24 May 2021


Writing is the hardest subject to teach. It's not information like history or science, and it's not a manual skill like carpentry or shooting lay-ups. It's a combination of knowledge (Vocabulary and grammar) and synthesis, combining that knowledge with the writer's own experience, emotions, skills and interests. When you have 25 or 30 students in a class or online with different cultures, environments, and DNA, trying to teach them the same skills the same way at the same time and expecting to absorb it at the same rate is a sure way to fail.

This is why so many graduate not only as mediocre writers, but as people who hate writing. Writing is a personal, even intimate skill, and the cookie-cutter approach doesn't work. I see and hear writers at workshops proclaiming that their method is the only way to write, and it always annoys me.

I was a panelist at a workshop a few years ago where one audience member asked if we outline our novels and I was the only one who said, "Yes." Before I could even explain that I used the term loosely, two other panel members screamed at me as though I had relieved myself on the table.

I told one of them later that if her method produced writing like hers, NO ONE should want to know how she did it.

Teaching writing should be less about getting the actual words right and a lot more about finding the way that works best for YOU. Schools need deadlines so teachers can grade your early stumbling efforts, but it doesn't help anyone. Teachers look at spelling, grammar and punctuation because that's easy to evaluate. Structure, style, pacing and rhythm, on the other hand, need larger samples than time permits. My senior honors English class gave me six weeks (It might have even been eight) to produce a research paper of 1000 words, and the teacher checked our footnote style (Remember Turabian?) with a microscope. Now, I expect to write that much on any given day (I produced the first draft of this essay, 1050 words, in about 35 minutes).

I don't know a single writer who uses precisely the same process that I do, and I claim that it works for me because I'm satisfied with most of the 15 novels and 30-some short stories I've published so far. But several writers on this blog have published hundreds of short stories and three times as many novels as I have. I have only a general idea of how most of them work, and it doesn't matter.

When I conduct my NANO workshops, I tell students that the important goal is not really producing 50,000 words, it's learning HOW TO produce those 50,000 words. If they've never tried to write a substantial amount before, it's a great chance to learn how to do it.

I suggest ideas you can use for outlining (Or simply listing scenes). I demonstrate the structure of a scene, how and why some characters work better for a story than others, how setting may help your story by creating obstacles or a context for your character, and how conflict enhances your plot. You need to find your own way to reach those goals.

Here are the questions schools can't help students answer, mostly because they're also doing math, science, social studies, foreign language and art homework, too, so their time is crowded. Never mind a social life.

How do YOU write the most effectively?

Do you write better in large blocks of time (Two hours or even more) or in short bursts of ten or fifteen minutes? Does that change if you're in an early stage of planning or actually working on the last pages of your story? I tend to go faster as I find a story's details and rhythm.

Do you need an outline or do you write a lot of junk then go back to save and expand the good stuff? I know a few major wirters who outline (Robert Crais and the late Sue Grafton among them), but Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and Carl Hiaasen don't. I wish I could write like any of them.

Do you need quiet, or can you listen to music or the traffic outside your window?

Do you need an deadline to motivate you? For me, one advantage of being unpublished and without a contract was that I could work at my own speed. I could go back and rewrite pieces and learn how to make them better without worrying about meeting someone else's deadline. I did 30 years of THAT in theater.

Are you better off writing your first draft with a pencil (John Steinbeck, with legal pads), crayon, rollerball, or fountain pen (Tess Gerritsen's preference), or typing into a computer? How about talking and recording your ideas first?

Do you have to write everything in order? Can you jump ahead to write a scene you expect to use later, and if so, do you need an outline to know that?

Steve Liskow
Steve Liskow

What gives you your ideas? Neil Gaiman answered this question better than anyone else I know when he said that writers get ideas because it's their job. Just like carpenters need to handle tools, actors need to learn lines, and musicians need a good sense of pitch and rhythm. If you can't get ideas SOMEHOW, you're not going to be a writer.

Do you edit as you go along, or do you write a complete first draft before you revise, or a combination of these? Is your process the same for short stories and novels (Mine isn't)?

Do you know other writers who can read and critique your work? How do you give and take criticism? I've been in three writing groups, and none of them helped me very much. I know several writers in the area whose work and judgment I respect, but at this stage I seldom bother them for anything except occasional feedback.

What do you do when the writing isn't flowing or you're overwhelmed? I read, do jumbles and crossword puzzles, play guitar, or praactice piano. I used to work out at the health club because mindless physical repetition helps me release my unconscious, the best editor. That went away during the pandemic.

What did I leave out? I don't know, but maybe THAT's what you need to answer.


  1. Excellent essay. As you say, it's different for each of us.

  2. Steve — I had to laugh (and cringe!) about that exchange at the panel--this line especially: "I told one of them later that if her method produced writing like hers, NO ONE should want to know how she did it." (How on earth did she respond?!)

    I love the list of questions here. I tell students in my creative writing workshops that what they should want to take from a creative writing program isn't just a body of stories or a novel but an understanding of themselves as writers, including self-knowledge about the subject matter that excites them and style, etc. but mainly how they write best, hitting some of the questions you're asking here. (The other big thing they might take from a program is a group of first readers for their work.)

    Thanks so much for all this--terrific!

  3. I love this! I never took a creative writing class, but some of the people I've seen come out of there - well, I had a recent encounter with someone who got a degree in creative writing, and became an editor. This person (a long story) basically tried to edit some of my published work (for a reprint) and make it into what THEY thought it should be, to the point of rewriting paragraphs. I told the person, "I've worked with editors before; they don't rewrite a person's work. They ask questions and ask the writer to rewrite." I got handed a lot of jargon and I withdrew the story.
    My constant advice to writers: read, read, read; write, write, write; submit, submit, submit. Works for me.

  4. Steve, I think you covered the subject quite well. Over the years, I've tried a little of everything and ended up using whatever worked best for me at the time. Like you said, there is no right way, there is only the way that works best for the one doing the writing. However, my body of work is slow because I never learned to type and therefore use only my two index fingers on the keys.

  5. You're absolutely spot on when it comes to teaching writing. Whenever I taught a writing class, I insisted on the students keeping a journal, where over the course of the semester they could see their writing develop and change (I reviewed the journals every month--no writing it all at the end). The rest was teaching them how to look at a sentence closely to see what works and why. But teaching, like writing, is different for everyone, and I think you got that point across quite well. Good post.

  6. Coming out of an architectural and design software environment, I value structure. I need to know the framework holds together, that the parts work. For a large project, I might not 'outline', but I'll probably make extensive notes and possibly charts, timelines, and biographies. I don't see how Gillian Flynn or Umberto Eco could plot their complex courses without notes of some kind.

    That's not to say I don't enjoy the freewheeling tales by, say, Janet Evanovich, but there the plot is little more than a vehicle to see what mischief Stephanie Plum gets herself into. We also know authors who repeat the same plot over and over again, changing only names and perhaps a setting.

    I'm with Art. I want to know how the panelist responded.


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