Not everyone is born with an abundance of writing talent. In fact, for the majority of people, having to sit down and write 300 or 500 words on something feels like an insurmountable task. This is something professional and semi-professional writers often fail to take notice of. For many people, writing is really, really, really hard.
For some of those people, writing can become a requirement and in such situations, they will turn to you, a writer for whom the words come easily. Some of them will want to do it to conquer their fears while others will simply want to master a new skill.
So, how do you teach them? How do you help others become better writers?
Consider their position
First of all, you need to find out why they wish to improve their writing skills and where they stand on the spectrum of hopeless to Thomas Mann (I love a well-written German novel, what can I say).
Maybe this is your sister who has just started an ecommerce business and she wants to sharpen her writing skills so she can run her store’s blog without having to pay for content. Maybe you are being asked by your boss to help your entire company write better, either for the clients’ sake or because the company is doing a redo of the blog and everyone has to contribute. Maybe you are helping your nephew write a great college application letter.
There are innumerable possibilities and your approach will be greatly affected by your specific situation.
For example, you might want to start off lightly with your ecommerce-running sister, telling her it should all be fun. If you are tasked with making your coworkers better writers, you will encourage the use of internal communication tools so that it becomes a collaborative effort. If it’s your nephew who needs help, you might want to find some examples of good college letters and a few classics from history that will help him get in the mood.
It all depends on the situation.
Make them feel relaxed
No, I do not mean you should start with a massage and a particularly ambient Brian Eno album.
What I mean is that you need to make them feel relaxed about their writing and writing in general. This is often the biggest obstacle for people who think writing is hard. They have a feeling that someone is watching over their every word and sentence and that they will come across as silly if it is not good enough.
You need to explain to them that there is not some kind of a Universal Writing Committee that watches over every word put to paper or screen. You need to make them understand that an ugly sentence is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone writes ugly sentences every now and then.
For example, that previous sentence was not exactly the pinnacle of human thought.
Try to put this in term of drawing. There is a very small percentage of people who are innately gifted and can draw something half-decent on their first try. The same goes for writing. Just because we are surrounded by the written word does not mean it is any less of an art.
They should not be embarrassed by their writing.
Make them practice
This brings us to the next step – encouraging them to practice. Behind every decent writer are years, if not decades, of hard work and practice.
Start off by telling them to write anything. Literally anything. This stream-of-consciousness approach will show them that sentences can come out of nowhere. It will also provide you and them with a place to start.
You can then ask them to read what they had written (a few sentences will do) and tell you what they think is wrong with those sentences. You should refrain from making comments. Ask them how they would improve on those sentences. Is there something else they would like to add? Where do they want to take it from there?
It does not matter it has nothing to do with what they will be writing in the end.
They need to learn how to view writing with a mind of a critic and how to move forward.
Once you hear them out, ask them to write it again. And again. And again.
If they are really focused, in a matter of an hour or two, they will see such improvement that this will push them towards practicing more and more.
You need to be really encouraging during this phase.
Show them the writing of others
By now, your ‘pupils’ will hopefully feel a newly-discovered enthusiasm for writing and reading. This is the perfect time to show them how other people wrote. They will either discover an entirely new world of literature and writing in general or they will start seeing it with new eyes.
Show them Mayakovsky. Show them Melville. Show them Homer. Show them Milton Friedman. Show them Kant. Show them Eliot. Show them Mark Ritson. Show them some business blogs. Show them Napoleon’s overrated love letters. Show them libretto for Les Troyens.
Finally, show them examples of what they are striving to achieve.
This cacophony of various types of writing that you will expose them to before showing them examples of what they will want to write themselves will provide them with a fantastic foundation.
It will give a strong core to their future writing efforts.
Instead of a closing word
If in any way possible, be honest with them. Be diplomatic and gentle; but be honest.
If someone is not quite there and you feel they will be at one point, tell them so.
You will be surprised as to how many people take criticism well.
That being said, do be gentle.