Between Books: How to get the most out of your writing teacher

I have been teaching Gotham Writers Workshops for five years now, and I wouldn’t continue to do it if I didn’t love it. (I’m teaching Article Writing and Creative Writing starting in January, if you’re interested!) But I also see the little ways students let their best possible experience of classes slip away in a blur of either indifference or overzealousness.

I’ve been teaching a particular lot these last few weeks, which has put me in contact with an onslaught of students in a short period of time. I also happened to be teaching rather short-term classes: two that lasted two weeks (one meeting, three-hours-long, each of the weeks) and one that was a day-long intensive. I also had my regular ten-week Article Writing class still meeting for three hours on Tuesday mornings. I really do want to help all of these people learn to write articles and pitch articles and write book proposals and sell books. If I can do it, they can. They just need the right practical information, which I have, and am happy to give them.

But the short-term classes always also bring out a certain desperation in all of us: While I can tell them a bunch of information that, if mastered, will allow them to go forth in the world of publishing and sort-of act like they know what they’re doing (we’re all acting, please know that), I cannot instantly turn them into professional magazine writers or authors. The way the writing system is set up, it’s a lot of drudgery and a lot of pointless work for incremental gain that, if you do it enough, becomes substantial gain. Maybe all professions are like this in some way. I only know mine, and I know this is how it is. It’s the kind of job where, for some reason, lots of people want to do it. So the barriers to entry are high, inflated perhaps, and the pay low. Supply and demand. It’s a frustrating business. It’s hard to give people hope while also keeping it real in writing class, especially when we talk about selling. One of my more astute students, when we finished the lesson on pitching magazines, observed, “This seems like an inefficient way to do things.” You bet, my friend.

Because of all of these factors, there is often a somewhat helpless exchange with students as class winds down, or as they try to catch you after class, or if they email you later. They really want your help, and they’re not even sure how, they just want it before you slip away forever. I get it: Getting published is about having connections, and I just spent a whole class telling them that, and then the teacher, who may be the one person in publishing some students know, gets up and walks out of their lives. It’s tempting to want things from that teacher. I’m here to tell you it’s possible to get things from that teacher. Most of them will be during class, if you do it right; some might be beyond class if you’re lucky and you play your cards right and it makes logical sense for everyone involved.

So here I give you my tips on how to get the most out of your writing teacher, whether it’s a months-long or day-long endeavor:

1. Figure out what you want out of the class before you go. What possessed you to plunk down hundreds of dollars and carve hours out of your precious schedule to do this? Figure that out and make sure you either make it clear during the inevitable introduction exercise or ask questions in class that lead to finding the answers you need.

2. Participate! You knew I was going to tell you this. It’s a nightmare being in front of a room full of people who supposedly want to be there but have no interest in doing anything there but watching you talk yourself to death. Help me help you.

3. Read aloud. When it’s time for volunteers to read, volunteer. Always. I mean, unless you have a totally blank piece of paper in front of you, in which case, I refer you to #2. Here are the good things about reading: You hear your own work aloud, and this is a great learning tool in itself. Pros do it all the time in the privacy of their own offices. You also get the feedback from your teacher that you paid for. You also get over thinking your writing is precious. They’re just words that happened to spill out of your head in that particular moment. There will be other words later. This isn’t that big a deal. No one cares, which I mean in a good way. Even if you read the “worst” 100-word descriptive passage ever, your classmates will forget about it in less than 15 minutes. They’re too worried about their own shit to care about yours. I mean, they care about you, I hope. They just aren’t dying to spend their time judging your work. If they are, you are not the one with the problem in that scenario. Side hint: Don’t spend your reading time apologizing for how awful your work is. It’s okay. Everybody is in the same situation here; everybody had to write down story ideas off the top of their head in 10 minutes on a Friday morning on demand. No one expects miracles. But often, I hear miracles under these circumstances. Either you get a neutral experience, or a miraculous one. Read. It’s a win-win.

