It’s not just creative writing that’s the problem

Could not have said it better myself

The problem with teaching underpublished writers is that most do not see themselves as underpublished writers. Most see themselves as experienced writers who just lack the experience. But I remember when I first started teaching English as a Second Language when I saw first hand the difference between what a student can understand in class and what they can produce independent of all the aides and support that classroom environment provides.

One of the best classes I ever took in my Bachelor of Education was a test construction class. It was offered out of the Ed Pysch department. It delved into the psychology of testing to make sure that what the teacher was testing for is what the learner can demonstrate they understand beyond memorization.

It gave me a greater appreciation for the assessment I had to complete before being signed off to give policy advice. The questions were pulled from the average questions a trainer would be asked to clarify, but it didn’t ask for the answer. It asked for the binder, page and paragraph the answer could be found on.

Any numeric answer a novice trainer could have put down might have been misremembered as the answer the next time the question was asked. But anything in an SOP must be considered to be transitory no matter how established the procedure was. The answer to the same question in a real life setting is what the policy says on the day the question was asked.

There are three different kinds of rules that get lumped under the umbrella where “there are no rules” means “don’t bother learning them.”

The first are the non-writing rules. These are the rules that can be absorbed, adapted or ignored depending on the writer’s style of writing. They are about when to write, why to write, how often to write, where to set up, etc. They are too dependent on the survivorship bias to be of any value. What X writer did to get to their level of success is what worked for X writer alone. Each writer should experiment with what works best for them and then do it until they find something that works even better.

The second are the story-building and world-building foundational structures. These are elements of story like plot, pacing and tension that are difficult to break or even bend in either direction, but with a combination of talent, skill, luck and feedback and rewriting, they can be broken and tell a more meaningful story for it.

The third is what I’m going to call the ideals of engaging writing. The protagonist should want something isn’t a foundational structure and it isn’t required for a great story to shine. However, the character who doesn’t want anything has no stakes in the story. What keeps the character pushing is what keeps the reader reading. A protagonist who can quit their journey at any moment without personal consequences has no reason to keep going once the going gets tough.

This is where I’m putting show, don’t tell. I didn’t actually comment on stories needing conflict or tension after my first few classes after it had become obvious that the more revision I suggested a work might need, the more likely I was to get another “Dear Barb, Please be less craft-focused” email. Not having any opposing force to the protagonist’s actions would be most editors’ #1 reason to reject legible work intended to a commercial audience, but it usually takes a rewrite to add it.

And yes. Literary fiction — being a genre that is sold in a bookstore — is work meant for a commercial audience.

So when I couldn’t suggest to my classmates that commerical work needs conflict and tension or a meaningful lack of either, I focused on moments that were told that could be shown to the reader without changing the events or structure of the piece but still be more impactful to their reader. But even the instructor agreed after my first year that if the author meant to tell something significant to the plot, it was as good as showing it.

Which is talking to their past self as a learner, not the student in front of them. The student in front of them could not tell the piece of information as well as they could have shown it. If they had told the information effectively, I would have complimented them on their ability to do so.

Telling what needs to be shown isn’t breaking a rule. It’s not even taking a shortcut. It takes the same shortcut that most underpublished writers “choose” to take by revealing information through telling the reader it.

Most instructors have the skill and talent to approximate how they could have told something similar and then revise it in their rewrites until it is as effective. But they are not teaching their past self. They are teaching a learner who has just told the reader who the character is, what they want, what they need and what they are afraid of through dialogue that sprawled over two chapters of set-up. That the instructor could do the same in half a page and have it effectively build the world doesn’t mean that the work in question did so.

And yet, every conversation I had over whether an author should show the reader what is significiant went immediately to a not-necessarily debate as to whether rules could be broken at all.

If it needs to be said: Yes. Rules can be broken.

But what got skipped over to rush to discuss again why no rules ever need to followed was this: The work in question did not break them in a way that served the story.

If the instructor only allows the first conversation, they are teaching to a class full of imagined versions of themselves that could have chosen to break the rule because they knew how to follow it in the first place. In a classroom environment, if an underpublished writer has chosen to tell something important, they should demonstrate they know how to show it effectively first.

If revealing the piece of information with telling was more effective than showing it, the learner can always return back to the first-draft version.

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