Praise Does Not Make a Writer Better

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Over the years I’ve taken many writing and English classes. I enjoyed most and did learn some stuff. But only one has ever had a major impact on me and drastically improved my writing. It was a creative writing workshop I took once I returned to school. For the first half of the semester I dreaded it. Once I befriended a classmate we commiserated regularly about how much of a hard ass the instructor was.  The first piece I handed in, he gave back to me refusing to grade it until it was properly proofread and edited. He once told her to completely scrap a piece she shared in class. Essentially he had high standards and was brutally honest when we fell short. It took a while to sink in but we eventually realized he wasn’t tough on us for the hell of it or because we were bad writers. Actually, quite the opposite was more likely.

He was hard on us because he knew we could do better. I eventually came to appreciate it and realized that it was exactly what I needed. Throughout school I always had basic grammar issues and struggled proofreading and editing my work. It was often filled with typos, missing words, and grammatical errors. I don’t remember a time I didn’t get something back filled with red marks. However, my grades were usually pretty good, teachers praised my writing and encouraged me. My first college writing class was a reality check, it was the first time those minor errors had a major affect on my grade. However, I was able to hand in revised papers for a better grade. Unfortunately, my proofreading skills did not improve, instead I relied on the professor to point out the issues in my writing. Despite many of the problems being basic grammar issues I didn’t understand, ie run-on and fragment sentences, she also encouraged me and complimented my writing skills.

The instructor for the workshop, was the first person that ever pushed me to improve. All the praise I had received over the years made me a lazy writer. I had a false sense of confidence and couldn’t see where or how to improve. He did not sugar coat things, he cared more about the writing than hurting my feelings. The last assignment of the semester was a one act play. That’s the one area of writing I never had any interest in so my I didn’t put much effort into it. I don’t remember the exactly what I said but it was some excuse for it not being better. He said, “No, it’s because you gave up.” It was the absolute truth and was better than any amount of praise I could ever get.

Have you ever received feedback that hurt your feelings but helped your writing?  I’d love to hear from other writers about who or what helped you improve your writing. Tell me about the teacher, mentor, etc. that helped you along the way in the comments below.

Poetry Writing Excercise

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On my usual pursuit of free events I found another one from my new favorite, Gotham Writers Workshops. As part of their fall open house, last night I attended a one hour poetry class. Part of the class called for a writing exercise, to write about the world around an object, person, etc., basically describing it without actually naming it. Here’s what I came up with:

Day in Day out ripping away at my scalp
Hiding in the darkness to calm the migraines
Frustration building as nothing gets better
Yet here I come back for comfort and security
Day in Day out knowing you’re not going anywhere

So what do you think? I’m impressed with myself especially since I haven’t done much poetry writing in a long time. It actually came to me pretty quickly and easily. Well okay I did go back and edit some. (I had extra time) Even so the more important thing is I got writing and it was actually a really fun class. Carter, our instructor, was probably the only teacher that made poetry actually sound as fun as it should be. He was also funny and entertaining enough to make me think twice about signing up for the course. Then I remembered I don’t have money.  Well there’s always another time, I hope.

Gotham Writers Workshop’s At-a-Glance Free Class

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As somebody who always wanted a career in writing and publishing, I thought many times of trying out the Gotham Writers Workshop classes. However, after looking at some of the prices and not knowing what to expect I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it.  Recently, after following their Facebook page I saw an offer for the At-A-Glance free class. Of course, I’m up for almost anything as long as it is free and it was completely worth it.

They had instructors in three different genres discuss major elements and then we worked on a short exercise. We went over fiction writing, focusing on character development. The class answered questions about the character’s occupation, dream job, relationship status, age, and even what she looked like. The exercise got us writing about a conflict like what the worst thing she ever did. We also went over non-fiction and how you could still use your imagination with character descriptions, structure, and even speculating about particular elements of the story. Our exercise prompted us to speculate on a true story.

I think the most fun and enlightening was the lesson in screen writing. The instructor spoke about the tone of a movie. The tone can be another way to describe the perspective of the story. Through changing the perspective the tone will change. This then leads to distinguishing the genre. The exercise we had was to take a log line (short description of plot) of a movie and write it from a different perspective changing the genre. This is a good exercise to help define the genre and lead your writing if you are struggling. Because I enjoyed this so much I’ll share with you what I wrote. I picked the movie, American Psycho.

“A young successful Wall Street Broker struggles to fit in with his overly-materialistic social circle. Infidelity, drug-use and petty jealousy leads to a mental breakdown.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’m was really glad that they were able to work in exercises to get us writing. They also had food and drinks for after that class and we got the chance to socialize with the other attendees and the instructors. I’m very glad I got to find out about their classes. In fact I found out that in addition to their courses that last several weeks they also have single day workshops called write-ins. The write-ins seem like a great way to get writing more often and a great way to meet other writers.