Write What Is Beautiful: A Cure for Formulaic Writing Instruction

“Before giving a youth the rules of good style, let us tell him first never to write anything which does not seem to him really beautiful, whatever the result may be.”
               -Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, p.44


A group of acclaimed authors are raising concerns about how creative writing is taught in UK schools, The Guardian reports. The concerned writers claim that “primary school teachers are steering children towards ‘too elaborate, flowery and over-complex language.’” This is a valid concern, especially when the writing instruction ingrains bad habits in stylistically tone-deaf students.

The authors, who are drafting an open letter to the education secretary, wisely point out the twin dangers of teaching writing to a test and of teaching writing in a literary void. It does students no good when we evaluate them for a writing product when we should be focusing on their process. We do them no good when we praise them for creative production when they have merely been doing syntactical, like musical, scales. And we harm students most when we ask them to produce creative work yet fail to provide them with any masters to imitate. Truly beautiful and compelling writing comes from readers. And when stylistic exercises devolve into strict rules about what makes good writing, everyone loses.

While the letter writers accurately take issue with these disturbing trends in writing instruction, they need not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There is a healthy tension between helping students expand their stylistic and syntactic range, on the one hand, and habituating formulaic and overly flowery writing, on the other. Vocabulary and sentence structure variation happen more naturally for some students than for others, but all can benefit from exercises that increase awareness of and proficiency with a growing toolbox of structural and stylistic options. Assignments that require practice in these areas are helpful when treated like the playing of scales in piano lessons: playing scales is not playing a musical masterpiece, but it may be a necessary step toward developing the proficiency needed to eventually play a musical masterpiece. In the same way, vocabulary, structural, and stylistic exercises should be treated as practice in developing fluency in a growing variety of writing forms and styles.

All writing instruction should be undertaken with the goal of developing the student’s ear to be able to both recognize and also imitate beautiful prose and verse passages within a wide range of style and genre. To accomplish this end, it helps to have a teacher who knows good writing when she sees it. Does the writing teacher read widely and well? Does she have good literary taste? Can she point her students to exemplary writing? Can she herself turn an elegant phrase? In short, does she have discernment and aptitude? A teacher with an ear for good writing will pass this ability on to her students through her example and enthusiasm. She will hold the balance between formulaic practice and fine-tuned elegance.

While some individuals may have an in-born affinity for writing, everyone has the capacity to recognize beauty. Good writing instruction stirs this capacity and awakens in the student a growing hunger for the good, the true, and the beautiful in the written word.