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Over the years, I have taught many writing classes. A few students are confident writers, but they are rare. (And some confident writers are perhaps too confident and therefore unwilling to learn.) Many students, though, fear writing. Or, maybe more accurately, they fear writing classes, having had more than one unpleasant experience with such classes in the past.

Many of these student put off taking writing classes until the last minute. For example, I taught a technical writing class that was required for most majors. It was supposed to help students succeed in the more advanced classes they had to take in their major fields of study. Most were supposed to take the class early in their junior year. Many students, though, took the class in their last semester of study.

Why did they wait?

“Oh, I’m not a very good writer,” they would say. “I hate writing.”

Well, how did they know they weren't good writers?

Maybe because they had a few classes like the one I took in high school. It was a history class, and I liked history. In fact, it was an advanced placement history class. The class was to prepare us to take an examination at the end of the school year. If you chose to take the test and did well enough at it, you could get college credit for the class, as much as a whole semester’s worth of college credit.

So I took the class. I had read enough biographies and encyclopedias and novels and history books as a young boy to have a fairly good grasp of history, and I did well enough in the class, at least as far as I was concerned. The teacher wasn’t happy though. He may have thought I didn’t take the subject seriously enough. He may have thought I didn’t pay attention in class. I suppose I didn’t study as hard as I could have done. Perhaps I wasn’t focused enough.

During the last quarter of the school year, the teacher told us that he would give an automatic A to anyone who took the advanced placement exam. I signed up for the exam, not for the free A, as the teacher probably thought, but because I had intended to take the exam from the beginning. The teacher was frustrated with me. He wanted me to work harder. He was certain (I learned later) that I wouldn’t pass the exam. One day he returned an essay I had written. He wrote a D grade on it, with some brief comments. Then at the bottom of the essay he drew a pool of water, with a stick figure drowning in the middle of the pool. A life preserver was flying through the air to the drowning figure, but, as I recall, it was just falling short. The stick figure was calling, “Help.”

The teacher’s concern was unwarranted, at least as far as the test was concerned. I passed the exam with a reasonably high score. I suppose I could have studied harder, and my writing on the essay wasn’t perhaps as good as it could have been. I could have been a better student of history. But my experience in the class—and the response of that teacher and other teachers as well—could have dimmed my enthusiasm for studying history. It could have sent me the message that I wasn’t good at history and that I didn’t know how to write. Fortunately, that negative message was countered by positive experiences and positive messages I received through the years. I now make a living with my writing instead of drowning in it.

You may have gotten a negative message, like I did, about your aptitude for writing or for some other skill or interest. You may have gotten the idea that you are not good at history or math or writing or English or science or auto mechanics or guitar or working with wood. You may have had enough bad experiences in one (or more) of those subjects that you may believe that you hate the subject and that you are no good at it.

Don't believe it. There are plenty of stories of people who were told they were no good at something but who went on to succeed brilliantly at it. Don't give up. If you want to learn how to do something, make a plan for increasing your skill and stick with it. Have confidence and choose good mentors who can give you valuable feedback. And try to ignore the feedback that isn't so useful, or at least read between the lines so you can get a hold of the life preserver that is floating out there somewhere.