Note From the Author:

These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.

If you ever happen to cite them in a paper or something, I'd love to hear about it, so drop me an email at: js @ jonathanstephens . com.

Creative Writing from a Distance: Online Critique Groups and e-Correspondence

Writing is writing is writing. Isn't it? Not for theorists. Both compositionists and creative writers alike have spent the past couple decades squabbling over which writing pursuit will earn the label "More Academic." If not for the institutional pressures to prove their programs as separate but academically viable, theorists from both camps might have been collaborating together to explore what the Internet might have meant to all fields of writing. As the situation exists today, segregated theory is virtually all we have. Creative writers theorize about their field, and compositionists about theirs, albeit often borrowing from creative writing pedagogy for their ideas. In "Crossing the Lines: On Creative Composition and Composing Creative Writing," Wendy Bishop makes the following claim:

Creative writing as a composition area, . . . is generally ignored in spite of cross-the-line pedagogical raiding; compositionists have borrowed effective teaching methods from the creative writing workshop . . . improved on those borrowings and gone beyond them. (190)

Along similar lines, David Smith says that the term "'creative', when applied solely to fiction, drama, or poetry, is largely a misnomer. . . . All writing that has interest, value, passion, durability, and vision is necessarily creative" (quoted in Moxley 26). Perhaps a little more theoretical cross-pollination is needed to aid theorists in the exploration of writing pedagogy and to help teachers show students how to overcome the perception that composition is "required writing, while creative writing is voluntary" (Miller 41).

While my professional focus is largely creative, it helps that composition theorists Gail Hawisher and Wayne Butler have explored the Internet and reported their experiences with electronic discourse communities as they relate to the field of composition. Gail Hawisher's 1988 survey at the Conference on Computers in Writing and Language Instruction tallies the following reasons teachers preferred teaching writing with computers:

1. Students spend a great deal of time writing.

2. Lots of peer teaching goes on.

3. Class becomes more student-centered than teacher-centered.

4. One-on-one conferences between instructor and students increase.

5. Opportunities for collaboration increase.

6. Students share more with other students and instructor.

7. Communication features provide more direct access to students, allowing teachers to "get to know" students better. (59)

Most of these reasons hold true for the creative writing arena as well. However, the effectiveness of electronic discourse in the field of creative writing has largely been ignored. Years of experience with in-person critique groups, online critique groups, and email correspondence critiques have led me to believe that electronic discourse communities have more to offer creative writers than people have realized or admitted. My work will focus on creative writing, but the principles apply to composition just the same.

I am familiar with in-person creative writing groups and consider them indispensable to the writing process. While earning my undergraduate degree in English Education with an Option in Creative Writing, the only experience I had with effective collaborative writing groups was in my creative writing workshops -- both poetry and fiction -- not composition. My writing experience during subsequent teaching credential courses was without peer editing groups and ended up a solitary effort. Upon graduation, I involved myself in creative writing critique groups all over Orange County , my weeknights packed with the reading and critiquing of other writers' work. I entered the Masters of Fine Arts fiction program at California State University, Long Beach, where I was, once again, involved in creative writing groups but not composition groups, my only opportunity to collaborate in regards to composition coming in my graduate course in composition theory.

My experiences in these creative writing groups solidified my thoughts as to their necessity. As the months passed, I watched the writing of mine and other regular attendees improve, our verbal commentary and editing suggestions growing in consistency and sophistication. I share this background information only to show that my experience with in-person writing groups has been an extensive and positive process, one which I am confident I could not have done without.

 

Online Critique Groups: Writing Workshops Gone Digital

One of my best encounters with any kind of writing group was via the Internet, a medium which brought initial apprehension. My first involvement with an online writing community was at www.WriteWords.org, an organization situated mainly within the boundaries of the United Kingdom. Still living on the west coast of the United States , I experienced the power of online critique groups and eCorrespondence, my eyes now opened to the endless opportunities available to me via the World Wide Web. Without knowing it at the time, I had stumbled upon a discourse community similar to mine (because of the shared English language), yet different enough from my own (because of their uniquely British experience), to make a significant difference in my writing proficiency. These writers were outside my geographical world but suddenly inside my world of writing.