4. Make friends with your favorite fellow students. They will often come in handy later, handier than your teacher. They’re working at the same level as you are, so they can serve as potential readers of your work. The reason they are good for this is that they will feel like your equal, and you will feel like theirs. You can trade work and feel like no one is taking advantage of the other. You can listen to their criticism but not take it as gospel. You can go to each other’s fancy book parties later when you are both famous authors and laugh about how you started out together in Nonfiction 101. The reason this is a tip about “how to get the most out of your writing teacher” is that having fellow students as sounding boards allows you to avoid the temptation to use your teacher as a (post-class) sounding board before you have been invited to do so. (More on that in a minute.)

5. Look interested and laugh at the teacher’s jokes. Yes, seriously. When a teacher looks out at a sea of dead stares, the tops of people’s heads as they punch at their cell phones, and yawns, she is very excited to see that one person looking straight at her, engaged, smiling when appropriate, etc. This makes the teacher like that student possibly more than is even warranted. This simple tactic can serve you well.

6. Do the homework. Do the assignments as they’re given, and not as you wish them to be. “I know we were supposed to write a 100-word description, but is it okay if I give you my 500-word article about fly fishing instead for feedback?” Well, no. First, the class was designed a certain way for a reason, not because I just love reading random people’s 100-word descriptions of things. Second, I have time to read people’s 100-word descriptions this week, not their 500-word more complex pieces of choice.

7. Work at the feedback for others. If your class involves workshopping other people’s pieces, work hard on giving helpful critiques. I think this is as critical a learning tool (for you, the critiquer) as writing is.

8. Come to class, and come on time, whenever possible. It’s really hard to catch you up if you miss stuff. The reason that we have classes in the world is so that a bunch of people can meet at a designated time to hear the knowledge of a specific individual imparted on a specific subject in the most efficient way possible. I realize it’s easy to forget that basic definition of “class,” but it’s really important. Repeating things in class makes life boring and pointless for those who were there for the first iteration; repeating things after class is an unfair request of the teacher. If you must miss a class, you can ask for any handouts that were given; ask a fellow student for notes, not the teacher.

9. Think about what you’re asking of the teacher outside the basic scope of the class. Before you make any requests of the teacher — you know, “Could you look at my book proposal and tell me what you think?” or “How about we have coffee every week for the rest of my life and you can give me advice about my career?” or whatever — think about why that person might want to do that thing for you. And if you can’t come up with a good answer, don’t ask. Now, I want to be clear that I often do end up being friendly with many of my former students, and I love that, and I love knowing what’s become of them, and many people will tell you that I am a profligate dispenser of writing-career advice. I truly get off on mentoring, and I think it’s important. However. Please also remember that as a freelance writer, my time is outrageously precious. (I have a figure in mind for what my hour is worth, at minimum, and buying me a drink ain’t gonna cut it.) Not only that, but I do this for a living. When I teach, I am paid. And when I offer my own private critiquing and editing services, I get paid. When I’m not doing those things, I’m writing a book or an article and getting paid. This is true of most or all of my teaching colleagues, so, please, just think.

10. Stay in touch with your teacher. Here are ways you can be friendly with us that most of us will love. First of all, if you sense a genuine friendly connection, cool. There’s no law that prohibits communication between teachers and former students. Drop the teacher an email to say how much you enjoyed the class, if you did. (I really love this. One of my online students recently did it, saying something along the lines of, “Thank you for taking the time for me.” What a wonderful sentiment. She knows I get paid, yet she also appreciated what I did. I got a little choked up.) And here’s a really good way to stay in touch beyond that: Most of us have writing projects that depend on “fans” — blogs, books, etc. If you tell the teacher you’d like to be on her email list to hear about future projects and events, she’s a fool not to keep your email. This way, you’re giving something without asking to have something. Here’s another one: If she has a blog that depends on contributors, offer to write something appropriate for it. This is the way I became friendly with most of the former students with whom I became friendly.

If, over time, it makes sense, and feels right, you can drop her a line and ask for a little specific advice. People like giving advice; it makes them feel smart. Now, you can keep her posted on what you’re doing. I’m always fine with this, and you can tell if the teacher is encouraging you to continue to stay in touch. If she does, go for it. Maybe a real friendship is developing — this has happened for me with several students, but the trick was feeling a real vibe there first. Otherwise, it’s like trying to hang out with your doctor just so you can ask her about your weird stomach problem whenever it pops up again. Gross, in so many ways. Like any good doctor, we want to help. Let the relationship grow organically, and soon you’ll find you have your very own writing-teacher friend.

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