February 7th, 2012 / 5:43 pm

Disrupting the learning of writing

I am going to write some numbered paragraphs and then I am going to ask for your input. The numbers are there to create the illusion of motion and clarity of purpose. I am thinking out loud.

1. I was homeschooled. There are many ways to do this. I lived in Indiana, where you don’t even have to register your children with the state as being homeschooled (so that the school system first discovered I existed when I signed up for the draft). Some parents hire tutors for their children. Other parents send them to school for some courses (usually the technical ones they aren’t qualified to teach, and those with lab components) and keep them home for others. Some of them use this opportunity to control all cultural consumption by the child so that the child will have no choice to be religious and clean-mouthed and good, as well as probably emotionally crippled and totally incapable of making friends or otherwise enjoying life.

2. For my part, I was allowed to study pretty much whatever I wanted in pretty much whatever way I wanted, meaning that my math is poor but I did spend quite a lot of time reading and writing. I am used to teaching myself by following the examples of the things and people I respect and admire. (As to the questions of my emotional health and facility with personal interactions, well, I’ll let you be the judge.)

3. Recently, I have been really excited about using online tools to better educate myself. There is Udacity, where I will teach myself programming, there is Khan Academy, where I am teaching myself math from square one. The typical strategy for online education in technical subjects is 1) let the students watch brief, friendly YouTubes and 2) quiz the students on what they’ve learned from the YouTubes.

4. I am wondering, often, if there are any lessons here for teaching and learning writing.

5. The genius of the Khan Academy in particular is its ability to help me assess myself: after every video explaining how to solve linear equations or etc., it provides me with an apparently infinite pool of problems to practice my new skill. If I solve several problems in a row, it concludes that I understand the material and encourages me to proceed to the next video. If I struggle, it keeps me working on the problems until either A) I straighten up and fly right, or B) finally it concludes that I’m a dunce and suggests, politely, gently, that I watch the video again.

6. Technical subjects lend themselves to unambiguous assessments. Writing does not. While we could probably agree on some core common measures of excellence in certain genres, the mark of a truly skilled writer is the ability to change the rules to match his or her goals — to use style, form, and content to persuade the reader to accept a new approach. We will never automate the assessment of writing.

7. Without assessments, certification is impossible. (And insofar as we care about helping our theoretical students, certification is important.) But learning is also more difficult: we need ways to measure our learning and growth, so that we can better know what to do next, and where to focus our energy.

8. If technical instruction can be automated and language instruction cannot, it is easy to imagine how this might lead to a situation wherein technical disciplines and employment are available to a wide variety of classes, while linguistic disciplines and employment are primarily available to the upper class. We might argue that this is already happening.

9. And yet writers and readers benefit when participation is both broad and deep.

10. The MFA is designed to serve two purposes: to improve students as writers (or, in lesser programs, to improve them as a particular kind of writer) and to certify students as potential college instructors, thus potentially allowing them to make a living.

11. Sometimes the latter works out. Most of the time it doesn’t. The number of new MFAs per year produced by one MFA holder with a full-time job is instructive.

12. You don’t have to teach for your MFA to have professional benefits. My MFA has benefitted me, my wife’s has benefitted her; writing, and experience in teaching writing, are legitimate skills with real uses.

13. If you can find a school that will you to get your MFA, then it doesn’t really matter. But most people won’t find full funding, and those who do so have that opportunity in part because others do not. Those with funding are subsidized by those without.

14. (Giving money to those who are ostensibly more likely to succeed as teachers and writers from the pockets of those ostensibly less likely to succeed as teachers and writers is perverse.)

15. Not everyone at an MFA wants to be a teacher. In fact, not everyone at an MFA really wants to be a writer in the sense of publishing words that other people read, enjoy, and purchase. As far as I can tell, most of them don’t — not really. What they want to do is spend a little time in school, reading, writing, and thinking about books. This is fine. But there’s no particular reason it needs to happen at an MFA.

16. As a practiced autodidact, I did most of my learning about writing on my own, by reading. If I didn’t get full funding at an MFA, I would have continued to do this very happily. Getting the MFA sped this process because it gave me time and incentives to do nothing else. But I do suspect speed is the main benefit of the MFA, on average — not because writing cannot be taught, but because the teaching of writing, especially creative writing, is so poorly understood that very few programs deliver any kind of consistently useful instruction.

