If You Haven't Yet, Try a Workshop-Heavy Writing Class
Tagged: essay productivity writing
Earlier this month, I wrapped up a writing class I had signed up for all the way back in July. I felt relief at not having to spend every Tuesday evening sitting and sweating on a Zoom call in my stuffy little office room. But above that, there was a sense of exhilaration, for the class profoundly changed how I approach writing.
Before signing up for the class, I had spent a nontrivial amount of time on self-study. I read books like Pinker's "A Sense of Style" and Dixon's "Goal, Motivation, Conflict", taking copious notes and making sure to do at least some of the suggested exercises. What's more, realizing early on that writing is a craft, I spent much of that time practicing--writing, analyzing, editing, revising.
But my progress was slow. There were weeks, even months, when I was making the same mistakes over and over because I couldn't quite notice what was wrong. Frustration became an integral part of my routine. Being stubborn, however, I told myself that writing is hard and that this was just paying my dues.
Well, what if there was a way of paying those dues faster? A class seemed like a decent first experiment at answering this question, so I signed up for one with Gotham Writer's Workshop. At best, it would push my skills to a new level. At worst, it would take up a few of my evenings. Pure upside risk.
The class was small--ten students plus the instructor. We met every Tuesday evening for ten weeks. Each session was three hours long and heavy on workshopping.
Here's what we did in more detail:
- Read handouts about the craft.
- These were short documents explaining the vocabulary, eg. "What is an op-ed?" or "What is a lede?"
- Read published creative nonfiction.
- These were essays or excerpts by authors such as E.B. White or Annie Dillard.
- Wrote short pieces during the class.
- We'd get an assignment like "write a review of a book, show, or product that you liked or disliked." We then had ten to fifteen minutes to complete it.
- Wrote 500-word essays for homework.
- These, like the in-class exercises, were focused on practicing specific forms: op-eds, reviews, explanatory essays, etc.
- Wrote two 5-10 page-long essays for workshopping.
- We could could chose whatever form or topic we wanted.
- Discussed everything we wrote or read.
- For the long workshop essays, everyone shared written feedback prior to the class. During class, everyone shared and discussed the feedback.
- For the homework, two or three students would volunteer or get picked by the instructor to read their pieces, after which everyone else gave them feedback.
- We approached the in-class writing work in the same way.
- For the readings, we would discuss why we found them good, focusing on specific techniques an author used.
Somewhere around the halfway mark, I became aware of a shift in my perception. I began noticing things in the texts I was reading, such as a satisfying ending or a particularly beautiful image. It dawned on me then that these weren't products of random chance but were consciously put there by the author. This wasn't exactly a new discovery--I've heard it said one way or another a thousand times before--but only now did it really hit home: writing is about making decisions about whether to include or exclude something; what to bring to focus or push into the background; which themes to subordinate to the main point, etc.
I noticed a similar change happening in my classmates. Their feedback became more discerning and their writing became smoother and more interesting. Each person showed it differently, probably because everyone came in with a different level of experience. Newbies went from producing clunky, "high-school"-style works to coherent, interesting ones. More skilled students began with solid essays, something fit for a blog, and went to write pieces that could be submitted to a magazine.
In hindsight, I think it wasn't just the activities we were engaged in that were important, but also how we went about them:
- The instructor made every class engaging. We were always busy--reading, writing, or discussing. Everyone took part.
- He made the feedback loops short. Every piece of writing we produced got feedback. The workshop essays got the most, but the homework and in-class pieces received at least some.
- He moderated our feedback to keep it positive and constructive. The former kind did wonders for students' confidence while the latter helped everyone translated to specific, actionable improvements.
- Something I never considered before was that hearing feedback meant for others could be very helpful. It gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of minds very different than my own and made me aware of patterns or problems that I would never had noticed on my own.
Another feature of the class that made it effective was how it kept everyone aligned to the same goal of improving our writing. Each student had to make a conscious choice to not only part with almost $500, but also to sacrifice ten wonderful summer Tuesday evenings. As for the instructor, I felt that he wasn't there just to collect a paycheck--he sounded genuinely interested in our progress.
So, if you're stuck like I was, or just looking to push your skills, you should consider taking a workshop-heavy writing class. Just make sure to check beforehand if the instructor is engaging and has experience, and if there will be a lot of writing and sharing of feedback. You stand to lose almost nothing and could gain something incredibly precious.
Add new comment