While Kenneth Bruffee claims that collaborative learning groups are the equivalent of the "blind leading the blind," this did not appear to prove itself true in a voluntary online community. This may be the case in mandatory academic courses, especially with freshman composition, but does it hold true when the group is no longer a required requisite toward a grade? Are these collaborating individuals still the "blind leading the blind"? Perhaps. Perhaps less so. I suppose the question is "At what point does a writer become not blind ?" Much of the composition scholarship (e.g. Trimbur's "Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning") points to the idea that writers at all levels, students included, are capable of learning and teaching, no matter their proficiency level.

WriteWords.org, just one of the dozens of available online writing communities, is home to thousands of writers, many published, many yet-to-be. The beauty of this environment is the ease with which one can exchange critiques with other writers interested in fields or genres similar to his own, while still able to collaborate with writers outside his field. A writer is free to join any number of the dozens of available groups -- Mystery, Science Fiction, Young Adult, Children's, etc. -- giving him the opportunity to collaborate with writers familiar and excited with his genre of writing.

In her essay "Technology-Mediated Communities for Learning: Designs and Consequences," Jan Hawkins states that "[s]tudents need to work in circumstances where coaching, scaffolding, and opportunities for articulation, reflection, and collaboration characterize their interactions with adults and other learners" (162). The environment she proposes would require group involvement in which the peers are grouped together according to relative skill level (The far advanced students not wasting their time with the just beginning ones and vice versa) so they can learn collaboratively from their teacher and the others in the group. Her principle is not limited to students. If the opponents of Bruffee's "blind leading the blind" claim are correct, any writer is capable of teaching any other writer. Students cannot necessarily be considered of lower standing when compared with adult writers. The online writing community offers a level, more anonymous playing field in which critiquers are evaluated on the validity of their comments and ideas instead of their appearance, age, gender, and ethnicity. With in-person writing groups, it is often the case that older, supposedly more competent writers are given higher regard because of their age and status, the comments of younger writers taken with a grain of salt because of their age, lack of experience, or clothing. The online world negates any such prejudices and limits the evaluation of one's comments to their validity and applicability.

In addition to their focus on the thoughts of the person instead of the person with the thoughts, online writing communities offer numerous other benefits. They are conducive to the writing process -- brainstorming, writing, and revision. Writers are able to post threads for discussion and feedback about their writing process. Notice the topics, authors, and the numbers of replies and hits in the following image.

The endless range of query topics -- "Is it okay to write in the first person?" "Is the F-word allowed in young adult fiction?" "What should a young adult synopsis look like?" "Is 40,000 words too long for a young adult novel?" "How gory can you be in a young adult novel?" "Is sex appropriate for a young adult novel?" -- allows writers to get feedback or direction before they actually sit down to write.

The forum layout is also conducive to group feedback. Group members can browse the list of their colleagues' work and know which works were most recently submitted. If a writing environment similar to this were used with distance learners, the critique process would be vastly streamlined.

Members can view the list of most recent peer comments, the peer who posted them, and the date posted. These comments are available for all members of the group to view and either comment on the original work or on the comments left by other readers. Krista Homicz asserts that "[t]he electronic environment can promote collaborative learning as [writers] post written work to the group, view common copy on screen, [and] respond to each other's work" (43). Although in-class writing groups also accomplish these things in Homicz's claim, the graphic below begins to show how the electronic environment does them better. Writers begin to become aware of the expected requirements for a certain genre or style of writing. They are able to see how other writers have handled the writing process and the creation of their work. The following screenshot of a WriteWords.org group forum shows a list of the most recent work by members of the group. The parenthetical number beside a member's name shows his experience within the online community. Points are rewarded for posting work and comments on others' work.

The next graphic shows an example of the typical comments posted in response to a given work-in-progress. Staying consistent with the conventions of every creative writing workshop I have attended, Luisa begins with an affirmation of the parts of the piece she felt were working well. She then proceeds to areas she feels could use improvement, highlighting those areas that she thought didn't work quite right. She finishes up with another praise mixed with criticism and an apology that she couldn't say more, although she wishes she could have. While her critique may not be in depth, it is helpful, if nothing else but for the reader to know someone read their work and thought something about it. Sometimes something is everything.

