Sure you can. This is something I’ve heard eminent writers say, and there is some truth to it. You can’t teach talent. You can’t teach someone to write Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses or Rick Blaine’s explanation for why he came to Casablanca (he was misinformed). But writing is also a craft, and you can teach a craft. People can learn to write better than they do.
Most of us need to. I was once on a panel with Robert Crais, when I said I thought I was learning to write from one book to another. Crais objected, presumably to the idea that my any of my books might less than perfect when I allowed it to be published. But what was the alternative? That my last books – even his – weren’t better than the books before them?
If you aren’t learning from the corrections and emendations of your editor, if you’ve got one, you’re wasting a valuable resource. The suggestions of your writer friends, the questions of sympathetic readers, even the caustic comments of jealous rivals can help improve your prose. You don’t have to incorporate anybody’s half-baked ideas for improving your work, but you ought to ask yourself, “What are they trying to fix? What’s the problem these suggestions are trying to address?” When you hear the same doubt more than once, your text could be clarified. So figure out a way to improve it.
Of course, not all notes are on the mark. When Michael Curtiz screened Casablanca for Warner Brothers, the studio’s notes included a complaint about the song. Yes, about that song, “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson as Sam with his piano. Curtiz was told to replace it. The problem was that Ingrid Bergman, who played Ilsa Lund, had already cut her hair short for her next role as Maria in the 1943 film of Ernest Hemingway’s book, For Whom the Bell Tolls. With short hair, she couldn’t reshoot the scene in Rick’s nightclub with Dooley Wilson, so they had to stick with the original. And we all get to enjoy what may be the best song ever used in a film.
The key is to learn how to learn from each note. Sometime the lesson is what to do differently, and sometimes what to stand by. But that is also a lesson we can learn from our teachers.