• Encouragement From Writing Teachers

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Inspiration     Comments 25 comments

    Discussion questions: What words of encouragement from your writing teachers have kept you going through hard times? Do you think great writing can be taught? What specific lessons on craft do you remember being taught to you by specific writing teachers, and in what ways have they been helpful? Let me know in the comments below.


    Can great writing be taught?

    It’s a question many of us have wrestled with, and was also the topic of last week’s episode of Yak Babies, which was one of our best so far, if I may say so (and which you can listen to online here, or find in your favorite podcast app).

    As a jumping-off point, we used the following line from Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing:

    “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

    Your turn: Do you agree with this line? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments.


    Learning Craft

    I don’t entirely agree with King’s words here, and neither did my fellow Yak Babies. Our group stance was summed up well by my pal Aaron, who said, “I want to resist the notion that Faulkner came out of the ground.”

    I.e., even Faulkner had to learn the craft.

    But during our discussion, I realized something: “I can’t point to a single lesson or specific piece of writing advice that I ever learned from a teacher or professor that I retain,” I said. “I’m sure they’re in there, but I can’t recall them.”

    Your turn: What lessons about the craft of writing do you remember learning from specific teachers/professors? Why do you think you retained those lessons?


    Learning to Believe in Yourself

    Obviously I absorbed plenty of lessons about craft, and I use them anytime I write. But when I think about my writing teachers, it’s not writing tips that come to mind. Here’s what I said on the show:

    “But I can remember, and often draw on when I need to, specific moments of encouragement, and I think that is probably as valuable, if not more valuable, than actually teaching craft.”

    In eleventh grade, my expository writing teacher, Mrs. Edington, kept me after class one day, gave me a book, and said, “If you want to, you could write like this guy.”

    At the time, I was still a full decade away from caring about writing. I never read the book–it was some political satire from P.J. O’Rourke–nor did I return it (sorry, Mrs. E.).

    But that moment of encouragement stayed with me, the fact that a teacher would pull me aside and tell me I had a special talent for something.

    I took a journalism class my junior year of college in Denver, and again the professor, Ania Savage was her name, kept me after class one day. She said, “Every year I have two or three students who I know will become writers if they want to. You’re one of those students this year.” 

    Six years later–I was still an undergrad junior, oops, this time in Milwaukee–a professor named Denny Fischer told me I had just written one of the best Jane Eyre papers he’d ever read. He had been teaching for decades.

    He asked me what English Dept. track I was in, and I told him creative writing, which made him scowl. He told me I should consider a focus on literature instead, with the goal of becoming a critic. I said, “I have no interest in that.” Which was true, though ten years later I did become a professional reviewer for a minute.

    But he kept tabs on me the rest of my time at that school, and the personal stake he took in my future often gave me a boost when I needed one.

    Learning craft is important, no doubt. But having a teacher take a special interest in you, and taking time out of his/her day to give you one-on-one encouragement, can make the difference between a good writer and someone who knows craft but doesn’t use it because he or she has given up on writing.

    Your turn: Are there any moments of encouragement from writing teachers that keep you going through hard times? Do you think being offered encouragement can be as important as learning craft? Let me know below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Keneth Harris

    I had an enlightened senior year composition teacher who wrote in the margin of my end-of-year project-on Edgar Rice Burroughs-who owned me at that time-that my writing showed promise but to “…beware of adverbs as they are like kudzu; innocuous at first sight but left unchecked will devour the landscape.”
    Not much adhered to my hormone-drenched brain cells in high school, but that stuck.

    Kenneth Harris

    I found that chained solitude did nothing to buffer the day-long dilly-dallying of responding to in-box queries, reminders, articles and editorial tsk tsking that eats up the writing day. Something had to give; the chains, of course. The sublime Miss Adams of senior year composition class was a raven haired beauty fresh from Michigan U. and possessed of a wicked sense of humor. Early in the year she pulled me aside to tell me the vice principle wanted to see me after school and didn’t say why. Nervously entering his office, he stuck out his hand and thanked me for… Read more »

    david william lemke

    In high school, There was a creative writing class, after school. I took it and wrote a story and sent it in to (I think) Amazing Tales. I received a generic rejection slip for my troubles. The teacher never checked back with me; either to re-write it or try another publication. The rejection crushed me at the time, and though I never quit writing, I never again submitted or had anyone read my stuff until maybe ten years ago. If I would have received the slimmest of encouragement, (not praise, because frankly, it was crap.)I would have applied myself with… Read more »

    david william lemke

    It just seems wrong to be looking towards below zero temps and more snow in March. what happened to that lamb and Is the lion going to freeze to death? Thanks Dave for letting me whine and the encouragement