This next critique is a paragraph from one of the WriteWords.org site experts. His ideas for revision were extensive. Considering how frequently I have received critiques of this detail online, from both the experts and the ordinaries, it amazes me that, to the best of my memory, I have yet to receive a critique like this one from anyone at an in-person writing group.

It is not shown in this selection, but the expert holds true to workshop form by beginning with what he thought was working in the selection. He then moves quickly to the constructive criticisms and suggestions, continuing on with his thorough ideas for more than a page.

While my time spent on WriteWords.org was not in conjunction with a writing course, I have gleaned much from my online experiences that I will someday use in my writing classes, whether they be creative or composition. Students would benefit from such a collaborative environment. Evie Miller discusses this in her essay "Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom":

Student writings-in-progress . . . offer important models for students. These less polished essays, stories, or poems written by peers can be catalysts for learning about writing. Not only can students see flaws in their peers' writing more easily than they can see the gaps in their own writing or thinking, they can also be inspired to stretch themselves and achieve the quality of writing that they see coming from their peers who are their equals. (47)

Having been on all sides of the critiquing prism, as student, peer equal, and teacher, I attest to the accuracy of her thoughts. Any ideas, good or bad, that I happen to hear in response to my writing are invaluable aids to my revision process.

e-Correspondence: Utilizing Email for Deeper Revisions

Whereas online critique groups offer a group dynamic beneficial to writers, e-Correspondence partnerships, if utilized strategically, can take collaborative learning to a deep level of critique and subsequent growth. Regardless of proficiency level, the writer can find mentors or mentees to learn from or invest into. Recently, I happened upon a relationship with published author Katherine Warwick, who was willing to read my fiction and offer detailed critiques of the completed portions of my novel, some of which were first drafts not yet read by anyone but my wife. Here is a transcript of her critique of a selection from one of my chapters:

Students flood what in thirty minutes will be the lunch area and hurry to grab all the good spots to watch the Homecoming Spirit Rally. Seniors claim the half circle of picnic tables under the trees at the back. THIS SOUNDS LIKE MY HIGH SCHOOL - PALOS VERDES HIGH IN CALIF ! SAME SET UP.Cheerleaders gather at the front of the quad by the stage. Along the sides, skaters kick flip and grind their boards on the planters until PRINCIPAL? Hammersmith yells at them to stop.

The passages she highlighted in yellow were what she thought I should delete. Sometimes the portions in blue were what she thought I should add, and sometimes they were her inserted thoughts. The sections of bold capital letters were her thoughts inserted into my writing. Even though the comments are not entirely uniform in their pattern or code, her ideas for revision are easily discernible. Consider the benefits that could be gained from a common class-wide editing code.

Here is another sample of her critiques:

"Serious. For me?" I ask. OH, HE'S SOUNDING SO DESPERATE, BUT IT'S HUMAN, AND YOUNG, AND HE'S A TEENAGED BOY, SO IT'S REAL.

But THERE ARE ALREADY TWO PEOPLE he's already put two people between us on her way back toward the mass of blue and yellow near the stage. I stare after her, hoping she'll turn around with some closing words, something to let me know she isn't going to ruin everything. ? I'VE GOTTEN THE FEELING EVERYTHING ALREADY IS RUINED.IF SO, MAYBE YOU SHOULD GO WITH SOMETHING LIKE: BLOW THIS FOR ME

In spite of any potential confusion caused by her patterns, the depth of her critiques made it easy to decipher the three different types of possible comments and respond appropriately. Interestingly enough, Katherine's revisions as a published author were not far beyond those of a yet-to-be-published Melodye Shore, a friend of mine from a local critique group. After exchanging e-Correspondence for a couple of months, I realized I was learning nearly as much from Melodye's comments and questions as from Katherine's. Although she employed a different code of editing, using Microsoft Word's embedded comments, her detailed ideas were seamlessly transmitted over the Internet. Editing jobs of this caliber are simply not possible from an in-person writing group, and with the exception of trusting one-on-one editing relationships, I would argue are only made possible via the Internet and email.

