It's obvious that engaging in activities outside of writing can make you a better writer, such as how a trip to a new place can open your horizons or great books can teach you important tricks of the trade. Among the many non-writing strategies to get better at writing, one that has done immense good for me has been teaching writing.
From September 2016 to May 2018, I taught freshman composition classes (Comp) at Rutgers University-Camden, while also teaching creative writing on a volunteer basis at local elementary and middle schools. Going into those experiences, I assumed teaching would help me as a writer -- after all, plenty of former teachers had told me it had helped them -- but I had no idea how exactly those benefits would manifest.
The following are three of the greatest, but by no means the only, writing lessons I learned through teaching.
An obvious benefit of teaching was the perspectives it added to my awareness, although perhaps not in the ways you'd expect. Yes, I taught a diverse array of students -- from religious backgrounds to economic situations, skin colors, cultures, nationalities, thought processes, work habits, and more -- but it was more so the diverse perspectives of their writing that affected me deeply.
For example, any given student might have their own particular understanding of grammar, colloquial phrases they like to write because those words are true to their natural speaking voice, or a preference for a certain citation style. Whether that student's ideas on writing felt right or wrong to me, good or bad, I was pushed to question my own beliefs about every single writing topic I had to teach. How much flexibility about grammar did I believe in? Were certain colloquial phrases okay, even though all my years as a student had taught me that 'casual language' had no place in academic writing? Was it better to teach one citation style or to adapt to my students' needs, since some students needed to learn a certain citation style for a particular course of study, such as nursing, while others stood to benefit more from practicing a different citation style?
All of my students' perspectives, whether those perspectives were expressed through discussions in class or on paper through their actual writing, pushed me to form more determined, personally contemplated opinions about how writing should be taught and how my students should strive to write.
Thanks to my students, I discovered that my opinions on grammar were flexible, as grammatical flexibility (such as embracing both students who placed commas in textbook correct ways and those who placed commas according to breath) allowed my students to develop their own distinct styles and hone the rules of those styles for themselves.
I embraced my students' uses of colloquial phrases, as such language could obviously be controlled, and thus deliberately employed for rhetorical effect. Such phrases also pushed against the rigid, archaic 'academic English' that silences so many distinct voices on the page (mostly voices that don't subscribe to the 'white standard' of writing).
I taught myself different citation styles so that my students could choose the style that best fit their future ambitions. Having been an English major, I was most familiar with MLA, but it was APA that was more useful to my many students on the school's popular nursing track.
The short, sweet teaching lesson: Writing, at its core, is about articulating understanding. Restrict writing's adaptability and relativity and you short-circuit that core.
The writing takeaway: Thanks to being constantly influenced by so many distinct variations of the English language, I became a more adaptable writer, more open-minded, and thus better capable of expressing myself in dynamic ways.
There is No 'Bad Writing'
Much first year college writing is, to put it nicely, barely bearable to read, but having to evaluate hundreds of student drafts over the course of two years taught me that no writing has to be viewed as bad. In fact, viewing student writing as bad can severely harm the learning process. That's because negative viewpoints and feedback kill student confidence. Educators owe it to their students to do more than merely point out the obvious of, 'this isn't good writing.' Of course it's not! I was a terrible writer at 18, too. Most people are.
I got better because empathetic teachers pointed out the good of my work, along with illuminating the areas in which I needed the most help. In doing so, teachers made me feel good, and as if the improvements they suggested were worth my hard work to achieve.
That's why I believe it's better to embrace a perspective of looking at any 'bad writing' as writing with good elements that still needs work. Instead of 'bad writing', all writing has promise. All writing shows potential.
Instead of spending countless hours bemoaning the agony of reading terrible student paper after terrible student paper, I spent hours investigating my students' writing for what they were doing well, so that from that place of good I could begin to figure out the ways in which to push any particular writer to be better. Not only was that a more entertaining way for me to read papers, but it resulted in more productive results for my students while teaching me the importance of seeing the positive in people and their work, especially when they're young and lack confidence in a subject such as writing.