    Torria Stevens

    Hi David W L; I guess you had to go through that huh? for good reason though because your still doing your thing; you believe in you. I’d like to share something a professor once told me when at the end of a semester and questions pertained to marketing – recently and I’m in my sixties by the way: That although it may be with intent to market our stories, writing with honesty & truth is a better way to go, not to necessarily capture an audience. This has helped me a lot. Great read: The Greatest Salesman In The… Read more »

    david william lemke

    Some where along the way, I realized I wasn’t as positive or as motivated as I could be. I raided the library for every motivational and inspirational title in their possession; Og Mondino, Dennis Waitly, Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey. I can’t begin to name them all, books, tapes, lectures, possibly hundreds, at home, in the car, on lunch breaks. As to my writing; I retired my day job not because I could afford it but because my body didn’t like it any more. Yes, I write for me, but if I don’t make some sales, I may run out of… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I had a great professor when I was in college back in the 60’s (yeah, I’m that old) who told me I had a great grasp on writing. It was clear, well constructed and it showed my understanding of the material. It was the same with my senior thesis from nursing school. What I didn’t have was encouragement in creative writing. Being my own worst critic is difficult to overcome. I was the one who hated my writing. I was the one who felt it wasn’t good enough. I was the one who refused to learn how to make it… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Perseverance. You keep doing it until you get it right while learning. Also, I have set times to write. What I do is to block my time and attempt to keep to it to accomplish what I want to complete in a timely manner. This past month my only real writing has been on here, answering e-mails, my website and FB. (Hey, it’s still writing, right?) I’m rewriting a book into a second draft while going through the edits on two books I have with professional editors. (because I’m poor, I do them in chunks I can afford with the… Read more »


    I often aced my term papers in college but being a writer never crossed my mind. Three professors praised my content and style. “ Your style is good for magazine articles “ “I wish my other students could write as well as you . “ I glowed happy and proud that all the effort it took from me to type those papers had turned out so well . This was before computers were common. My pride made me keep those term papers. I felt if they were that good maybe I could do something with them sometime. After I got… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I will agree that a lot of professionals won’t help fledgling writers. (hey, we aren’t competition if we’re writing in a different genre) Meanwhile, I want everyone to succeed and will do what I can to help until I hear “I can’t_____.” (Fill in blank with excuse(s).) and a refusal to move beyond that negativity. Learning the craft is half the fun, Eleanor. You go girl!

    Susan Hermsen

    Hi David, Could use some encouragement about now. Winter blahs. I was most encouraged by one experience in a writing group facilitated by a professional writer–where we read stuff and got feedback; and when I read my excerpt I could tell by her voice and face that she was genuinely excited about it, and it was that reaction more than her words–which I don’t even remember–that encouraged me. Not sure what I think about Stephen King’s comment except to say that it’s probably a lot more subjective as to what is great writing…it’s not necessarily what is traditionally agreed upon… Read more »

    Susan Hermsen

    PS–your Scrabble image had me looking up ‘encourage’ in the online etymology dictionary and the ‘courage’ part comes from Old French ‘corage’ meaning heart, spirit, emotion… So I wonder if “great” writing is more heart and soul and pure truth than good technique–not that both aren’t necessary… Recently I read a very simple poem, in terms of style, by a young, unknown poet and her last line was simply “I am soft, and the world is rough. But I won’t be afraid, I’ll soften it up.” (not her exact words) Not Shakespeare, I guess, but actually rather profound. Honestly before… Read more »

    Torria Stevens

    In response to the question do you think great writing can be taught? Nah! – matters and events come from the heart, the soul thrown in with some experience & observation. When I say observation, what I mean is take myself for instance, I love me some Film Noir because at its best, it allows you to pay attention to the details i.e. descriptive narration, dialogue, camera angles etc. Observation can be comparable to really paying attention like (galumphing, a creative arts term) And I will say this: people can be taught process, craft, rhetorical grammar, and elements. Oh, and… Read more »

    Torria Stevens

    Hmmmmm. Thank you for the hasty reply David. I must say, I’ve read King’s quote over and over and over and over again and we know that he is a master…in his genre that is. I think that reading his quote we as writers, don’t want to take his p o v with a grain of salt/or mustard seed. But then again there’s much ado in a grain and a little ‘ol seed. However, it could ‘just’ be or ‘not so just’ be an internal way to dig deep – as in not focusing so much on the quote itself,… Read more »

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