“In learning, you will teach, and in teaching, you will learn.” ― Phil Collins
Next week, I return to the (virtual) classroom to teach another semester of screenwriting. When I first started ten years ago, my goal was simple: help others avoid the fear and confusion I had experienced and give them the tools to tell their stories.
My first class was at the local film cooperative. For five weeks, I worked with writers to get their feature-length scripts on the page. This opportunity lead to more sessions, and I was pleased to see the classes grow. Eventually, I went back to university to get my Masters in Film and started teaching shortly afterward. During my time with the film program, the classes expanded from one class to three, and I was fortunate to develop an online course for the university (who could’ve known its value two years ago!). And now, as I start my new semester, I’m lucky enough to be helping forty students with their writing.
I’m grateful for this work. It’s made me more comfortable speaking in front of crowds, something I hated doing as a kid. I’ve discovered my teacher voice, which is just an off-shoot of my Dad voice. Yet, what has surprised me is how much teaching has helped me grow as a writer.
It turns out there is a reason for this.
The protégé effect is a psychological phenomenon known, in which we learn the information better by teaching it. But why does it work?
There are a couple of reasons:
As I mentioned earlier, I started teaching to help others with their writing, but I also had teachers in my past who never seemed to care, and I didn’t want to be that person.
Although I’ve not always been successful, I’ve tried to adapt to each individual’s learning style. If my students were confused, lost, or frustrated, I needed to step up my game. And when I’ve stumbled in class, it meant I had to do better the next time.
Even more motivating was that I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of the class, so I’d spend extra time preparing my notes and doing deep dives into the material. Although this over-preparation may have been too much—I always had far too many notes—the extra study benefitted my understanding of story and writing in the long run.
The best way to test your ideas is to share them with someone else.
One of the great benefits of doing these essays each week is that I have to try to communicate my ideas. I may not always be successful, but the required work often clarifies my concepts. In fact, it is when you ask for clarification or challenge what I say, it means I have to dig deeper, research a little more, and perhaps consider different perspectives.
Similarly, teaching allows me this opportunity. My approach has changed over the past decade, as my students’ feedback has shaped my understanding of the material.
Like I said earlier, we’ve all known those teachers that don’t seem to care much about their students. I can only chalk that up to selfishness, or a lack of empathy—which I don’t get because watching someone learn is the most magical experience.
For example, in the first week of class, I have my students write their first script. They only possess a rudimentary understanding of script formatting and know nothing about story. Most of the time, the result is a mess, but this is okay because we need it as a baseline—not just for me but also for them.
Over the semester, I see their growth. There’s usually a time around the middle that they fall into the groove, and their work blossoms. But then, near the end of the course, they do a rewriting exercise, and many see that their earlier work and cringe because they too can see their growth.
These are unforgettable moments, but it took me a long time of trial and error and personal growth to get there.
The protégé effect is an effective strategy for learning, but what happens if you don’t want to teach? Is it still useful?
As a writer, I think there are some important lessons and tools that you can draw from this.
Using the feedback loop is the quickest way to battle test your story at any stage of development.
Blake Snyder, the author of Save the Cat, says that repeatedly pitching your story helps discover early kinks in the idea. Similarly, when my writing partner and I are outlining a story, we’ll tell it over and over again to each other, effectively uncovering the lapses of story logic that are sure to crop up. And even if you aren’t a plotter, talking out the story can help steer it in the right direction.
Sure, you can tell your spouse or friend, but what if you don’t trust them, or you’re too nervous that they’ll judge you.
It doesn’t matter. The very act of speaking it out loud helps create a personal feedback loop and improves your understanding. This process is known as plastic platypus learning, a paraphrase of rubber duck debugging, a programming term where individuals can resolve bugs in their code by explaining what it does, line by line, to an inanimate object.
So grab a duck, a platypus, a flower, or even your pet and tell them your story.
Lastly, share what you’ve learned, no matter what stage you are along your writing journey.
Indeed, if you are a seasoned author, you have an understanding that others are desperate to learn, so don’t be miserly with your knowledge. And if you are only beginning, you have a perspective that many authors have forgotten, and your journey is still important. Tell others; you’ll help them and yourself.
You can do this in so many ways: social media, blogs, videos, or classrooms. They can be the smallest details or can be full-blown courses.
Most importantly, embrace feedback and questions and the possibility of having to rethink your understanding of the material. It is your opportunity to grow and become a better writer.
And then once that’s happened, don’t forget to teach it again.