not the same thing either.  Just look at the bestseller list.  While few of those books can be really considered as great books, they are all books that sell.  Once you’re able to sell your writing and get other people to actually read it, then I suppose you could worry whether or not the writing is great.  Writing something that sells is a far more practical goal than aiming for great writing which might never see the light of day because in this case, you are not aiming to elicit a response from just anyone.  You’re aiming to elicit a response from an agent or editor.  Agents and editors are a subset of the population who actually can tell you what they want from a manuscript.  The ordinary person on the street may find it hard to articulate about what they want from a good book other than the unhelpful, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Well, what if you take agents and editors out of the equation and ask the question, can there be great writing regardless of whether or not it sells?  With POD publishing and the internet where any idiot with a computer can post his ramblings for the world to see, one would think that there would be an increase in the amount of great writing without some arbitrary gatekeeper also putting in the restriction that the writing must sell.  But if it’s great writing, it’s going to get out there by word of mouth, by page views, by increased linkage.  This, in turn, will probably attract people who are out to make a buck.  As a result, great writing of the self-published sort will end up selling anyway and inevitably have an enormous internet presence with people writing e-mails to the author and discussing the work on book forums.  To my untrained eye, this hasn’t really been the case.  It’s rare–not impossible–for an author to rise above the POD slush.  Instead, I’ve just seen a lot of self-promotion going on.

So back to great writing.  Can it be learned?  Maybe.  Is it being taught at a writing program?  Who knows.  Getting into a writing program in the first place requires some skill at writing.  The only definitive way of finding out is to have a writing program staffed by writers who are considered great by most people.  And then randomly admit students to that writing program.  If the only students who become great writers are ones who’ve shown promise in the first place–then it may indicate two things: 1) the writing program is only a place where one goes to acquire “polish” and 2) while one might be able to learn great writing, a writing school is not the place to do so.  If most students of the program become great writers–then we’d know that it can be taught and learned at a writing school.  But is anyone willing to do this experiment?  Probably not.