Teaching fiction writing online works surprisingly well as a whole, I’ve taught close to 150 classes in the past 18 years for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine and most of those have been online in the past 10 years.
Some of the advantages online include being able to type out my responses with embedded comments, which is far easier and more functional than writing hand notes in pen on a physical manuscript, and having the time to really compose my thoughts on a piece as a whole. And being a working writer, I find it easier organize my thoughts while typing them out. I’ve taught a lot of “in person” classes and sometimes when explaining to someone where their piece of fiction needs work goes really well, and you articulate your thoughts clearly and sometimes it’s not nearly as articulate and everyone leaves the interaction frustrated.
What doesn’t work as well? For one, when teaching in person when everything is clicking, it’s a genuine high, a performance where you are at the center of a group of people who all want the same thing (to write better); it’s like you’re connecting, teaching and flirting all at the same time. Teaching in person can be a drag if you have a listless group of people but it’s rarely a slog. Online teaching can be a slog precisely because you don’t have that level of connection. Mostly it’s just names in the ether and can feel abstract. Years ago, one of my evaluations for an online class read “Instructor kept referring to me as a she even after I repeatedly told him I’m a guy.” I was like “Sorry Dude” but we’re all just names on a screen and mistakes happen.
And one thing I like to stress to writing students in a workshop setting is there is real value in coming around to understanding who NOT to listen to in a class. It’s part of learning how people read your work. That kind of thing is much easier to see in an “in person” class. Online, you may have one person who keeps giving consistently poor advice but they’re just a name on a screen and you often don’t put it together that maybe you shouldn’t listen to their advice. In person, this dynamic is much easier to see.
But what about the costs to the writer teaching writing? That’s a trickier question. I certainly don’t write as regularly as I once did; for years, I sat down every night no matter what and worked. Now, days and even weeks can pass where I’ve spent so much time commenting on other writers’ work, I have no energy to do my own. Harper’s Magazine had an article a few years back on how dysfunctional our Creative Writing complex is as a whole, their central point being we’re forcing a generation of people who can write to teach a generation of people who can’t. I’m drawn to this idea even as I don’t fully buy it, most of the writers in the classes I teach are very solid, some are quite a bit better than that. But it’s still a cogent point. Besides struggling to find the time and energy to write, teaching writing online (where it often seems like you’re always on the job because even if you aren’t current commenting on student work, you could be) has made me self-conscious about my writing and self-critical to the point where I’m often rejecting a sentence while I’m writing it.
All of which sounds like I’m moaning about my life as an online writing instructor and maybe I am, but I don’t really feel that. I may not help every student become a better writer but I’ve helped some writers get better. And that’s no small thing.
Written by Michael Backus
Michael Backus’ writing, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in One Story, Digging Through the Fat, Exquisite Corpse, Oyster River Pages, Prime Number magazine, The Writer, The Sycamore Review, and many more.
He teaches creative writing for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine.