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Saralyn Richard Asks How is Writing Like Teaching?

Saralyn Richard is the author of A Palette for Love and Murder, and A Murder of Principal. Her most recent book is thriller Bad Blood Sisters. You can find out more about her on her website saralynrichard.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and see her books here.

I always wanted to be a writer, but my parents didn’t think writing was a real job, so they encouraged (read, pushed) me into a career in education. I didn’t mind, exactly. I majored in English, so I could stay as close to reading and writing as possible, while earning a living. Once I had real-live students in front of me, I fell in love with teaching, and began developing the kind of background and expertise in dealing with people and families and conflicts and problems that are the very nature of fiction.

                To say I collected enough material for many thousands of stories is an understatement. I got to know hundreds of people every semester, many of them substantially different from me. I always believed that I learned as much from my students as I taught, and the adventures we had around literature, writing, and public speaking gave me many insights into human behavior.

                In addition to teaching, I served as an administrator, and, later, a school improvement consultant. That work took me to a slew of different schools in many different states, expanding my exposure to regional locales, mores, cuisine, speech patterns, and more.

                Once I arrived at a place in life where I could stop traveling, I was ready to commit stories to paper, and that’s when I realized that teaching isn’t all that different from writing. Here’s why:

  1. The people I met through the classroom are real characters. I don’t mean to imply that I’ve inserted real-live people into my fiction, but there are some qualities and characteristics that all people have, regardless of age, gender, etc., and these are what I try to capture when creating relatable characters.
  2. Good teaching requires knowledge of craft and lots of practice. The same can be said of writing.
  3. As goes the school, so goes society. Schools are microcosms of society. Within the walls are the range of human emotions and needs that drive society as a whole. A teacher who learns to handle pride, competition, anger, ambition, jealousy, fear, revenge, lust, and passion is easily transformed into an author who can write about these.
  4. Individualized instruction. Different students take in a particular lesson in different ways, depending on a variety of factors, such as their learning modalities, attention spans, prior knowledge, personal needs, etc. When a person picks up a book to read, he brings with him all of his background and experience, his attitudes and prejudices, his preferences and quirks. Because of that, the book a writer produces may be one story to one reader and another story to another reader.
  5. A teacher needs to control the environment. What better experience in creating settings?
  6. Discipline, discipline, discipline. The same discipline required as a backdrop for learning is needed for writing.
  7. Teaching is to learning as writing is to reading. Neither teaching nor writing occurs in a vacuum. You haven’t taught anything if the student didn’t learn it, and you haven’t told a story until someone has read it.

All of these things make teaching and writing challenging, but also fun and exciting. What other occupations remind you of reading and writing?

Saralyn Richard

Saralyn Richard is the author of Naughty Nana, Murder in the One Percent, and A Palette for Love and Murder. You can find out more about her on her website, saralynrichard.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. joyribar

    Great relatable post, Saraylyn! I taught High school English for 17 years followed by 3 more years at the college level. All of those experiences fuel my fiction and writing discipline. I’m lucky in that I’ve had many careers and jobs, all of which provide fertilizer for stories.

  2. Jacqueline Vick

    What a great comparison, Saralyn, and one I hadn’t thought of before. It makes me want to see how my previous career in insurance may have influenced my characters and writing.

    1. saralynrichard

      Thanks, Jackie. I’ll bet you’ll find a surprising number of influences!

  3. saralynrichard

    Thanks, Joy. I love your fertilizer image! Maybe you’re a gardener, on top of being a teacher and an author!

  4. Laurie Buchanan

    Saralyn — I love what you wrote, all of it, but this in particular:

    ” You haven’t taught anything if the student didn’t learn it, and you haven’t told a story until someone has read it.”

    I write to be read and to leave the readers wanting MORE.

    1. saralynrichard

      Glad that resonated with you, Laurie. Many forget that both teaching and writing are a two-way communication. If the messages aren’t received, they might as well not have been sent. 🙂

  5. Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for all your service teaching bright young minds. I like this thought: “When a person picks up a book to read, he brings with him all of his background and experience, his attitudes and prejudices, his preferences and quirks. Because of that, the book a writer produces may be one story to one reader and another story to another reader.” I find that true, and it explains the large variety of ratings one finds as one looks at book reviews!

