Learning to Write in Workshops vs Universities

Today a young writer asked what the advantages are of studying writing at a university versus at workshops.  Now, I’ve taught in both settings, so let me suggest some of the advantages of each.

Universities—the Pros and Cons

When I studied writing, I did it at a university. I created my own degree program at Brigham Young University–a degree that covered English editing, creative writing, and modern literature.  My goal was to work as an editor and writing instructor while I wrote on the side. The program I developed was so well liked by the administrators that they used it to create an English Editing major, which within ten years became so popular that it was adopted by nearly 200 other colleges.  

I got a great education at BYU (which, by the way, last week was named by Forbes magazine as the #1 best value in American colleges). However, to get a degree you have to study much more than writing, so I took classes in the sciences, mathematics, history, religion, physical education, foreign languages, and so on.  This kind of broad education is valuable, but it also requires a lot of extra time and money from a student. If you go for a four-year degree, you will spend a lot of time learning your craft, and it will likely cost tens of thousands of dollars.

However, there are some benefits to this approach. As a student, you can take courses from several different professors and learn from each of them. For example, while working toward a career as a novelist you might study poetry or screenwriting, things which might seem peripheral to you—yet both of these specialties will yield a lot of benefit to a young writer. Learning to write poetry teaches an author to write with power and brevity, for instance, while writing for the screen will help you hone your plotting and dialog skills. I also found my classes in logic, linguistics, and teaching to be very helpful.

And when you get that degree, it is valuable: if you want to teach professionally or get a job with a major corporation, the degree may be a prerequisite.

There is a weakness with college, though, that goes beyond the investment in time and money.  College courses tend to be pretty focused on teaching to a certain level.  When I taught creative writing at a university, I was basically told by my dean to “dumb it down” just a tad. The head of the Humanities Department felt that the material I was teaching was too advanced for young college student and that we should change my class to a 600-level writing course. This would have only been open to students who were working on their doctorate degrees.  I responded by pointing out that a young writer needed to know the things I was teaching just to get published. So we turned my 200-level class to a 300-level class and called it good. Anyone was welcome to come, so long as I gave my permission.

So when I teach my workshops, I don’t have to worry about taking it easy on students. Much of what I teach isn’t taught in college at any level. My goal is to teach whatever a person needs to know in order to make it in this business.

My college courses typically met three hours a week for about 14 weeks, which gave me roughly 40 hours of instruction time.  This felt like a pretty leisurely pace to me. It let me cover a lot of material. Several of my students went on to become well-published writers, some making millions of dollars.

So, one can learn to write at a university, but writing workshops can be faster, more focused, and far less expensive. The biggest drawback to workshops of course is that when you graduate from a workshop, you have a skill—not a degree.

Depending upon the workshop, it will probably be shorter than a typical semester in college. In a week-long workshop, usually I can give close to 30 hours of instruction, so the time spent teaching in a workshop is a little less than in a typical semester.

The real value in a workshop comes from focusing on a topic. It takes about half an hour of studying something to move the information from short-term memory to long-term memory, so as a teacher, I love keeping the student focused.

In fact, very often I find that in a workshop, it’s easy to overwhelm a class. By the second day of a workshop, students can look dazed. Some of them will say that they couldn’t sleep after the first night because their minds were racing.

Ideally, I try to limit the flow of information so that I keep the students excited but not exhausted. The most frequent comment I hear is “I learned more about writing in this one-week workshop than I did in four years of college.” That’s a nice comment, and it might even be true, but I do have a worry about workshops: you see, not everything that one learns is learned out of books.

Writing is a skill that is developed through practice, and when I teach a workshop, either live or online, I really think that student growth comes more from doing the coursework—writing the stories and working on assignments—rather than from just listening to lectures. The average student learns more from practicing writing than listening to lectures.

For each hour that I teach, I typically want about an hour of practice. So if I’m teaching for six hours, I’d like to see the student write for six hours. In fact, I wish that I could have more time for practice.

Of course, getting feedback from the teacher and from other students is important, and so when I teach in most environments, I want to see what the student writes. But taking time for feedback can be difficult, too.  In a big class—say 20 people—it can be tough to give feedback. I prefer to keep the classes small so that we have time to critique each author’s work.

In my college classes, I typically had my students write two short stories over the course of a semester.  In my workshops, the assignments are often much shorter and more focused than just writing a story. This usually allows the writers to learn a skill, practice it, and get feedback all in a short period.

I seem to be always trying to perfect my courses. Right now I’m taping a new “Advanced Story Puzzle Course” where I teach new ways to brainstorm a novel, and I’m very pleased with how well my students in the new “Writing Enchanting Prose” workshop have been doing, so I am taping that course too. The goal with those two courses is to help a student plan, plot, and begin writing a novel in as short a time as possible. So these will form the core of my curriculum from now on.


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Fyrecon

I will be teaching a master class writing workshop at Fyrecon this June in Layton, Utah. You can learn more about it here.

SpikeCon

I will also be teaching at SpikeCon in July, also in Layton, Utah. Learn more here.

Keep an eye out for two upcoming writing workshops. Writer’s Peak July 19-20 and The Plot Thickens Master Class September 18-21. More information on these will be posted soon.

I have a short story set in the Runelords universe that is up for 2.99 today. Get it here.

Don’t forget to check out the Kickstarter for a new, fun anthology “Grifty Shades of Fey” that I will be featured in. You can check it out here.

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