As a result, I became more patient, tolerant, and accepting of work that I used to look at and wish I didn't have to spend time with (although it should be said that some of my students were very good writers and it was an easy pleasure to spend time with their work). Thanks to my more positive outlook, I shrugged off a nasty, lingering elitism. I embraced the concept that while for some writing the beauty is in the work's ultimate and incredible refinement, for other writing the beauty is in the simple expression of an idea or the attempt at a new technique, even if that technique miserably fails, or simply someone sitting down and writing when they don't usually write. As a leader, it's about accepting small acts of greatness, recognizing their relativity, and knowing how to build off of them.
The short, sweet teaching lesson: Pay close attention, and tend toward optimism.
The writing takeaway: This manifests in my writing most notably when I'm reviewing my own bad drafts, trying to figure out how to make the project work or what the project is truly attempting to be about. It also helps when I'm working with other writers, as I'm now more humble in my approach to assessing what they're doing on the page. An optimistic outlook changed the game for me, if only because instead of feeling stuck staring at dirt, I now eagerly sift through that dirt, searching for gold.
The Challenge of Provoking Change
It's one thing to properly diagnose a piece of writing, and quite another to actually get through to students such that they take action and change. It's impossible to be perfect in this area, but important to try.
Whether it was getting one of my college students to improve their essay structure or one of the younger students I volunteered with to want to write creatively after a long day of school, it's hard work to get through to people, especially when you have 20+ people that you need to get through to in any given classroom. Everyone is different, responding to different actions and advice in varied ways, and everyone deserves as much individualized attention as possible. Frequently, it was exhausting to get through to as many students as I could. Too often, I failed, if only due to the numbers game of the student to teacher ratio forever working against me.
I know I succeeded with some, though, and that's what I believe is a hard but necessary lesson for teachers to remember. You're never going to get through to everyone, but if you can affect some, even if only in small ways that change them by small degrees, those changes, developed over the course of a lifetime, can be substantial. That's the enduring magic of teaching, and work to be proud of.
The short, sweet teaching lesson: However hard it might be for your words and actions to resonate with people such that those people actually make an effort to change, it's always a worthy struggle when your heart is in the right place.
The writing takeaway: Thanks to the challenge of having to learn how to get through to countless different personalities, I gained a greater respect for how hard it is to write something that resonates with multiple people. It takes a deep understanding of not just how many different types of people are out there, but who they really are, how they think, what excites them, what makes them cry, what pulls at their heartstrings, and so much more in order to write anything that connects to even a small amount of diverse people. To be able to connect with multiple hearts and minds through a single piece of writing is part of the magic of language, and that's the great gift of some of the world's most beloved writers. They know how to write such that their words, their characters, their conflicts, the heartbeats of their projects, resonate deeply with people from all walks of life. That is a hard thing to do. I'll be working on that my entire life.
Your Own 'Teaching'
Maybe you don't like teaching. Maybe you like teaching but don't do it, or don't have the time for it. Maybe teaching doesn't inform your writing as much as it does for me.
That's fine, and fair, because we're all individuals, but I still urge you to find your equivalent to what teaching has been for me. Find that thing that isn't you sitting at a desk writing that pushes you to pull on writing muscles you don't usually use and forces you to inspect your own habits and thoughts such that you dig down deep and figure out more of who you are and what writing both means and should look like when produced by you.
Every little action we take, every little syllable we write, they all add up. We have to respect them and dedicate ourselves to intentionality and awareness as much as possible. Technically, anything you do could and might make you a better writer, but some things will do more good than others. For me, teaching taught me a lot of unexpected lessons about writing, only some of which are chronicled here. For you, it might not be teaching, but figure out what non-writing pursuit best grows you as a writer. That might be the key that unlocks a whole new level of possibilities.