Weekly Words

Weekly Words

I require my novel-writing students to turn in 2,250 words a week for 12 weeks. If they turn in the words, they get 25 points. If they don’t turn in the words (or turn in less than 2,250), they don’t get 25 points. Simple as that.  

Why 2,250 words?

Because 3 x 750 = 2,250. Which means that students can meet their Weekly Words quota by sitting down and using 750words.com just three times a week. If I’m on a roll and I just write without censoring myself, I can write 750 words in about 30 minutes. Which means that all it takes to stay on schedule is about 1.5 to 2 hours of writing per week. And if they can’t manage that, well…  

What kind of words do they turn in?

Their Weekly Words run the gamut from “sketching” to “polished.” They run the gamut from actual scenes to paragraphs more akin to journal entries. And it all counts. Students aren’t graded on quality, just the quantity. To reassure them that I mean this, I show them some of my own Weekly Words. Some weeks I list plot points, or maybe thumbnail sketch some chapters. Some weeks I produce something readable. The writer Barbara Kingsolver says that when she starts a novel, she imagines that she’s starting on page -50. Basically, I let my students “count” those negative pages.

By the way, I’m teaching two sections of the class this semester, 15 in one class, 13 in the other, so I have 28 students. If you’re interested, here’s my course policy. Here’s my schedule

Do you read their Weekly Words?

Sort of. I don’t read them so much as I read “at” them. I look to make sure they have given me words toward their novels, not the rough draft of their paper for American Literature, not cut and pasted Wikipedia text. I read a scene or two, try to track what they were up to that week. 

Do they turn them in hardcopy or digitally?

They send me their Weekly Words via email on Friday by 5 PM. I spend an hour or two opening up the 28 emails, dipping my toe into the waters of their novels in progress, and then I move on. It’s a very disconcerting experience, a bit like trying to read 28 books at the same time. Some students leave me a bookmark, pick up where they left off the week before. Some write scenes at random, as they come. Both ways are fine.

So how do you keep them all straight?

Well, for the first few weeks, I really couldn’t keep their plots in my brain.

So this week, I told them that they needed to give me three things in their Weekly Words:

1.) A one or two sentence signature, a description of the project that they will keep using every week. Such as: “[Title], my novel about [character/s] who [describe situation of the book].” Thanks to this signature line, now I can remember that Student A is the one who’s writing the novel set on Mars, and Student B is writing the novel about the two elderly sisters who are dying, and Student C is writing the novel about the boy whose father abuses him, and Student D is writing the novel about Woodstock, etc. 

2. A one-to-two sentence prefatory statement, such as “This is where I left off last week,” or “These are random scenes,” or “I put my characters in a car and sent them on a road trip.”

3. This week only, because we talked about plot and structure a lot, I asked them to plot out 25-30 “plot points,” a series of chronological events. I cut and pasted their name, their signature, and their plot points into a document, shrunk the font until it all fit on a single page, and printed them out—for easy reference.

This is what I don’t understand: What is your role as instructor if not to read and comment on all those Weekly Words?

Why should any writing teacher be expected to read and respond to every unvarnished thought that emerges from a young novelist’s head? I force them to write every week, to establish a writing regimen which I hope they will continue. I’m like the coach who holds them accountable for running so many miles per week. By eliminating all-group workshop, I free up time to let them do guided writing in class (like a studio art course), to discuss a lot of published novels. Because they aren’t reading everyone else’s novels, they spend more time on their own writing. All of this is supposed to turn “writing a novel” from some semi-mystical process into a tangible series of digestible, step-by-step lessons. 

Okay, so the Weekly Words reinforces a writing regimen. They aren’t being graded on what they write, only that they write. So when do you read their novels, if not each week?

At the end of the semester, they revise and polish a 40-50 page chunk, “the partial,” the opening of their novel.

And you workshop all those novels?

Sort of. There’s no all-group workshop in my class. Half-way through the semester, I put them in small groups based on the kind of book they are writing—say, the dystopian/sci-fi novel group, the coming-of-age novel group, etc. They read a 50+ page semi-polished chunk by each person in their small group. I set aside two weeks for their small groups to talk–more like a writing group than a workshop–and for me to meet with every student individually. I read everyone’s first chunk.

That could be as many as 750 pages in a short period of time. How can you possibly critique that many pages?

I don’t type up a critique nor do I write much on the manuscripts themselves. I’m not grading. I’m not editing. It’s taken me a very long time to grasp this: I don’t have to “mark up” and comment all over a manuscript in order to call myself a writing teacher. I certainly do close reading of manuscripts in other classes and as a thesis director, but not in my undergraduate novel-writing class.   

Here’s the way I see it:

If as an instructor you spend 5-10 hours a week preparing for the typical short-story centered, all-group workshop—which includes reading and commenting on the manuscripts, typing up your critique, reading the students’ critiques of each other’s work, etc.—then that’s how much time you should spend preparing for a novel-centered class, too. If it takes me 6 hours to read through eight novel manuscripts and another 4 hours to meet with each student, then I have done my job that week—even though I may not have lifted a pen.

If you disagree with me on this point, that’s fine.

If I was fortunate enough to teach a year-long novel writing workshop with six students, I would do things differently. If I was getting paid to teach novel writing outside academia, such as at Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program, I would do things differently.

We must acknowledge that reading a novel (published or in-progress) takes many hours, if not days.

We must allow that most creative writing classes aren’t generative spaces—they are critical ones. And what I’m describing here is a class about generating, about process, not critiquing the product.

One last question. Do your students want feedback on their Weekly Words?

I get the sense that they like the opportunity to “just write” for a few weeks. They love that they can write without worrying about the grade for awhile. But yes, I had one student who kept insisting she wanted to know what I thought of her Weekly Words each week. I told her to make an appointment and we’d talk. She never showed up. She just kept on writing. 

Teaching Writing

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