17. For instance — at the risk of saying something rude about one of this page’s sponsors — I was exposed to an exceedingly wide range of quality in the instruction in my program. Some teachers helped me tremendously. Others were actively counterproductive. If the teaching of writing were better understood, then even a relatively poor teacher would probably be, on average, a little helpful. This is decidedly not the current state of affairs.

18. So what I am slowly getting around to saying, here, is that there should be a systematic means of studying writing outside the university.

19. And not only or even primarily for MFAs, but for people who would benefit from training in language generally. There are many people with no idea how to prepare a resume or a cover letter. Many of these people will spend their entire lives consigned to the economic underclass, doing unappealing labor for insulting pay. It is widely appreciated that these people would have more and better opportunities with technical education. It is not widely appreciated that linguistic education is likewise important.

20. You might ask why I am trying to serve these two populations — those who might otherwise get MFAs in creative writing, and those who need to know how to write a cover letter — at the same time. This question is precisely what I mean when I say that the teaching of writing is poorly understood. If we look at writing as a means of achieving an effect in a reader — one where different genres and styles are appropriate to different contexts, audiences, and ends — then we will see that the would-be author, the dabbler, and the person who simply wants a job are all studying the same thing.

21. Our desire to treat them as different cases is about class as much as anything. It is about the illusion that creativity is a special thing given to special people.

22. We might look to the Khan Academy as one model of how to teach writers, but as I have said, assessment is difficult. Say you watch a YouTube video I made about how to write a short story or a cover letter. Say you write the short story or the cover letter. How do you know you did it right?

23. You don’t know, and I can’t tell you. I could tell you what I personally think of the short story or the cover letter, but I haven’t got the time, because

24. The time of readers is rarer and more valuable than the time of writers. We can see this in the number of people willing to pay submission fees, or tuition for writing programs.

25. (The time of skillful writers is more valuable than the time of readers. This is why we pay for books we love. But early writers are not skillful writers.)

26. Most literary writers have historically been skilled autodidacts. They had to be, because there weren’t writing programs. To the extent that non-literary writing was taught and is taught today, it was and is a means of enculturation and exclusion — people are not actually taught to write, they are taught to practice forms that mark them as part of a class. More advanced forms are taught in college, partly because it is easier to teach them there and partly in order to mark students as part of a class. But these are still only particular forms. They are not actually writing, mostly.

27. The genius of the MFA is that it forces other writers to become your readers even if you are not a skilled writer. This helps you to find out where you are strong and where you need to improve. You learn more, probably, from reading other people. Assessing them helps you learn to assess yourself.

28. Hypothesis: We can best teach writing by creating an environment conducive to writing and practicing assessment (self-assessment, other-assessment).

29. What we need is a way to 1) help writers of all kinds create time and space for writing in their lives, 2) coordinate sharing and readers among writers, and 3) incentivize skillful assessment (self-assessment, other-assessment).

30. A website could do this. Right? I think it could.

How do you think we can help more people learn to write and read? How can we make it more affordable? More accessible? How do we disrupt current models of education in writing? How do we build an alternative to the university model?

What do students of writing need, and how can we get it to as many of them as possible?


  1. Anonymous

      I think the biggest obstacle to creating this kind of internet space is creating the requisite sense of fellowship. That sense of “being in this together,” which I think would be a large part of what incentivizes skillful + mindful assessment.

      Working on with my personal experience on the net, the most productive groups I have been a part of always impose some kind of nominal “subscription fee” on their members. Sometimes this is literally a certain amount of money due, though oftentimes it’s only a fee of inconvenience. I’ve seen groups located on listservs that are almost unfathomably productive at times, and sometimes I think this is because it’s such a pain in the ass to be a member of a listserv anymore. It’s antiquated technology, it does not fit easily into the modern media aggregators, sometimes the sign-in process is tortured, it clutters up your inbox, and kind of generally sucks. But maybe all that work makes it such that people think, Well dammit, if I’m going to put up with this shit, I might as well make my time here worthwhile both for me and everyone else. Otherwise, wouldn’t one just leave?

