How We Teach Writing (Part 1): What Every Writing Program Should Teach, But Doesn’t

Last week I wrote a post (“Constructivism, Transmedia Thinking, and Why the Classroom Doesn’t Work”) that explored some of the reasons that I struggle with teaching creative arts within the confines of a structured classroom, and used examples of projects I’ve run outside of that environment to bolster my point.

This week I wanted to explore a second part to that argument, which is this: Constructivist teaching experiences work best when the outcome is applied research aimed at solving a real-world problem.

The term “real world” carries with it a stigma for some academics, who rightfully fear that learning shouldn’t be tied to commercial forces. In many cases, I completely understand and respect that argument. There’s enough research to suggest that learning can happen in unstructured, ungraded environments to argue that every learning experience shouldn’t be tied to a deadline-based, results-oriented project.

However, I do believe the creative arts suffer from a dearth of real-world experiences that teach students how to work and operate as a professional. We graduate too many writing students who have no idea how to get a job, how to freelance, or how to utilize their skills. We don’t teach them how to build an audience, or how to put a value on their work.

In the last few years, I’ve started thinking about how we might begin to solve these problems.

How we learn: a recap

In my essay last week, I argued that constructivist learning can be broken down into a single formula and premise:

  • formula: learning = science + practical application + sharing
  • premise: classrooms are an unsustainable way to teach creative arts

If these two ideas hold true, then I have the obligation to explore ways to work around the academic class structured model while not exploiting my student’s desire to graduate college and receive an education.

Fortunately the university has a system for this purpose: the independent study, in which a student is paired with a professor to work on an individual project (although our university limits the number of independent experiences available to students).

With that in mind, I’ve spent the last few months mulling over a year-long independent study class that combines the salon aspect of The Invictus Writers, the idea of a public grading system, and a way to share what we learn.

This idea isn’t fully formed yet but I’m getting close enough that I wanted to share it.

A modest proposal: Kickstarter, The Long-form Story Class

For the past few years, I’ve considered how to incorporate the idea of a public evaluation, real-world problem solving, and a student-driven project into a writing class. Too often we run writing classes like a salon, with peer evaluations, discussions, and writing done within the confines of the classroom environment.

Maybe professors require some public display, e.g. a reading, or a submission to a magazine or literary journal, but more often the writing happens within a closed world and disappears into the pile of work students eventually discard.

A new generation of fundraising tools (i.e. Kickstarter, PupSlush) and on-demand and digital publishing technologies (i.e. Lulu, Kindle Singles) have given writing professors the chance to consider capstone and graduate-level writing experiences that give teachers the opportunity to train writers how to develop their projects, interact with audiences, and learn what professional writers must do in the 21st century.

In this class, students would submit a project proposal in the Fall for acceptance into a Spring class, which would involve:

  • Regular meeting times (generally twice a month) in which students would be required to attend, and participate;
  • These meeting times would take place on weekends, evenings, or some other non-work time;
  • The group would meet to talk about the writing process, interesting bits of literature they’ve read, and their projects. There would be no agenda; and
  • The group’s leader would rotate each meeting.

The output of the Spring class would be either (or both):

  • A launched Kickstarter project with an ask of at least $2,000 for work, design, and editing; and
  • A finished long-form essay published across multiple networks.
  • *Writers would be expected to build an audience, present their piece at conferences, and seek out external readers
  • **Writers would also be given access to The Invictus Writers blog, where they would be asked to share their experiences.

The goals:

  • Let writers bring their literary experiences to the table, and use constructivism to help them bring those experiences together as a group. The textbooks will be the reading that the writers have already done, and the work they create.
  • Force writers to build an experience that will have feedback (or no feedback) from outside the Academy.
  • Bring science, i.e. “The Strength of Weak Ties” and social network theory, into a practical situation where students must learn how the science works to apply the science so they can accomplish a task.
  • Train writers how to develop a professional project and bring it to an audience

While I’m still contemplating the specifics of the class, I thought it pertinent to share an analysis of my own Kickstarter project, analyze its metrics, and discuss some of what I’ve learned. In the coming weeks, I’ll break down the writing process, the editing process, and the outreach process as well.

For now, I’ll start at the beginning of the project.

Unpacking my Kickstarter: fundraising

This past summer, I launched my own Kickstarter project. The goal: raise $9,000 to fund the editing and production of my book, So Far Appalachia

The reason I was funding my book instead of going through a traditional publisher: control. Since the story is about my family and Appalachia, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t coerced into taking the book in a direction for which I wasn’t comfortable.

The money I raised was meant to ensure that this wouldn’t be a vanity project. I’ve hired a copy editor, book editor, and designer, and I’m considering hiring a public relations firm once the book is completed.

In other words: I’m treating my project as a professional endeavor even as I go around the traditional publishing industry. I’ve done this for a strategic reason. I’d like to do this with students so they can both understand the complexities of the publishing world and grasp the skills they will need in order to write and publish in the digital age.

In the coming weeks, I’ll unpack the entire project process, explaining how I went about collecting the data points that I needed to make publisher decisions while also searching for time to write.

For now I’d like to focus on the early stage of the plan: raising the money I needed to turn my solo project into an independent publishing venture.

Part 1: What I learned about raising money

Once I decided to pursue this as an experiment in publishing, I needed to fund the venture. I was adamant that this project be an independent publishing operation, and not a vanity project.

Before I settled on a number, I did a little preliminary research. I found out that I could hire:

  • a development editor, who would oversee the early outline and the final project, for $7,000
  • a copy editor, who would give the final project a thorough read, for $2,000
  • a book designer, who could design my cover and built the layout, for $1,000
  • a distribution consultant, who would help develop my post-publishing plan, for $500
  • a public relations firm, which would help get the word out, for an undetermined amount of money

With no idea how much the public relations boutique firm might cost and without adding up the costs for travel and time, I settled on what I thought was a reachable goal: $9,000, a number that left me roughly $1,500 short of my projected costs, but well within a number I could make up.

