Online Writing Studios

Fusing architecture school with WOP
Jan 15, 2021

1. Crowd-sourced feedback

There is value to crowd-sourced feedback, but there is also a limit.

The staple of an online writing group is a forum where everyone can post a link to their draft. A day after posting, you might wake up to find your Google Doc bursting with comments from strangers across the world. The feedback comes in different forms: personal reactions, technical corrections, overall impressions, side conversations.

But there is a limitation in crowd-sourced feedback. Much of it is given without knowing the context behind the author. What are they going for? What did their last 3 essays look like? What bad habits do they always get stuck in? What are they afraid of? Online writing groups give you a volume and diversity of perspectives, but it rarely sets you up with a persistent source of feedback. This is what's required to get behind your blockers and blind-spots.

2. The anchors of studio culture

Back in architecture school, the anchors behind studio culture were the professors. They would meet with each student for 15 minutes per session, which happened 2-3 times a week over 4 months. They would build an understanding around your goals, your progression, your strengths, and your weaknesses. They understand the source behind the creations on the table.

The student-professor chemistry leads to feedback of a different nature. More than anyone, they can put themselves in your position, and help guide the ship through their lens of experience and wisdom. A professor was someone who could think like you without having the personal attachment to your work. Feedback often took on the form of open-ended questions that addressed the roadblocks of the creator.

"Start over, but what if ___?"
An example of feedback from an architecture professor:
"Listen, I know you've been working on this 3D model for days. There are good things about it, but something is off. Look back to this perspective sketch you did 2 weeks ago. There's something wonderful in the way you articulated the volumes here, and it's missing in your model. I think this happened because you always go straight to the plan to realize a sketch. Check this out, though. Notice how you only drew one section, and that happened to be the most interesting part of the model? The way the ceiling heights are articulated between the hallway and atrium gives the model the essence of your sketch. I think this is the soul of your project. Why didn't you do this everywhere else? I think you need to go back to the drawing board. What if you started over, but you started with a series of sections before you unify them into a plan?"

3. Online writing studios

Here are some thoughts on how I would structure an online writing studio based on my experiences in architecture school:

🔟 Limited size

There is value in limiting the size of a studio to around 10-20 people. When studios grow beyond that, it's hard for mentors to meet with their students regularly. Without that, it's hard to get to know their body of work or their challenges.

🗓 Draft deadlines

The most reliable way to make sure a mentor consistently reads the works of a group is to set a deadline for drafts. If drafts are due by noon on Saturday, then a mentor can batch process all of the drafts in one session.

⚛ Feedback patterns

In addition to personalized feedback within a Google Doc, a mentor could keep a log of "feedback patterns" that are applicable to the larger group. Every comment is a potential workshop theme. The topics of weekly meetings shouldn't be generated in advance - they should derive from the feedback given in the latest batch of essays.

🤺 Sunday workshops

The whole group would meet together once a week to review the most pressing feedback patterns. There could be 10 minutes of intros and outros, but the bulk of the session will be spent looking through drafts and discussing them as a group. The benefit of group workshops is that writing lessons become richer in clarity. Instead of learning them in the abstract, or within your own work, you get to see them applied to the drafts of the writers you are friends with.

🏛 Final reviews

The big motivator in studio culture was "final crit" day. This is the architectural equivalent of Y-Combinator's "demo day." It was an opportunity to make a compressed artifact that represented all of your progress from the semester. There was also the pressure of presenting it, not just to your professor and classmates, but often to the director of the program, and if you're lucky, to someone reputable in the industry. For an online writing studio, the final deliverable could be a micro-essay that encapsulates your latest essence. If it's short enough, it means the group could spot read and follow up with a 10-minute discussion on it.

👁 Strategy meeting

A studio could be concluded by a 1:1 meeting between the mentor and student. A retrospective would allow the student to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, lessons learned, ambitions, and next steps. It can be tough to continue creating when the context of a studio culture disappears. A strategy session would be a great time to go over strategy and habits to move forward with.

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