The following list, a compilation of established theory and my experiences, details the ways in which e-Correspondence benefits writers, student or otherwise, in equal or greater ways when compared with in-person critique groups.

The Pros of e-Correspondence

•  The opportunity exists for more sophisticated and experienced critique partners because of the possibility for communication with people from around the globe.

•  Typing is more readable than handwriting.

•  Typing is faster than handwriting. This assumes the critique partner knows how to type.

•  Emails are free, whereas the cost of ten copies of a fifteen page chapter, session after session, can get out of hand.

•  The critiques are more frequent because of the faster turnaround time of emails when compared with letters or weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly critique groups.

•  The critiques are more extensive because faster typing speeds allow for more thoughts and edits in the same amount of time.

•  The critiques are more objective because of the lack of anxiety that can result from having to make suggestions face-to-face. The editor does not have to worry about any potentially negative or confrontational responses by the writer.

•  Any racial, gender, or age biases from either partner may disappear completely because of the anonymity of the electronic medium (Myers-Breslin 176).

•  More time is available to respond to the writing sample because the author is not present at the time of reading. This allows the reader to think his thoughts out without the pressure to make spur-of-the-moment, face-to-face comments for the sake of everyone's time at the writing group.

•  Any shyness on the part of the reader is negated, as he is able to take his time with the editing process and is not required to say anything in person or in front of the rest of the writing group (King 177).

•  Readers will not be tempted to make bandwagon comments. Rather, each reader's comments will remain unique to their vision and editing capabilities, allowing the writer to distinguish between critiques and locate repeated suggestions and trends in the readers' ideas. This will also allow the writer to determine which readers' comments to pay closer attention to.

•  Cataloguing earlier critiques, drafts, and revisions is easier in the paperless filing system of a computer.

•  The record of comments and critiques will be more complete. Verbal comments that would typically be made within the context of the in-person writing group would be typed out and stored to prevent them from being lost or forgotten.

•  The paper trail of electronic edits and critiques is easily navigated and studied for the purpose of future revisions.

This list, while not necessarily comprehensive, makes a strong case for the apparent superiority of e-Correspondence in comparison to in-person critiques and illustrates how valuable it can be to the writing processes of both creative writing and composition. However, the weaknesses of online writing groups have been reported by various theorists, and I would be remiss to not mention them here in conjunction with my experiences.  

The Cons of e-Correspondence

•  The language levels of the writers must be relatively compatible (Tillyer 181).

•  The writers must have access to computers, email, and the Internet.

•  The writers must be proficient with a keyboard (175).

•  Trust must be engendered before writers will be willing to share their writing and not get offended by the constructive criticisms of their partner.

•  Both writers must be committed to the exchange, or the process will not reach its potential. When one partner gets busy with life, the other partner suffers (181).

•  The extent of the critiques the writer receives depends on the number and quality of the readers with whom he is in contact.

•  The writer may not understand the etiquette of the electronic world and may inadvertently offend their partner (Myers-Breslin 176).

•  Cultural differences, when exaggerated over the electronic medium, can be difficult to reconcile (181).

•  Clarification of misunderstood passages can be difficult. Offensive remarks are more easily remembered and recalled because they are in print.

•  Writers are not able to experience the immediate, visceral response of the readers, information that is valuable toward initial self esteem and future revisions. Social interaction is limited to the perceptions and interpretations of emotions and expression through the written response of the correspondents.

•  "Non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, intonation, and body language, which enhance face-to-face discussions, are missing" (King 180).

•  Writers who settle for only one e-Correspondence partnership can become stilted in their writing, not getting any contradicting or corroborating opinions and critiques of their writing.

•  Digital files can be lost just as easily as physical copies, only they do not have the backup that physical copies do.

•  The technology may begin to drive our pedagogy (Myers-Breslin 167).