      My experience in online groups where there is no sense of shared pain or commitment is that I’m just not invested to care, to put any real work in. I’ll dance around the edges of an argument, for example, but if it gets to the point that continuing to dialogue would require a really thoughtful elaborate post–or a post involving heavy research–more often than not I’ll just ignore the dialogue and move on, because it doesn’t feel like I’m really involved in anything with anybody. Like my efforts will just go out there into this great yawning void of disengagement. I think these kind of groups also tend toward a certain kind of anomie where the SOP is not one of sitting down with a buddy over beers or coffee and trying to hash out this really vexing problem, but of being pitted against one another in a ring, each person trying valiantly to be the less wrong, the less embarassed. To “win.”

      I haven’t done the MFA, but I would guess that it’s this same sense of shared pain that could make a given MFA program’s community of students so valuable. You’ve all taken on the same social and financial risks that go along with devoting 2-3 to the study of writing, and no matter how cutthroat a given student may be, I think that still makes it easier to invest time and attention in one another. 

      I don’t think this lines up exactly with the typical “the anonymity of the internet makes us all bastards” complaint, as I’ve seen anonymous communities create that sense of group investment. And it’s not really what I’m trying to talk about, since I think a group could still get interesting things done even if they are mostly bastards to each other. 

      I can’t really think of many workable ways to create this sense of fellowship throughout an internet writing space. I’ve seen attempts at it, with varying degrees of exclusivity, but it always seemed pretty dismal. Because the goals of a given piece of can differ so greatly from another, there’s always a lot of confusion about just what kind of assessment should be going on, and always it seems to devolve into the echoing of the (often wrong, or simply unhelpful) hard-and-fast “rules” that are easily found in those deep-throated authoritative THE REAL WAY TO WRITE GOOD books. The best advice usually involves adjusting oneself as a reader to fit a text, to see how a text could be awesome while still playing by its own rules. Even if that advice-giver whiffs massively on what she thought the text was trying to do, the terms of her critique still make it more valuable than most. And from my own experience–judging by the times when I’ve dashed off crappy feedback and when I’ve really sunk my teeth into a text–it can be very hard to give good advice without this sense of group investment. 

      That’s my rambling, and looking back maybe most of this is “no duh” stuff, stuff that anyone attempting to create a space for community always must face. I’ve never been the leader type, so I wouldn’t really know. Just stuff I get wondering about when I think about the online groups I’ve been in, and about what makes them tick . . . on a sad note, my trusty writing lawnchair, my companion through so many years of writing frustration and wrist pain, finally bit the dust just a few minutes ago. The inevitable more traditional office chair that’s looming in my future makes me want to cry. 

  2. Mike Meginnis

      I think a lot of what you say here is true. What I’ve been imagining is a site that uses concepts from social networks and games to encourage sharing and cooperation — you earn credits that buy you critiques from other writers by providing critiques of your own, thus forcing you to provide service on both sides. (Tracy and I have always felt we learned more about writing by assessing others’ work than we learned from their assessments of our work.) Like Fitocracy for writing. Litreactor seems to sort of provide this, but it seems overpriced to me and also, honestly, generally crappy.

  3. bartleby_taco

      “but because the teaching of writing, especially creative writing, is so poorly understood that very few programs deliver any kind of consistently useful instruction.”

      “Some teachers helped me tremendously. Others were actively counterproductive. If the teaching of writing were better understood, then even a relatively poor teacher would probably be, on average, a little helpful. This is decidedly not the current state of affairs.”

      Just wonder if you could elaborate a little more specifically on these points — how has a teacher who ‘understands’ the teaching of creative writing benefited you? What, and I mean this in a very practical/straight-forward sense, were they doing different, that teachers who were ‘actively counterproductive’ were doing wrong? Is it merely that they thought of the teaching of writing as a utilitarian mode of instruction (where ‘evincing effect/affect’ in the reader is the only foreseeable goal, etc.) ? Genuinely curious! I enjoyed reading this.

