My default learning strategy appears to be osmosis. Untouched writing resources are towering over me now as I blog and there’s an even bigger accumulation of fiction built up in book cities beside my bed. They waft their pages at me so that story-tainted air currents and advice-filled dust molecules drift into my grey matter as I sleep. Along with this, I book in for courses so I can sit among the aspiring, direct my brain at the successful, and absorb. I take copious notes and add them to my resource tower.
Whose fault is it if their content doesn’t transmute directly into improvements in my work? When I read an How To guide, I find it all fascinating and exciting; I have great plans for all of that new knowledge and for all of those tips, and the next step is to try to put things into practice. But self-directed exercises are hard and without feedback, how can I tell where I’m going wrong? In actuality, relying on osmosis isn’t enough. And self-directed learning isn’t always as productive as I’d wish. This learning thing is a tough gig.
Kurt Vonnegut said that Socrates, Sartre and Sinatra said,
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That’s why the course I’ve been doing with the generous folk at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program has been so transformative. It’s like uni all over again – funny that – where you get a lecture and reading materials, and then you get an assignment so you can implement what you’ve learnt. You get a tutorial to solidify some of the concepts just before the assignment is due, and you have discussions with other students and facilitators to debate over their meaning and value, and to bring out new ideas. And then you review each other’s assignment work. By participating in every component of the course you get to learn in deep and deeper ways how to, and how not to, write. And tight deadlines provide extra motivation to do be do! If you like writing, and want to get better,
How Writers Write Fiction 2015 is really super. And free. Run as a MOOC, ‘Massive Open Online Course’, participants are from all over the globe.
The course is just finishing up week 7 of 7 but I think you can still join up now to benefit from the videos and discussions, or join in 2016 (I do hope they run it again) to participate fully.
The video lectures are presented by published authors talking about their processes, their books and the theories that work for them. Commentary by students of the course indicates that experienced writers have found it fairly beginner-oriented and that the interaction with other students was the most learning-rich aspect. Certainly there is an enormous amount to be gained from building a community of writers willing to honestly critique each other’s work. But I also think that the video lectures provide a learning opportunity that is greater than the sum of the material presented:
I also find it very helpful to hear about an author’s personal experience, and the more trivial the better because it demystifies the novel writing process and helps to boost my confidence that I can do it too 🙂
Also I think as a writer that wishes to publish, you do have to get comfortable with the idea of talking about, and advocating for your work. I think the confident way these authors refer to their own work, and their conviction that their own work is a respectable example [of the implementation of the ideas being discussed], is a good model to follow. As a marketing opportunity, it can’t be beat! And the more uncomfortable that makes us feel [as writers watching their videos], the more uncomfortable we probably are about marketing ourselves. I know I am! So, I’m very happy for the exposure to it.
(Extract from a course discussion comment I made.)
As a beginner myself I found the course challenging and a marvellous learning experience as well as a great way to meet other writers.
Like in real life, there’s no official delineation between beginner and experienced. You decide for yourself and since self-assessment is so subjective, there’s a huge variation in the quality of writing among those who slot themselves into both classifications.
One tip I would give to ‘beginners’ starting a course like this:
Actively seek out experienced writers to learn from.
I was able to put my best discussion voice on when I was participating in the discussions for experienced writers; Like playing squash, you’ll want to find players better than you to engage with.
Stick to the assignment word limit.
The word limit forces you to be ruthless in editing your writing. My first draft was always 1.5 to 2 times the upper word limit so I always had to buckle down to find and remove the least contributing parts, reword the weak but necessary parts and sometimes remove characters or descriptions that weren’t earning their place. Each cut and rework I did made the story much stronger.
For experienced writers, I would suggest:
Build a group of like-minded writers with similar or greater levels of experience (and let some beginners join too 🙂 ).
Students were able to set up or join groups so they could engage in targeted discussions about particular topics or for particular purposes. I crashed a group that called themselves ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ for ‘Serious readers & writers who can laugh at themselves & want to give & get real critique’ and found some very fabulous writers and readers (these are not always the same thing) there whose stories wowed me and who were willing to provide feedback on my work, from both of which I feel I gained a lot. I look forward to following up those people in their writing careers and looking out for them in online spaces.