    1. saralynrichard

      Yes, Avanti. Sometimes when I’ve read a review of a book I loved, I wonder whether the reviewer and I read the same book!

  6. Great post, Saralyn! Yes, like learning and teaching, writing requires discipline. Just think, we started learning that clear back in kindergarten and first grade. And discipline is certainly required if we plan to finish what we start writing! I enjoyed your well organized thoughts on this subject.

    1. saralynrichard

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Margaret. The discipline is so ingrained in us, but still so elusive at times. 🙂

  7. Christine DeSmet

    Great question–other professions that are like writing? Anything mathematical or scientific qualifies, including such things as architecture. Stories and novels have architecture–shapes and equations that add up to beauty in the end. Math and science professions are endlessly creative and those experts are always coming up with new “stories.” I’ve taught writing to adults for too many years to count now and have loved every minute of it. I have many friends who taught or who are still teaching K-12. It’s fun to compare notes. And then get back to writing our novels and screenplays! Thanks for the post and best wishes for your own writing!

    1. saralynrichard

      You’re so right, Christine. I love the idea of a book’s being like a work of architecture or engineering. Thanks for commenting, and best wishes to you, too.

  8. My mother was a teacher – I get how hard it is. And the reality that neither the student, nor the reader sees just how much work happens before the teacher steps into the classroom, or the writer types in the first words.

    1. saralynrichard

      You are exactly right, Anne. Teaching and writing are hard work, but among the two most gratifying professions that exist.

  9. Tracey Phillips

    Hi Saralyn, I can see how your experiences in the classroom have added to your writing chops. And you’ve mentioned some things about teaching that resonate with me, even though my experiences teaching (as a private instructor) are much more, one on one and have to do specifically with music.
    That said, I believe playing and writing music are also like being an author. 1) A composer and performer must have a good grasp of his language. 2) To write lyrics, one must be able to convey the message. 3) Like your analogy, music isn’t a song until someone has listened to it. I’m sure there are many many more, but those were just off the top of my head.
    Thanks for the great post!

    1. saralynrichard

      Thanks for chiming in, Tracy, or should I say, thanks for adding harmony to my post. I also play the piano and find many parallels between that and writing. 🙂

  10. Sherrill Joseph

    Great post, Saralyn. We have followed an almost identical career path. Another idea I had is that teachers and writers must see the big picture and work toward it. Teachers know where they have to get the students by the end of the school year, then backwards plan the monthly, weekly, and daily details to get there much like a writer has the overall sense of the plot and works to that end chapter by chapter, page by page. Of course, in both teaching and writing, those plans must remain fluid since teaching and writing are arts.

    1. saralynrichard

      Exactly right, Sherrill. Curriculum and lesson planning are perfect examples, too. We have lots of things in common, for sure.

  11. Sheila Lowe

    There are only a few teachers I remember fondly, and the good ones stand out. As a teacher, too, I have to agree with you. Not so surprising 🙂

    1. saralynrichard

      Really sorry to hear that about your teachers as a whole. I’ve had the opposite experience. I can only think of one teacher I don’t remember fondly. Thanks for commenting, Sheila. I know you’re one of the good ones.

  12. We have a lot of teachers in this group!
    I love your comment about individualized teaching has an influence on learning just like a book “… may be one story to one reader and another story to another reader.” Even we read a book at a different age, we pull different things from it.

    1. saralynrichard

      That’s a good point, and what is going on in our lives at the time of reading matters, too. Covid, for example, put a new slant on everyone’s reading lens.

  13. Lauriestory

    I like the way you drew comparisons between both your careers. I thought my parents were the only ones who pushed me for a career other than writing!

    1. saralynrichard

      Laurie, did you hear, “Writing isn’t a real job?” In a way, they were right—writing is less job and more calling.

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