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

Catherine Wald

Known to most writers for their low-residency MFA program, Vermont College, with its parent organization, Union Institute and University (UIU), began offering noncredit online writing workshops three years ago, “primarily for alumni who wanted to maintain contact with our process of distance learning and mentoring,” says Alice Eichholz, director of lifelong learning. Today, although the course offering is relatively limited, the concept has expanded, in that courses can now be taken for undergraduate, graduate, or continuing education credit. And, Eichholz says, because classes are small (the limit is 10 people per class, but many have only 5 to 8), students enjoy a high level of individual attention.

Online class structure is “fairly straightforward,” she says, thanks in part to use of the eCollege platform, which provides teacher training, student training, and 24/7 online phone support. UIU/Vermont also helps students determine whether their computers meet system requirements and will allow them to participate without long downloading times.

The ties with UIU/Vermont College benefit online students in several ways. Many of the online teachers are alums or former teachers, and students who want to eventually apply to the MFA program can use the courses to build experience and reputation. “If people feel that they’re not quite ready to apply for an MFA in [pursuit of a] writing degree yet, we sometimes refer them to these courses,” says Louise Crowley, administrative director of the MFA in Writing Program. “Because we know the content of the courses and who’s teaching them, it’s great preparation.”

What do teachers see as the pros and cons of online study?

Dan Jaffe of UCLA Extension says students learn at least as much in online courses as in live classes—if not more. “By its nature, an online course demands extra writing practice,” he says. “Every comment and question a student has must be articulated in writing rather than simply spoken off-the-cuff. The student is required to clarify his or her thoughts in writing, to develop a clear argument supported by examples every time she or he says anything.” He adds that because every critique for every student is accessible online, students have a “greater opportunity to learn from fellow students’ experiences.”

On the downside, online study can’t relieve the writer’s isolation the way a live class can. “Virtual society brings together people who might not otherwise be able to interact, but everyone’s still home alone,” Jaffe says.

On the other hand, teacher Kathie Giorgio says being home alone means she can spend many more hours teaching than she normally would while raising three kids in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Giorgio teaches such classes as “Focus on the Short Story,” “Fundamentals of Fiction Writing,” “Writing Effective Dialogue,” and “Creating Dynamic Characters” at Writer’s Digest’s Writers Online Workshops, as well as private online classes. She loves the flexibility—“You can do it anytime, with no special wardrobe”—and the technology has enabled her to do everything from evaluate student work while nursing a sick child to preparing lessons on her laptop from the maternity ward after giving birth.

Giorgio believes that online students are more focused but that they can also be more demanding—which means that online teachers need to learn how to set limits. “Students tend to forget that I have a life. They think when they turn the computer on, I should be there.”

In addition, the lack of face-to-face contact can lead to occasional misunderstandings. “The drawback is you can’t see body language and you can’t see students’ faces, so you don’t know if they’re getting it.” Giorgio tells the story of a new student who sent in his work with an apologetic note saying, “I’m sorry, this is horrible.” When she sent him his critique, she began by saying, tongue-in-cheek, “You’re right, this is the most awful thing I’ve ever seen.” The student nearly didn’t make it to the second paragraph. (The story has a happy ending: Not only did the student complete the class, he and Giorgio ended up getting married.)

Many online teachers find that cyber-teaching is more time-consuming than teaching live classes. Amy Dana, who launched the first online class for the 15-year-old New York City–based Writers Studio, expected that teaching online from her home in Connecticut, instead of commuting into Manhattan to teach live courses, would give her more time to spend with her two young children. “I actually found it much more time-consuming to teach the online class, which was a very surprising result,” she says.

With experience, though, Dana was able to manage her time more effectively. “At first, I spent too much time writing the critiques and responding individually to each and every e-mail,” she says. “It took me one or two [ten-week] sessions to iron out how much of the whole Writers Studio experience I could convey online and what I couldn’t do online, and to really develop more confidence in my students. I learned to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they would understand where I was coming from in my critiques and how supportive I was of their efforts. Then it became a much faster process for me.”

For some writers, online study is an ideal solution. Miami-area resident Miriam Santana read about the Writers Studio in Poets & Writers Magazine several years ago, and even considered moving to New York to attend. “It wasn’t feasible at the time,” she recalls, “so I tore out the article and waited some more, and then the school literally came to me when they began to offer workshops online.”

Santana, who has since taken three online courses and a tutorial, considers herself shy, but found herself more willing to voice her opinions in the online environment. She says she would recommend the Writers Studio online classes “to anyone who is serious about writing as a vocation. It’s the perfect place to learn craft, where you as a writer are supported and nurtured—like an old-fashioned apprenticeship with a modern-day twist.”

Bottom line: If you’re trying to choose between online and off, “do the thing that is going to help you write,” urges Writers Studio’s Dana. “That could be virtual or in person—as long as you find a teacher you connect with and who inspires you, and a group you connect with too.”

Catherine Wald is the author of The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph From 20 Top Authors (Persea Books, Spring 2004). She can be found at www.writerwald.com and www.rejectioncollection.com.