In this section, Shariann Lewitt discusses how she approaches the various elements of a writing class.
I do lecture. I try to get into more discussion (especially after we've read something) but the truth is, I know a whole lot more about how to write fiction than the students do. I knew at the start of the semester I would have to give a number of lectures, but I never want them to run the full class period, or even close. I want every class to include some writing exercise and discussion, and possibly all three. I try to identify areas that are vital to developing good fiction and set up lectures around those areas, usually drawing on the readings we've done. That way I hope to be able to bridge from lecture to discussion.
I often ask students for "special topics." I pass around a sheet, and they can write down anything they'd like to work on or would like me to talk about. I do this in all my classes if there is time, but in a more advanced class like this one, it was one of the major ways I chose topics for a third or more of the lectures. There was a lot of interest in focusing on dialogue, transitioning between scenes, and pacing—especially pacing, we had discussions about several different ways to pace plot and action.
The information I give in lecture is the jumping off point for talking about the readings. I'll ask some questions to get the ball rolling, but usually students have started to see how the structures I talked about actually work in the fiction they've read. I try to keep close to the work we're dealing with and what I think the key take-aways are, but I try to let their interests drive the discussion as much as possible.
Workshop is the heart and soul of this and any fiction writing class. Every piece by every student gets workshopped, and we had time for people to have additional workshops as well. The rules I use for workshop come from my own professional workshop groups, which tend to be quite structured. I give a handout (PDF) that spells out both the rules of engaging with one another and the mechanics of running the workshop session. I always go over that in detail.
Assessment, Feedback, and Grading
I use contract grading in fiction classes, and every student is free to rewrite all material as often as she or he pleases. I try to keep grading in the background, although I do talk about the realities of selling fiction (genre fiction is commercial, after all).
I really believe in exercises for writers. I use them myself, and a lot of writers and editors I know use them and think they're valuable. They are some of the tools I want to give students, so when they're stuck or having trouble figuring out what to do with a character, or what happens next, they have some possible strategies to attack the problem.