Greene wrote this to mark the annual National Day of Writing, sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English, which was held last week. He wrote on his blog that he had “misgivings” about the day, saying, “it reminds me too much of the teachers who teach a ‘writing unit’ for two weeks in April and ignore writing the rest of the year,” but this year he came up with a list of rules that he said he believes are true and that form the foundation of his own writing and writing instruction.
Greene writes the lively Curmudgucation blog, on which this first appeared. He gave me permission to reproduce this.
Here are English teacher Peter Greene’s rules for writing:
1) There are no writing prodigies.
Mozart started playing piano at age 3 and composed his first piece at age 8. Pascal wrote a mathematical paper at the age of 9. Piaget published a paper at age 11.
But there are no writing prodigies. There are no classic poems or timeless novels or important essays written by 6-year-olds. And what that tells me is that all writers start out in exactly the same place. Some people are better equipped to climb to the top of Mount Awesome faster than others, but when I encounter a student who is not very good at writing, I have to assume that they aren’t very good yet. Students get where they’re going in their own way in their own time. My job is to help them in their journey, but if they aren’t very far along yet, that doesn’t mean they can’t still make great progress.
2) Writing is craft.
Too many people rule themselves out as writers because they don’t experience blinding flashes of transportive inspiration. But when you call a carpenter, they don’t say, “Well, I’d like to fix your cabinets, but I just don’t feel inspired today.” Writing is hammering and framing and laying planks and rebuilding and altering and fiddling endlessly to get it right. Hammer away and bang it out.
3) Ideas are the basic building blocks.
There are still folks out there claiming that the building blocks of writing are sentences. Don’t believe it. The basic building blocks of writing are ideas. All good writing begins with a person who has something they want to say, an idea or concept or feeling or image they want to convey. Everything else is the business of getting that “Something” through the pipeline. The mechanics and the grammatical nuts and bolts and the usage rules are all about making sure that the pipeline doesn’t get clogged, that technical issues don’t interfere with the audience’s ability to get what the writer is putting out there.
4) Form follows function.
Do what you need to do to best convey your Something. There are no right and wrong choices — there are only choices that work and choices that don’t, and your measure is always “Does this serve the material? Does this support my Something?”
5) Avoiding mistakes is a mistake.
A musician can play every note exactly as written, and be absolutely mediocre. A sports team can make zero mistakes and still get thoroughly beaten. In writing, concentrating on avoiding mistakes is a fool’s game. It’s not good enough to not do anything wrong — you have to do something right. Be bold. Don’t focus on what you’re not going to do. Focus on what you are going to do.
6) You do you.
Idea webs. Classical outlines. Free-writing to generate ideas. Discussion. Thinking in isolation. These pre-writing techniques all work for somebody (and not for some others). Pen or typewriter or computer screen. You have to know what works for you. There is no “correct” or “incorrect” way to write. There are only the ways that work for you and the ways that don’t work for you.
Here’s the catch: You have to be brutally honest with yourself about what does and doesn’t work. You have to take a hard, honest look at your product and ask yourself if it really represents your best work.
7) Testing is not writing.
Never, ever mistake the kind of word tofu product required by standardized tests for actual writing. We live in a golden age of bad writing instruction, almost all of it aimed at standardized test writing-flavored behavioral products. That is not actual writing; it’s mindless idea-free hoop-jumping. Never mistake it for anything else.
Yes, read about writing. Talk about writing. Read, read, read, read, read, read — and do it like a writer. But at the end of the day, there is only one way to perfect your craft, and that is to write. Write every day. Write about whatever is passing through your head. When Something scratches and bangs and hollers against the inside of your head and demands to be released, release it. Write. Write during your lunch hour. Stay up an extra hour. Get up an hour early. But write.