  4. Mike Meginnis

      Good question! I think that it does have something to do with what you suggest. There was this one instructor who a lot of students disliked but whose work I initially appreciated and defended, specifically because the first time he led a workshop of my fiction he criticized it in a really interesting, useful way. He clearly didn’t like the story, which wasn’t very surprising (he was very traditional, the story was very not) but more importantly he explained to me an important aspect of his experience of reading it. In the story, I used the first-, second-, and third-person pronouns interchangeably to refer to the narrator, as a way of representing the fragmentation caused by his intense hunger. I intentionally structured the narration so that this was really easy to read past (so that you knew “he” and “you” essentially meant “I”) but the instructor pointed out that it seemed like maybe a mistake to train the reader to “read past” language. I ultimately kept that aspect of the story, because without that I didn’t find it very interesting (though I have since concluded that the story sucked for other reasons). But what was important about that critique wasn’t whether it was right or wrong, but that it illuminated a part of the experience of reading the text, and helped me to think about how better to prepare texts in the future to do what I wanted.

      This same instructor gave me the worst, most actively destructive workshop of my life later that semester, when he argued that my novel couldn’t possibly work because it was a story about two bombs reincarnated as people, and no one could possibly have human feeling for two bombs. This was worse than useless advice, and worse than cruel: it was inaccurate. Leaving aside the fact that this instructor was pushing his aesthetic in a completely inappropriate way, we know for a fact that people can have intense feelings for all manner of objects, especially once they’ve been personified (if they couldn’t, they probably couldn’t enjoy novels). I learned nothing from that instructor and very little from that workshop, which very quickly devolved into a discussion-by-proxy of me as a person. After this, and a few stories I heard from others, I had to admit that this instructor was extremely ineffective as an educator. 

      I describe two workshops with one instructor because I think it helps to clarify the difference between good and bad instruction in creative writing. The best instructors I ever had treated the question of their enjoyment as relevant only insofar as it illuminated the ways texts operate on different people. They didn’t tell students what to do to “be good” so much as describe what they had done and how it worked, or didn’t. Of course, I have a lot to learn about instruction in writing myself — I only taught for three years, though I would like to teach more — but this did seem to be the key distinction. The more a teacher focuses on learning to accurately describe how texts (student texts and assigned readings) operate on readers, the better he or she will serve students.

  5. John Minichillo

      Maybe I’m off topic or misunderstanding the thrust of this, but writing instruction is fairly cheap. Your comp instructor is an adjunct or grad student working long hours for very low wages. MFA and tenured instruction is relatively rare and more specialized.

      By contrast, technical instruction is more streamlined,w/ more students per instructor, but the instructor is likely much better paid, even if a grad student or adjunct. It has a lot to do with what society, corporations, and the U value. That technical expert won’t be replaced even if their instruction can. Likewise, the writer of repute is hired not just to teach, but to write, to be associated with the U.

      The push from business-minded U administrators (paid best of all) is to try to make writing instruction more like technical instruction, with more students and more classes, without regard of the extra hours required, because the methods can’t change all that much, and for no added compensation.

      Writing instruction can’t be replaced, but there are online human instructors and the majority of instructors at universities are paid well below their skill set. But so are most editors and artists.

  6. b rydin / botolph's

      Just thinking about the logistics of this, a good model could be Yahoo answers, or Yahoo questions, or whatever it’s called. You get a free question or amount of questions or something at first, but once that’s used up you need credits to ask new questions – credits gained by answering questions from other people.

      The possible problem with this, regarding the issues you’re discussing, is the fact that you’d (likely) want the people answering questions to be (at least initially) different from the people asking the questions – or, rather, the people critiquing would be different from the people in need of critique.

  7. Mike Meginnis

      Well, I don’t know if it’s good. It hasn’t started yet. Hope so!

  8. Mike Meginnis

      There’s a difference between the cost of writing instruction from the student’s perspective and the cost of writing instruction from the university’s perspective, of course. Students spend far more on a writing course than the instructors make when we’re talking adjuncts or (some) grad students.

      But the larger issue is that many people would benefit from writing instruction but can’t afford it, or they are participating in a scam wherein they go to MFA programs that don’t especially want or believe in them as writers in order to subsidize the educations of other students said programs do want and believe in. (I had funding and felt guilty about it for precisely this reason.) Of course sometimes participation in a scam is worth it, but I’d like for there to be a good alternative for those who want a rigorous, structured education in writing. This would likely have zero effect on existing writing teachers and programs — various trends in the cost of education and health care suggest that people’s willingness to pay for personal attention has essentially no limit. The main thing is to expand access and the community of readers and writers.