The items on these lists are in no particular order because it is not the goal of this essay to argue which ones are more important than the others. Most of these pros and cons apply, either directly or indirectly, to both online critique groups and e-Correspondence relationships, and nearly all of them make sense when viewed through a composition lens. Since "one of the popular ways to enhance students' participation is through classroom discussion, in which students are encouraged . . . to engage in the 'cooperative enterprise,'" critique groups seem a valuable pedagogical tool to be used in all kinds of writing classrooms (King 174). However, because "lack of participation may be the larger and most common pitfall of classroom discussion," online critique groups would fix, at least, that problem by requiring students to contribute a pre-decided number of critiques and comments (177). Students would be required to but, as research shows, would want to be involved in the online discussion.

 

A New Look at the Writing Classroom

Theorists will continue to mull over such lists of pros and cons as they decide whether or not online critique groups and e-Correspondence partnerships are pedagogically viable for the futures of both the creative writing and composition classrooms. Theorists must ask the critical question, "How do student outcomes in distance-learning arrangements compare with the standard way of teaching the material?" This question leads to smaller ones: "Does the social aspect suffer?" "Are online groups more convenient?" "Is the instructor able to teach as efficiently?" "Does the student's writing improve?" If they can answer "At least the same, and cheaper," Jan Hawkins asserts that that would constitute a successful design for a writing program (163). To Hawkins, if on the average writing courses do not lose anything by going digital, then they should do so because the universities will save money.

Other theorists propose there is more to be gained than money. Lester Faigley says that online writing groups foster what he calls "a truly hybrid form of discourse, something between oral and written, where the conventions of turn-taking and topical coherence are altered" (168). They differentiate themselves from in-class discussions by allowing students to "move back and forth in the emerging transcript to check what was 'said' earlier" (168). Previous discussions can be accessed and reviewed, an opportunity in-class groups cannot provide. Wayne Butler claims that "various studies have confirmed, that within electronic communities not only does student discourse take an equal or more dominant place as compared to teachers' discourse, but females and minorities have better opportunity to participate in meaning-making discourse" (562). His claims that the writing pedagogy would become less teacher-centered and more student-centered mean that the instructor would be relegated to just another e-voice in the group. In conjunction with the more student-centered learning environment, the online communities would offer the traditionally-marginalized students more space in the electronic discourse than they have had within the oral discourse of traditional classrooms and face-to-face writing groups. Their statements would then be considered more on a basis of merit than on the status of the "speaker."

Whatever medium the writing classroom decides to inhabit in the future, safety must remain one of the staple values of the composition and creative writing classrooms. Students must feel the freedom to share their ideas. Kim King asserts that "students learn more rapidly and retain knowledge longer when they take an active role in the learning process" (174). They will not become active if they do not feel safe. Bruffee's thoughts on collaborative learning groups support King's remarks. Students learn better when they are personally and emotionally involved in the subject matter. While this may be one of the main benefits of a student-centered pedagogy, Miller claims that it can only be made possible when instructors realize that "[w]riting classrooms are for students' advancement, not for teachers' egos" (43). Much the same way online critique groups are typically formed for the benefit of voluntary writers, writing classrooms of all types function to benefit the students.

This parsing into creative writing or composition is not beneficial to the exploration of writing. George Kalamaras suggests that "both composition and creative writing have much to learn from one another if they are seen in more fluid, reciprocal terms" (77). The benefits of online critique groups do seem numerous enough to add quality and diversity to the pedagogies of writing classrooms, without taking away from the quality of students' educations. Writing workshops value the improvement of student writing, interaction with other students' ideas, and the feedback and involvement of peers and instructors. Online critique groups and e-Correspondences hold the same values while offering a different, more advantageous option for the future of creative writing and composition classrooms. In 1994 Kim King claimed that she "would not consider using the computer as a replacement for in-class discussions and exercises," but would rather it be "used as a supplement to these activities" (181). Perhaps, twelve years of development later, as our society increasingly values money as time and time as money, it is worth reconsidering the viability of writing courses when used in conjunction with the fastest growing communication tool ever known to mankind, the Internet. Our students deserve the second look.


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