What Authors Can Learn About Writing From Teaching Others

    Categories: Writing

Teaching others about writing is a common stream of income for authors. In this article, Gregg Millman shares another benefit for our own creativity.

While hacking away as a screenwriter, I started to teach creative writing and screenwriting at a film school in LA. It seemed like it could be fun. Plus it was another way to make some cash, and the flexible hours were great.

So I’m just going to admit this upfront: this was no Dead Poets Society. I didn’t exactly Stand and Deliver. None of my students are gonna Remember the Titans.

I know, that last one doesn’t make sense. Plus it’s a coaching movie, not a teaching movie, but whatever. The point is: I could have spent more time preparing for class and less time bitching about my students in the teacher’s lounge.

If I had, I might’ve realized that each lesson I was trying to teach my students about writing was the same exact lesson I needed to learn about teaching. Oh, the irony.

Show, Don’t Tell

One of those classic rules of writing. Don’t just tell the reader something. Show it.

A guy in a meeting just got some awesome news in a text message. How do you let the audience know he’s happy?

He could say to the person sitting next to him, “Just got some great news, I’m so happy!” Or he could simply get up with a huge smile and walk out, right in the middle of the important meeting he now couldn’t care less about.

“Show, Don’t Tell” is true for teaching too. Because most students don’t learn by simply being told about a writing tip. They learn by seeing it in action.

It’s one thing to say a scene lacks energy because there’s no obstacle for the main character to overcome. It’s another to illustrate the point by having the class brainstorm some potential obstacles for the main character to overcome.

And then talk about how the different obstacles might provoke different reactions from the character. And then talk about which reaction makes the most sense for that character, etc.

Showing is way better than telling when it comes to teaching too.

If something’s not working, it’s probably you, not them.

Maybe the best part of being in a writing class is having a bunch of peers who’ll give you feedback on your scripts. I always encouraged students to be honest and constructive with each other. And I tried to stress the importance of being open to what other people are telling you.

You may not always agree, but it’s always worth listening and considering criticism of your writing. And teachers should be less defensive and more open to hearing it too.

Some of my classes met once a week for four hours. Four hours is a loooong time to be cramped in a room with thirty students.

So you’d plan out different lectures, screenings, and activities. Then after two hours of teaching, you’d realize that the entire class was totally bored, and you still had two more hours to muddle through.

Initially, my reaction was: “this class was designed meticulously, and if they’re not engaged, it’s because they’re not paying attention to this amazing material. This is gold, people!”

So I’d end up sticking to my plan and digging my own grave.

But eventually, I came to accept the truth: “today’s lesson plan sucks – what am I going to do now?” You throw it all out the window and try a Plan B.

Teachers, like writers, can ignore negative feedback at their own peril. Because there’s usually a kernel of truth in there (if not a fully popped truth).

Stories Need Conflict

If there’s nothing standing in your main character’s way, there’s really no story. Enemies. Obstacles. Misfortune. Personality flaws.

Conflict propels your story forward. Conflict tests your character, exposes their flaws, challenges them to change or improve.

No conflict, no story.

Classrooms need conflict too. Education is boring and incomplete if a teacher simply lectures without engaging the students in a dialogue.

Classes are way more interesting and instructive when the students question the teacher, challenge authority, engage with each other, and assert their own opinions, rather than sitting there passively.

Have A Strong Ending

A strong ending is the only thing some people will remember.

Dangerous Minds. Lean On Me. Pick any classic movie about teaching. The teacher eventually breaks through to the students and teaches the important lesson.

And in the end, the teacher learns a thing or two about life from their students. It’s so cheesy, and you know it’s coming, but yet, you’d be bummed without it.

So cue the inspirational music. Because I definitely learned a lot about how to be a better teacher from my students.

I just hope they learned something from me.

Have you considered teaching writing as one of your streams of income? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Gregg Millman is a screenwriter and middle-grade novelist who’s created movies, TV shows and novels for kids, including a Nickelodeon movie, One Crazy Cruise. His new fantasy novel, The Kandy Kingdom Saga, is the first in a series about the adventures of two kids in a magical world of candy torn apart by war between the Sweet Treats and Sour Powers.

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View Comments (3)

  • I teach a community writing class at my local library. I often tell my participants (aged 11-80!😀) that they teach me way more than I teach them. The best classes are the ones in which I speak 20% of the time and they speak the other 80%. My job is to facilitate. They do the rest. They're amazing.

    • That's awesome. Yeah, you know things are going well when the students have participated so much that you didn't get to tell them all the stuff you thought was so important (but really isn't as important as the students being engaged).

  • As a writing coach, I do a lot of teaching. But the most effective sessions are the ones where I ask an open-ended question and the client / writer has to figure out the answer.

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