the problem of teaching from the summit

“You’re almost there!”

Over my degree, I started to realize that the advice we gave writers tends not to be about what the writer is most likely struggling with. There is no point in Brandon Sanderson teaching how to make the setting a source of conflict when some of the audience can’t even give their setting a sense of place. Only writers who can already give their setting a sense of character over the sense of place it has can use setting to create deliberate meaningful conflict.

Otherwise, setting conflict is translated as need thing to survive –> get thing to survive. As critique-group-based instructors, we have no idea where on the mountain the learner really is or how they understood the advice when we stop talking about it.

In the above example, the instructor on the top is only talking to one group of writers, even though every other writer on the mountain is listening. The writer to the left of him is facing a sheer rock wall the instructor can’t see because their back is turned to it. A learner that is taught they are almost there — they just have to do something both new and impossible first — is less motivated than they were before the instructor spoke.

But the learner has no ability to judge the advice they heard as to whether or not it applies to them. If that learner keeps doing what they did to get to that point, it won’t help them. Even climbing a really steep hill isn’t the same as climbing a rockwall.

Some writers hear “you’re almost there” and will call where they are the summit. They understand writing engaging prose is ideal, but they are happy to write for an audience they assume exists who only want to engage with a commercial genre based on its description. But readers who enjoy description the most have their pick of existing beautifully written prose that is wrapped around emotionally engaging stories.

The writer doesn’t get to pick where they spawn in relation to the peak of their abilities. Some really do need to be told they’re almost there. Some need to walk five hundred miles to get to the mouth of the valley that the mountain looms over in the distance. Some have a different path up the mountain than the instructor took and some don’t need paths at all.

But every writer is different. Every writer needs to figure out how to climb the next section of their journey before most of them ever need advice meant for those already close to their summit. There is a point in professional mountain climbing where having a realistic policy on when to start eating travel companions is necessary. But if the instructor tells the entire mountain, “Only eat your friends when you’re starving,” some writers on the mountain could interpret that as not letting themselves feel peckish.

And if an instructor isn’t there to verify the knowledge understood by the learner against the knowledge assumed to have been taught to check to see if the learner learned the right lesson, misunderstandings can be both painful and permanent.


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