Tim Waggoner
The Special Page
Tim Waggoner teaches creative writing...but he also learns from his students


Caleb Straus
Elizabeth Massie
Ramsey Campbell
Mathew Cade
Ellen Datlow
Brent Monahan

by Tim Waggoner

The popular image of a teacher hasn’t changed much since the time of the ancient Greeks – and maybe all the way back to our most ancient ancestors. The teacher stands before a group of students who are all seated (notice the not-so-subtle symbolic difference in status there?) and who listen as the teacher speaks wisdom to them. So when writers decide to share what they know with others – whether out of a desire to pay forward, as a way to earn money, as a form of self-promotion, or a combination of the three, it’s this image of the “sage on the stage” they fall back on. And there’s a reason why. One person speaking to a group is efficient. You can share knowledge with multiple people at the same time. But the sage on the stage technique has drawbacks, too. The biggest is that the teacher’s delivery is generic, the information passed on meant to apply to any student in general. Even if the students have the opportunity to ask questions – and they should – there’s still little in the way of individual attention that teachers can give by talking at students. Instead, consider talking with students, or better yet, listening to them.

When I work with students, I think of myself as a doctor. I meet with a “patient,” listen as they tell me about whatever issue brought them to my office that day, I ask them questions to get a better sense of what they need, and then I prescribe “treatment” – which in my case means giving them ideas and advice that will help them improve their writing or help them deal with the mental and emotional hurdles of the writing life. In short, I listen, and then I respond to the student’s needs instead of speaking to him or her about what I want to discuss.

Last evening I was scheduled to give a talk at a small-town library not far from where I grew up in Southwestern Ohio. The library was roughly the size of my three-bedroom house, and although the staff promoted my visit, only one person showed up. I wasn’t too disappointed. I’ve been writing and teaching a long time, and I know this kind of thing happens. Some events you do are standing room only, and some not so much. I had a presentation prepared for a group, but I wasn’t going to waste that one person’s time by delivering a canned lesson to him. Even if he asked a lot of questions, it still wouldn’t have been the best use of our time. Instead, I sat down next to him – no sage on the stage that night – and talked to him about his writing: what kind of stories he’d been working on, what did he hope to achieve with his writing, and what problems he was having composing it. We spent the entire ninety minutes of the workshop like that, and I listened to him speak for more time than I spoke to him. By doing this, I learned that he was getting caught up in editing old text and spinning his wheels when it came to producing new text, he was having trouble figuring out what point in the story to begin his novel, he was having trouble finding time to write, and he wasn’t sure about how to write dark fantasy. I also learned about his writing process and his experience as a visual artist. All of this allowed me to speak to him about his writing and “prescribe” a treatment plan for him (said plan consisting of a lot of ideas how he could try to address his problems). Hopefully, when he left the library that night he’d gotten far more value out of that ninety-minute conversation than he would have from the presentation I’d originally planned to give.

Now I know that it’s not always possible to work one on one with students like this, especially in a presentation-style situation, but the more listening you can do when working with beginning writers, the better. Following are tips and techniques to help you become a better listener-teacher.

1) Start off by asking questions.

What are they working on? What writers do they admire? Are they having any problems with their writing? What goals do they have? Questions like these – and their responses – will allow you to get a sense of an individual student’s needs, which in turn will allow you to address them.

2) Make it a conversation about writing instead of a lesson.

The student should do the majority of the talking, but you shouldn’t sit silently as they speak. Comment on what they say, share something about your own writing process and your struggles. This will relax them and help them open up to you more, and they’ll give you more information to work with. Plus, when you have a conversation with someone, it doesn’t feel so much like work.

3) You are going to have to listen to them tell you about their story, characters, and world.

You can always ask them to tell you these things so you can get a clearer picture of what writing issues they have, but you probably won’t need to. Writers – especially beginners – love to talk about their work. (They usually talk about it too much when they should be writing the damn story.) This is the dullest part of listening to a student writer because one story presented as a simple summary of ideas and events is dry and bloodless. “There’s this guy called Gatsby, see, and it’s the Jazz Age . . .” But this is often the most vital part of listening to a student writer. As they tell you about their story, they’ll reveal a lot of useful information. Are they retreading too-familiar ground with their tale? Can you spot any issues with the story’s organization? And most importantly, can you get a sense of what specific areas of the story are causing them frustration, and can you detect any problems with their process of working on the story? Also remember that while they might want help with a particular story, your focus should be on the big picture: how to help them improve as a writer overall, so they can write the next story, and the one after that. When you’re teaching writing, today’s story is never as important as tomorrow’s.

4) Consider taking notes for the student.

They might not remember everything you spoke about, and if you jot down even a simple list of what you covered and give it to them, it can be a big help when they next sit down to write.

5) You don’t have to be physically present to listen.

It helps to have face-to-face contact in order to create a more conversational atmosphere, but you can use Skype or Facetime to speak to one another. Although less effective, email, text messaging, chat, etc. can work, too. It’s the one-on-one connection and the focus on the student’s individual needs that are most important, however they’re achieved.

So if you want to help beginning writers, smile, shake their hand, invite them to take a seat next to you, and ask, “So, how’s it going?”

And then listen.























Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s twice had stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.

Bram Stoker Award-Winning Author
Website: www.timwaggoner.com
Blog: http://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/tim.waggoner.9
Twitter: @timwaggoner




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