Learning Fiction Online: Are You Ready to Workshop on the Web?

Catherine Wald

Four years ago, Lynette Brasfield was a full-time corporate writer and mother of two teenage boys who had never done any creative writing—“unless you count a short story about a cow called Daisy Mae LeRoux, written when I was twelve,” she says. Now she’s a full-time fiction writer whose first novel, Nature Lessons, was recently published by St. Martin’s Press.

What happened in between? Brasfield, whose 1999 schedule could have never accommodated a “live” class that required commuting somewhere at an appointed time, discovered the UCLA Extension’s online writing program. “Since I wasn’t sure if I could [write fiction] without making an idiot of myself, the relative anonymity of the online format appealed to me,” she says. “So did the flexibility and the credibility of the UCLA name.”

From the beginning, Brasfield was thrilled with her cyber-studies. She liked being able to absorb feedback at her own pace, in her own living room. “At home, after getting tough critiques online, I could read them carefully, in private, with a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand. I tend to overreact to criticism, but at least only my friends and family, and not my classmates, had to put up with the worst of my overreactions.” Another advantage, she found, is that “sometimes you get the most amazing critiquers, who spend hours and hours on classmates’ work.”

After easing into creative writing with a journaling class, Brasfield moved on to beginning short story, advanced short story, and finally a novel-writing class. A story she worked on during her first class was accepted by Potpourri. Then, during the novel-writing class with Jane Bradley in 2000, she wrote some passages that became part of the first chapter of Nature Lessons. “The UCLA classes had a huge impact—they really kick-started the process for me, and grounded me in the basics of craft,” Brasfield says. “Without the encouragement to begin and continue writing fiction that UCLA Extension gave me, I don’t know that I’d have continued.”

Not everyone can progress from beginning writer to published novelist as quickly as Brasfield did—online or off. But for writers who want a structured learning environment and regular feedback, and especially for those who have geographical, physical, or scheduling restrictions, the Internet can be a viable alternative to the bricks-and-mortar classroom.

How can you decide if the online environment is right for you, let alone which courses or schools to select? What are the pluses and minuses of workshopping via the Web? To find out more about online classes that focus on the craft of fiction writing, I spoke with administrators, students, and faculty at several well-established writing schools whose course offerings include online options: Gotham Writers’ Workshop, UCLA Extension, UIU/Vermont College, Writers Online Workshops, and Writers Studio.

According to Linda Venis of the UCLA Extension Program, online education is particularly well suited to writing classes, and students don’t need to be technology geeks to participate. “Anybody who can use the Internet can navigate the virtual classroom,” says Venis, who is program director for the school’s Writers’ Program. UCLA uses the Blackboard online platform, which “is easy to use and provides all sorts of capabilities that replicate the in-person classroom to a great degree.” It includes a discussion board where people can check in daily. Instructors commit to checking in at least every 48 hours.

When it launched its first online creative writing class in 1996, UCLA was a pioneer—and the technology was clunky. “It really was very primitive,” Venis recalls, “with the teacher and students e-mailing attachments back and forth.” But they stuck with it because “with five hundred twenty courses per year in creative writing and screenwriting, we felt our Writers’ Program had something of value to offer the rest of the country.”

From one class with six students, the online program has grown to 70 courses that accommodate 800 annual enrollments. Venis says the goal is to double the number of online students in the next two years by adding higher-level courses for students who have already advanced through beginning and intermediate levels.

Online learning is “a great equalizer,” Venis says, “especially for people who may be physically incapacitated or geographically isolated.” And, logistical benefits aside, many students actually prefer online classes. “There are some people who love to interact in person with their teachers and peers, and that’s great—after all, it’s a model that’s worked for hundreds of years. But for people who enjoy the online experience, online is not a second choice. They enjoy the regular communication with the class and they also really love the fact that they can interact with students and fellow writers from all over the world.”

Because UCLA considers itself “a program for people who are serious about writing,” it hires only teachers with a body of published work and gets them started with a five-week orientation. “UCLA provides rigorous training,” says Daniel Jaffe, author of the novel The Limits of Pleasure (Harrington Park Press, 2001). Jaffe has been teaching introductory fiction writing and intermediate short story online for three years. “By the time I began teaching, I felt fully comfortable with the online environment. And there’s a technical consultant on call in case I or the students have questions,” Jaffe says.

Gotham Writers’ Workshop, an 11-year-old writing school based in New York, began exploring the Internet about five years ago as a way to reach more students without opening branch locations. “We were looking for a way to expand beyond the parameters of New York City, and we saw that the Internet could be a real tool for distance learning,” says Dana Miller, director of student affairs. “Education is one of the ways in which the Internet has really shone and changed things. It’s become an unbelievable tool, especially in the past two to three years.”

The Internet has enabled Gotham to create what Miller calls a “global classroom,” where students from New York interact with people from Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, Tel Aviv, and London. To date, writers from 65 different countries have taken Gotham writing courses online. Its online student population has grown from 18 in 1997 to 600 enrollments per semester. “So much of what people write is informed by their cultural choices and backgrounds, so it becomes a rich, interesting experience to get feedback from all over the world.”

GWW’s technology is “easy to navigate, and nothing is done in real time, which means you never have to be on the computer at any given time,” Miller says. Lecture material is posted on a weekly basis, and everyone in the class has the entire week to view the lecture and post comments. Each student has a private online “notebook” in which to correspond privately with the teacher, as well as a common area called “The Booth” in which to critique one another’s work. A weekly live chat and a writers’ lounge complement classes but are completely optional.

Downsides to online study, according to Miller, include a sense of anonymity and temporariness. “When you’re looking at a computer, it feels like you’re not dealing with real people, somehow. It’s easier to break the covenants between student and teacher, and student and student,” she says.