See One, Do One, Teach One

On the job training is a valuable tool. You learn exactly what you need to accomplish, and focus on the details that get it right. While focus is good, let’s not underestimate the value of practice.

We get it for sports, but not for basic writing skills. Image:

“See one, do one, teach one,” is becoming a more popular way of learning. I used to teach 2-day writing seminars, then it was one day, and now, I’m often asked if I can teach people how to write in half a day. Well, no. The other day, I was told that the “see one, do one, teach one” method works for “so many things,” why wouldn’t it work for writing?

If you are asking that question and are serious, I can’t begin to explain it. If you are willing to spend more than 10 seconds reading, I’ll try. Here’s a short answer: would you like your heart surgeon or neurosurgeon to go to medical school for six weeks, on the “see one, do one, teach one” path? How about your dentist? He’s seen a root canal done once, and now he’ll do yours. Changed your mind yet?

Almost all skills–writing, engine repair, hair cutting, car towing, cake baking–need practice. By practice I mean doing the same basic thing, then variations of it, over and over. Making mistakes and solving problems as you go. Not for days, not even months. Years. Ask any writer, chef, doctor.

When I’m teaching those half-day writing classes, I focus on a few skills. Something that is easy to understand. That makes a difference in clarity. Then we practice with exercises. When my client tells me that “exercises are ‘nice’ but not ‘necessary’ I fight for the right to have participants do exercises. “You can’t get it by hearing about it, you have to try it,” I say.

In these short-cut classes, I try not to mention that it took me 20 years of practice before I became a good writer, and I’m still working on it. What I think is important, though, is that I never tell someone they are wrong, or their writing is horrible. Instead, I focus on one thing they are doing right, and praise them. If I tell them they are wrong, they will ignore what I have to say. They will spend the rest of the class thinking they are stupid, or dumb. When I praise them, and am specific on the thing they did right, they will do it again. And that may be all I can do in a four-hour class. Encourage a few writers to keep doing one thing right. Over and over. Because encouragement works much better than punishment, much better than “constructive criticism,” much better than “feedback.”

-Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. Her book, Raw Art Journaling, is available for pre-order at Amazon.