I also spent a few weeks examining various crowdfunding sites: IndieGoGo, PubSlush, and Kickstarter. I read the terms of service and about pages, I examined the pages of successful and unsuccessful campaigns, I watched project videos, and compared my list of what I wanted to accomplish with the mechanisms of each site.

I settled on Kickstarter, which has an all-or-nothing funding mechanism. Despite the inherent risk associated with that process, I determined that if I couldn’t raise enough money to do my project as I wanted, I didn’t want to take money from my backers.

At the end of the my 30 days, I’d raised $10,518, or just about enough to fund the project at its most minimal levels.

From where the donors came

The most difficult part of the fundraising process was figuring out who might be interested in backing a project like this one. Before I launched, I

  • put together a series of email lists: former graduate school friends in the media, friends and family, and people whom I knew to be patrons; and
  • built a website for the book project, which included information about me, the project, and a blog where I would post updates; and
  • create a Facebook page, where I could aggregate some of my online audience
  • created a series of Twitter filters with the hashtags #appalachia and #appalachian; and
  • I completed the entire Kickstarter donor page and shot a short video explaining the history of the project.

I launched the project at 8 am, which looking back on everything was probably a bad idea since the last few hours of my fundraising would have taken place while everyone was sleeping. By the end, 116 donors contributed an average pledge amount was $90.68, an average that skewed by three large lump-sum donations that came from family and friends.

Stripping away the outlier in the group — a large donation by my family — the adjusted average pledge amount was $47.98, which would have required me to reach out to 180 donors in order to reach my final goal.

This would have fallen entirely on my shoulders. Kickstarter provides an amazing service, but the site didn’t generate interest in my project*. I raised $9,857 through external links, all of which were promoted through my informal and formal networks.

In other words, I generated 40% of my donations through direct contact with donors and blogging and posting links across my networks. I didn’t just ask for money (although I was shameless about promoting the project), I also tried to show people what the project would be.

Here’s a breakdown of the places that helped me raise the most money.

Direct link sent to donor

  • 29 pledges
  • 14.03% of total funding
  • $1,476

SoFarAppalachia.com link to Kickstarter

  • 20 pledges
  • 13.64% of total funding
  • $1,435

Facebook link to Kickstarter

  • 32 pledges
  • 11.93% of total funding
  • $1,254

Kickstarter.com page

  • 8 pledges
  • 3.42% of total funding
  • $360

Twitter link to Kickstarter

  • 8 pledges
  • 2.68% of total funding
  • $282

TheBradKing.com link to Kickstarter

  • 5 pledges
  • 1.71% of total funding
  • $18

Most popular reward backing

As expected, the $25 and $50 rewards were the most used although more than a few folks sent me notes saying they were happy to purchase the book when it comes out instead of getting it as part of their rewards package.

Would I launch another Kickstarted, I would have offered multiple tiers of rewards. For instance:

  • $25 dollar level that gave a copy of the book
  • $25 dollar level that included some personal contact/writing advice

In the end, here’s a breakdown of the 3 most important benefit levels.

$50

  • 40 backers
  • 34% of all backers
  • $2,005
  • 19% of money raised

No Reward (people who contributed but asked for nothing in return)

  • 25 backers
  • 22% of all backers
  • $6565
  • 62% of money raised

$25

  • 21 backers
  • 18% of all backers
  • $535
  • 5% of money raised

What I learned

Since my project was funded, several folks have asked me what I learned from the metrics and the experience of running a moderately successful (and small) campaign.

When I answer I try to think about what I’d tell a young writer who is trying to break into the professional ranks by developing a project of their own. This is what I would tell them:

Before you start

  1. Line up groups, organizations, and people who might be interested in your project before you launch. Make sure you have talked to those groups, prepped them, and arranged for how they can spread the word. (Develop incentives just for those groups.) Do not do this on the fly.
  2. Write a chapter, and break that chapter into parts. Give part of that chapter away on the project site, and give a completed chapter away to anyone who donates.
  3. Launch your blog at least 1-2 months before the Kickstarter. The blog should include the same information from your Kickstarter page (including the video), mechanisms to sign up for email alerts, social distribution for any posts, and regularly updated writing. Your own marketing, and its personal connection, will be the driving force behind donations.

About your page

  1. Keep it short, and keep it simple. Don’t make people read a book to understand your project.
  2. Your video should be short, and it should be personal. Leave the synopsis of your work to the writing. The video should introduce the story, and explain why you are raising money.
  3. Think long and hard about your incentives. You need to provide a value to people who want to back your project, but you don’t want to over-burden yourself. You’re a writer so consider you rewards in that realm.

Once you launch

  1. Plan on spending at least 1-2 hours on your project each day. This includes blogging, interacting with people on Twitter and Facebook, outreach to groups who might help you get funded, and creating materials, e.g. blog posts, Facebook links, that will bring people to your project.
  2. Use Google metrics to figure out what people are responding to, and build upon that content to attract a bigger crowd.
  3. Remember that you are a salesperson so you can’t just ask for money. You have to provide a value for people to get them to contribute.
  4. Keep your panic to yourself.

Coming Next

In the next installment of this series, I’ll unpack how I’m using the writing experience as a way to build an audience and connect with readers.

End Notes

*I’m told authors find Kickstarter particularly disheartening because print gets lost in the din of graphic novels, movies, and manufactured items. I looked at places such as PubSlush and IndieGoGo, but ultimately decided to go through Kickstarter because it had the most recognizable name. Only later did I realize: it’s not that recognizable.