Thoughts on writing: Lessons from teaching

Over the past 20 years I’ve taught at four different universities, teaching different courses to both undergraduates and graduates. All told, I’ve had more than a thousand students. What have I learned that’s relevant for writing fiction?

It’s new to them

I know a ton about the subject. But to 19-year-old kids, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. I need to get them oriented, explain the terminology, ease them into it.

In fiction, your reader is a new arrival to a world you’ve lived with for a while. You need to gently introduce them to the setting, without bombarding them with a bunch of unfamiliar names and words in the first sentence of the story.

Unity of purpose

When giving a lecture on topic X, do not wander off into topic Y, especially when many of the ideas in topic Y contradict the ideas in topic X. If an example, table, graph, or slide does not advance your goal of teaching topic X, delete it.

In fiction, if sublot X or character Y does not serve to advance the overall goal of the piece, delete it.

Keep it simple

When I started out teaching, I worked hard at devising complicated examples that illustrated obscure points of theory. I made fiendishly subtle homework problems to challenge and impress the students. This was a mistake. Although fun for me, it didn’t work for them. A basic rule of thumb in teaching: if something seems at all complicated to the teacher, it will be completely opaque to the students. A homework problem I cannot solve in my head in ten seconds is going to really frustrate the students.

Similarly, in fiction, it is not necessary to construct a complicated plot with millions of moving parts. The reader has a hard enough time remembering the character names.

Manage expectations

Do not tell the students that grading will be based on a paper and a midterm, then cancel the paper and substitute a final exam. This will upset them.

Similarly, in fiction, you make a series of promises to the reader that you must keep. If the first paragraph of the story is humorous, the rest must also be humorous.

Get feedback

If you teach the same course over and over again, you will quickly learn exactly where students get confused. When you hear the same question repeated, you will quickly learn which slide on your lecture note is poorly phrased. When you teach, you get constant feedback, just from looking around the room and seeing student faces. I often tell jokes in class. Like a stand-up comedian, I know from experience which jokes will work, how to phrase them, and how to use comic timing. I know when a joke bombs, and I have a good idea why it bombed.

Such feedback is largely absent in the world of writing fiction. Seek opportunities to get feedback. If you write humor, be physically present when someone reads your work, so you can count the laughs.

Do what you love

In teaching, especially when teaching an elective course, you have many possible topics to cover. Which ones should you include?

When I first started teaching, I used lecture notes inherited from a senior colleague. These were excellent notes, but they included a lecture on topic X. Topic X was not a necessary topic that every student needs to know, and I neither knew nor cared about it. Not surprisingly, I was terrible at teaching topic X. I should have dropped that lecture and given a lecture on a topic that I knew and loved.

So, a general rule of teaching: don’t teach what you don’t know. There is a lot that you know that the students don’t know. Spend your time transmitting this information. Don’t try to transmit what you don’t know. If you are not interested in topic Y and the student’s don’t absolutely need to know it, don’t go out and learn it. Of course, if you are interest in topic Y, then preparing a lecture about it is a great way for you to learn about it.

In fiction, we have the luxury that all material is optional material, and you only need to write what you want to write. For example, if you don’t love horror, don’t write it.

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