Friday, October 12, 2018

Online Classes and How They Help with Feedback

I haven't always been a fan of online learning--for many years, I liked the face-to-face best, especially when it came to feedback on my writing.  But in the past ten years I've grown very fond of online classes and how they actually enhance writers' ability to give and receive feedback.  I regularly take them for motivation, accountability, and the helpful responses I get for my work-in-progress.

I think there's a great use for them, in the journey of a book, and that's often in the generative and early revision stages.  I don't find as much help when I'm closer to final revision, because seeing only parts of a manuscript is less helpful then.

But right now, when I am beginning another book, I'm taking them with great enjoyment and benefit. Here are some of the plusses I've found in online writing classes:

1.  If you have a skilled, high-participation instructor, the discussions are very lively.  I've been in classes where the instructor is absentee, and those create deadly quiet on the forums, but classes with an instructor who drops in at least two or three times a week, comments on a lot of posts, and shares additional tips and ideas is hugely helpful.  There's a sense of being one-to-one with the teacher and being able to ask questions all week, which is something you don't get with in-person classes.  Additionally, you often get links to articles, videos, and books that will carry on being useful even after class.

2.  You get to interact with a very diverse group of writers.  Online classes draw from all over--often international.  In a class I'm taking now, a student from Paris is adding unique flavor to the discussion and ideas.  We usually get a wide mix of cultural backgrounds too, and this gives us each a broader view of our work for potential readers.  

3.  Discussion doesn't end when class meetings end each week.  We carry on constantly--writers add comments in the evenings, on weekends, whenever they get online.  It's a 24/7 delight, which you can control.

4.  It fits busy schedules and winter, when I don't really want to go anywhere to attend class (sorry to say, but New England winters can do that to a person).  I usually log on after my work day is over or if I'm writing and need a burst of inspiration. 

5.  Feedback, if well monitored by a skilled, caring instructor, can go more in depth than in-person feedback, I've found.  Writers can ask questions of their readers after getting feedback, to clarify or expand the comments.  

6.  As an instructor, I've found more consistent progress in online classes.  I've taught both in-person weekly classes and online weekly classes for many years.  More of my online students have gone on to finish their books, get agents, and publish.  It's thrilling to witness, and I believe the online format encourages steady work.

How do you choose an online class?  My personal choices, when I attend classes, are based on two criteria:  how involved is the instructor and how relevant is the material.  

I check out the instructor mostly by word-of-mouth.  Incredible writing credentials do not make incredible teachers--I've learned that the hard way after studying with four or five writers I admired for years.  Most of them barely showed up.  One, who will remain nameless here, started our class a week late and never communicated why (we students felt stranded and the school wasn't much help).  Another gave cursory feedback, as if he had more important things to do (he probably did, but why agree to teach if so?).  I don't go for the big names as much anymore, unless I hear great things from their past students.  Most reputable schools offer some kind of testimonials from past students, or you can go online and google the teacher, see what their websites say or other discussions about them (interviews, etc.).  It's a big of a crap shoot but word-of-mouth can make it less so.  

The class material needs to apply to where I am with my writing.  If I'm in a generative stage (early drafting), I don't want heavy feedback yet.  So I check out whether the description says "generative" and if the teacher encourages feedback that encourages and asks questions.  Or I might go for an exercise-driven class that mostly asks writers to keep writing and gives plenty of new ideas.  When I get ready for more intensive critique, I look for "workshopping" classes that offer it.  If I'm trying to refine an aspect of my writing, such as characters or theme and voice, I need exposure to new ideas, new skills, and a place to practice them.  Classes that offer specific skills and topics are best at that stage.

If you go for online learning, it's helpful to set reminders in your calendar.  Either opt in to the notifications by email, so you get a daily digest of posts from other students and the nudge to participate.  Or make a habit of checking the classroom each evening--I do this now instead of checking Facebook and it makes me MUCH happier, for many reasons.  I also set myself calendar deadlines for writing that's due for my class and try to meet those religiously to get my time and money's worth.  

As an online teacher, I love to witness the magic that happens in a class, if conditions are right.  I know I need to participate a lot, especially in the first weeks, to get the discussions going and create a safe environment for sharing honestly and constructively.  I carefully monitor feedback to make sure safety and high benefit continue.  Since I've taken classes myself, I know what it feels like to risk one's writing among strangers, and I feel strongly about the teacher's responsibility to make this work for everyone.  

As winter closes in, I'm already lining up my classes--to take and to teach.  My writing's eager, and so am I.

PS This month, starting October 24, I'm teaching updated versions of two of my favorite online classes.  Updated means I've changed things up, added new ideas and exercises and links and cool stuff to freshen the classroom and offer different approaches.  Story-in-Progress is a totally fun and productive eight-week online class that skill-builds but also gives helpful feedback; writers are asked to post certain key sections of their book manuscripts for my feedback as well as their classmates.  Along with this, each week we discuss how that section of a book is built, looking at examples from published writing and articles by famous writers.  My other fall  online class, The Art of Theme and Voice, is for those who are at the stage where they want to bring more authenticity into their writing and generate the threads of theme throughout.  We look at samples of published writing that does this magnificently and our discussions are always lively.  Feedback is constructive and generous.   If interested, click on the above titles or go to www.loft.org classes and search for my name.