Panel: “Why Writing Can’t Be Taught And How To Teach It”

“Why Writing Can’t Be Taught And How To Teach It”: Jim Kelly(M), Mur Lafferty, David Moldawer, Lee C. Hillman

What can’t you teach?

David Moldawer: A writer’s “voice” isn’t something that can be taught, it can only be built up like a callous.

Lee C. Hillman: Can’t teach how to listen, how to hear, to tell the difference between a sentence that flows and a sentence that doesn’t.

Jim Kelly: Reads for MFA program, Clarion Workshop program. Looks at what’s sound, what can be helped. What can’t be taught: the restless need to write, well done social interactions between characters, the knack jumping into other people’s skulls. Ability to learn; some people are just there to meet faculty/writers and aren’t willing to learn new things.

What can you teach?

David Moldawer: How to write a book — how to get into the trenches and write the book. Then how to re-write a book, to cut out chapters, re-write chapters. e.g. cut a scene by removing the first and last page; most times it’ll be better.

Mur: Teaching how to edit; how to be cold and analytical. Teach what to cut. Learn the rules — e.g. show don’t tell. Going through as editing, you can realize mistakes and go back and edit.

Lee C. Hillman: You can do more with a good writer than a bad one. If they know rules of grammar, understand structure, then you can jump right in. You can teach methods of research, how to preserve.

Jim Kelly: People struggle with point of view. There are lots of tricks — e.g. rising action — that a lot of great writers used. People don’t want to get caught up in the tricks (that’s English major stuff) but folks need to learn it, so it’s better to learn from others than to do it on your own.

How do we teach writing?

Lee C. Hillman: Setting up beta reading project so folks can work with writers to better explain what needs to be fixed, rather than receiving edicts from on high. Provides perspective on work.

Mur: With I Should Be Writing, she explains what she just learned — e.g. the “don’t trip over that tree root” school of teaching.

Jim Kelly: Ask the question: Why did you write this story? Why could only you have written this story? In order to write well, you need to read like a writer. So you need to be more analytical, and not lose yourself in it. Understand what works in the books that you like.


Mur: Loose of idea where things are going for episodic fiction, but prefers to explore on the run.

Lee C. Hillman: Need to know where things will end, but don’t be a slave to an outline.


Mur: Writers need to learn how to teach for themselves, and figure out what advice works for them, and what doesn’t.

How do you teach people how to write on a deadline?

David Moldawer: Artificial deadlines are artificial. If there’s no book, we move the deadline. As an editor, a deadline is not an astronomical event. It’s not real, it’s a carrot and a stick. If it’s a realistic deadline, it can get you jacked. If not, it can shut you down. Depends on writer; need to tell if deadlines help or hinder.

How do you teach yourself to find inspiration for a story?

Mur: Started a blog called the “News from Poughkeepsie”. Ideas are cheap; they come all the time, so what she’s trying to do is think of something new every day. You just do it.

Jim Kelly: You should have a bunch of ideas, and pick the one you have that means something to and run with it. Don’t wait for inspiration; inspiration will come.

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