Check out these sites for other free MOOCs. You’ll find an amazing array of topics, not just writing.
Have you completed any MOOCs? Which and where (links!) and what did you like/dislike about them?
I loved this MOOC. I am a college graduate, but haven’t really had the opportunity to take a creative writing class before. Well, that’s sort of a fib– I registered for one as a college senior and dropped out two days in because it was too intimidating. This MOOC was a unique opportunity for me to dip a toe into writing education without the pressure of a $400 per credit hour, graded course, and to be among other beginners as well as experienced writers in an environment that I felt strongly fostered positive-slanted critiquing– just what I needed to learn without completely deflating my fragile self-esteem. I entered as my headline on my profile for the course: “Am I a writer yet?” When I joined, I couldn’t even call myself a writer with a straight face. I felt like such a fraud. Somewhere over the course of this MOOC, that has changed! I really think it has been the lessons I’ve learned and the feedback and support I’ve gotten on my work that has given me the courage to declare myself– I AM A WRITER! I’m looking forward to taking more classes like this in the future– hopefully there will be a How Writer’s Write Fiction 2016.
Congratulations! That is a great thing to come away with.
Isn’t it strange how many women have that impostor syndrome thing? I certainly do… Do men? If there are any men here … please come clean and let us know.
It is sometimes (always?) hard to tell people you are a writer; Even if, while by yourself in a dark room typing in front of a brightly lit screen or while sitting on the bus writing on a scrap of paper scrounged from the bottom of your bag, you know that you are. Maybe it’s because so many people at some stage have thought about writing a book, maybe it’s because so many people know how to pick up a pen or type something out. But the difference is really, are you actually doing it, or are you not? And I believe, equally important, are you trying to improve in it?
So … What’s next for you?
Good question! I’m not sure. I’d love to find more writing MOOCs. I am working on a novel and it’s going a lot more smoothly, especially after the lesson on dialogue. I’ve always written pretty good dialogue, but I never realized how essential it is to “show, don’t tell.” I was struggling with getting my character to “pop” from the page and couldn’t figure out why, and I realized it was because she was often the only character in the scene and had no one to speak to– that doesn’t work! The class has given me ideas about different things to try and different elements to concentrate on, which is helping a lot.
I would like to start a blog where I can share work. One of the stories I wrote for class (my dialogue piece, in fact!) I believe would be well suited for a short story or flash fiction serial. I have a lot of other ideas, too, for things I want to write and things I want to try. I really want to start generating content and getting it out there while I work on my larger pieces for publishing. We’ll see what I am actually able to accomplish! My ambitions may exceed my talents, but practice makes perfect.
I’ve read articles about men with impostor syndrome, but personally I’ve never met any. 😉 I’d be curious if it’s more common in women.
Nice to meet up with you at the MOOC, Jill. It was fun, wasn’t it?
I loved the Iowa MOOC. This is actually the 3rd one I’ve signed up for. I did Fiction last year via audit, and Writers Writing Poetry earlier this year–also via audit. This time I jumped full-in. I am amazed at the quality leap my own writing took over the course of fewer than two months. Anyone who has internet access and a desire to write needs to run toward this opportunity next time around!
I didn’t have the benefit of college in my younger days–wow, what I missed!
What did you notice was the difference between how much you got out of the course in full-in mode compared to audit?
There was another NovoEd-driven offering run by +Acumen called ‘Storytelling for Change’ that I was excited to do, and I signed up but I just couldn’t get to it. I’m glad I didn’t try, because I wanted to give more to HWWF than I had time for in the end. Another to look forward to next year maybe!
Hopefully see you again next year, HWWF 2016!
It will be interesting to see how different or similar the 2016 U. of Iowa course will be if offered again as a MOOC.
Agree! I was very impressed with their professionalism when hammered with hundreds of student grievances for a course that was free (or next to free for those paying for the certificate): they answered with smiles and changes. I wonder if next year will be free to find some further refinements, and then maybe they’ll start charging for the course? I imagine though, that they would profit greatly from the course remaining free: not just to build/facilitate the international writing community as they avowed, but as a way of building reputation and attracting students to the university for their fee-paying courses.