February 14, 2019
When I was in high school, I discovered something interesting: teaching something made me learn it more. I spent a lot of time helping other people through a variety of subjects and each time I did this, I became more fluent in the subject myself. Teaching forces me to look at something from a new perspective. This is especially true if I'm trying to teach someone who is really struggling to grasp it.
Have you ever had that teacher who really couldn't handle new approaches? This kind of teacher tells struggling students the exact same thing in the exact same way over and over. The only change tends to be volume as the teacher gets frustrated. To me, that kind of teacher is missing a golden opportunity to think about a subject in a new way and consider new analogies and new approaches. If you need to successfully explain plot to someone who is really struggling with plot, then you'll quickly learn to look at the subject from a lot of different directions. You have to. Otherwise you'll fail at teaching. And the more different approaches I take to explaining a subject, the better I understand it myself. Plot is one example of an area where I have grown in leaps and bounds from teaching it to others.
Teaching to Grow
This is why I teach and write tutorials and such, even when it's a serious time bite out of my writing day. I do it because it simply makes me a better writer. When I'm asked to teach someone how to break into the educational publishing market, for example, then I have to look at the market and research all the ways people have broken into it (otherwise, I can only talk about what *I* did and that's never going to be a comprehensive approach). Also, if I'm teaching someone about writing for magazines, I am going to have to get to know many, many magazines, not just whichever ones I've been published in, because otherwise I'm not giving my students a very broad or helpful education.
Teaching to Focus
One huge thing I learn from teaching is what very focused questions I need to ask when looking to get better. The more I peer into a topic in order to teach it, the more the small holes in my understanding become clear. And patching those holes will require I ask very specific questions when I'm looking for answers. Without the demands of teaching, my human nature would be to find ways to work around my weaknesses rather than focusing on them. Looking at your weaknesses is uncomfortable. That’s one valuable thing about teaching. To do it well, you have to make friends with your own weaknesses by focusing on them.
Teaching and You
So what might that mean for you? This year, consider doing some writing about writing. As you organize your thoughts to explain something you know about (even if it's something you're not sure you do totally well yet), you'll find yourself doing focused research to know more about the topic so you can explain it better or give examples. You'll see spots where your own understanding is weak, spots you might not have noticed, but now you do, and you'll begin focused research on that. Honestly, the Internet is a goldmine of writing information if you come at it with something specific you need in mind. It's not terribly helpful to begin research with a question like, "I've written a children's story, how do I sell it?" The problem with such a huge question as that is that it really has no answer because it's not specific enough. Some of the top returns you'll get when you shout a question like that into the void are going to tend to be from scammers, and you'll risk falling into a trap.
Make a List
Make a list of the topics you'd most like to understand better. It might look like this:
• How to fix my story that's become boring in the middle
• How to write something short enough to be a picture book
• How to get an agent
Then consider what an article on that topic might look like. What would the title be? Here are some brainstormed titles on the topics above:
"Supercharging Middles" or "Boredom Busters for Bogged Down Stories"
"Trimming the Picture Book Bulk" or "Planning Short"
"The Scoop on Agents" or "Why, When, and How for Agents"
Once you have a title, you'll begin to get a feel for what you want from your article. Now is a good time to research and see what other authors have said about these topics. If I turn to Google and input "plotting middle" then among the links returned is a piece with 9 tips to avoid sagging middles in a novel and another with 5 common problems with middles. I also get a lot of unrelated stuff about middle school and even some scary pieces on real life murder plots, but even with such vague search terms I begin to turn up interesting links about the problems that come in the middle of a story.
Sometimes when I'm researching to learn a subject well enough to teach, I'll input whole questions into Google and see what comes back. I typed in "How do I fix a boring middle in my story?" Now I get much more focused results including a link to an article on fixing boring books and another with 25 ways to fight a mushy middle. I also found a nice piece on how to make boring story parts exciting. As I read through all of these essays, I learn more and more about fixing the problem I'm facing. And as I read though the articles, I'm testing each idea in my head against my real world example, which makes me interact more with what I'm reading. It's not just going and vanishing in the swamp that is my head. Instead, I'm applying it as I read it and that makes me understand the topic better. And while doing this, I’m turning the experience of others into potential approaches I can understand, apply to my own work, or help others apply.
So even if you ultimately don't go on to write the piece on boring middles or writing shorter or agents, just the process of planning and researching a teaching article on a topic that has you struggling will help you get the information you need and help you understand and apply it. One thing I like about this kind of research is that I see how different writers respond to the problem. One person might use a technique that feels very clunky to me while another might suggest something that instantly clicks. But by looking at all the different approaches, I'm also increasing the ways I'm capable of approaching the problem, and that makes me a better writer.
So look at what has you struggling right now. Imagine you're on the other side of the problem, having successfully beaten it and are now writing about it. What would you title this great tutorial you're would be able to write? What questions would it answer? Now, go see who else has already answered those questions. Your answer might be in there too. And who knows, when you really are on the other side, you just might finish that teaching article and help the next person with the problem. Think of how great you'll feel then. Teach to learn. It's awesome.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.