  9. HTMLGiant: “Disrupting the learning of writing” | botolph's

      […] a fantastic post over at HTMLGiant by Mike Meginnis called “Disrupting the learning of writing.” In it, Meginnis proposes a new model for teaching and learning writing, a web-centric model […]

  10. John Minichillo

      I think this occurs outside the academy too. My wife and I taught workshops out of our home a few years ago. We did it because our community didn’t have anything like that and because we were also in need of a little cash. We taught workshops over six weeks, with six 2 1/2 hour sessions. Writers could workshop two pieces in that time and we charged $100, $150, and $200, depending on the particular session. It was difficult to balance what this might be “worth” to someone and also what our own time was “worth.” In retrospect we never made more than $1000 for six sessions, since we kept the workshops small. And we were ALWAYS contacted by people who wanted to take the workshops for free. I think they just thought it should be free. You wouldn’t expect music lessons to be free, but we encountered that a lot.

      Though I’m also kind of cloudy on what you might be envisioning, what the models are, even though it’s a long post. I don’t think you are thinking of this as a TED lecture, but more interactive. How does it differ from say Zoetrope, Authonomy, Fictionaut, Red Lemonade or other sites of this nature? Do you see something closer to a low-res MFA, only loosed from the academy?

      There are often “loft” workshops, non-degree conferring workshops, but these cost money. And also one-day workshops in communities, but they cost $ and are also maybe too short for much progress / worth?

      To be the voice of dissent here, I think $ is an important part of all of this. While we were never wholly sure what to charge, we knew we had to charge. Not to confuse our motives, we mostly did it as a service. But if we hadn’t charged, I don’t think the students would have made the same commitment, and we also wouldn’t have been able to meet the need. We’d have had to turn people away. The analogy of the music lessons maybe fits here? You can teach yourself to play. You can read books and watch videos. But you probably, at some point, want a good music teacher. And while they aren’t paid what they are worth, they are paid.

  11. A D Jameson

      My own experience of progressing through my writing career (which includes but isn’t limited to my formal writing education) was one of increasing self-reliance, or skill/confidence in my self-evaluation. When I started out, I was desperate to hear what others thought of my work, regardless of who they were—friends, family, classmates, writing instructors, authors, anyone! But somewhere along the line I stopped doing that—partly because I graduated and no longer had anyone around me I could lean on.

      These days, I rarely seek out criticism or commentary on my writing. I write the pieces myself, and I decide whether they’re working or not, and I decide whether or not I want to publish them. (I’m talking about my fiction and poetry here.)

      For instance, a novel workshop I’m in recently read the first 70 pages of a novel I’m working on. Several classmates fiercely disliked it, and spent the class pointing out why. It was more like a critical reading than a workshop; the stuff they disliked was all intentional on my part (the novel is mean to be offensive in certain ways). The unspoken force of their critique was that I should stop writing that novel, or that they wouldn’t want to continue reading it. All of which basically confirmed to me that the project was succeeding in doing what I wanted it to; the only relevant question for me now is, “Do I want to finish it?” (“Should I be pursuing this project?”)

      To bring this back to where I started: I think that any writing instruction should ultimately emphasize or guide the student toward self-instruction, and self-evaluation.

  12. Anonymous


      I really enjoyed reading this. I think a useful couple of terms, as far as how you defined helpful vs. not-helpful workshops, are “descriptive” vs. “prescriptive”–seems like you’re saying the helpful workshop described, while the unhelpful prescribed.

      I think these two methods can work pretty well together, actually, if the instructor starts by describing both what a piece is doing & what it “seems to want to do” (a fuzzy category, but useful), and then works towards suggesting some ways that the piece might better do the things it wants to.

      I’m not totally sure how a social-networking or online version of writing instruction could work (outside of fictionaut, online classes, etc), but I wonder if maybe we’re approaching the question from the wrong end?

      One thing that MFA’s produce in greater numbers than good writers is good readers, active readers, readers who are able to pay attention to a story and take in its details, see the connections between them, etc. My experience teaching comp over the past couple of semesters has convinced me that a bigger problem than being able to write well, for most students, is being able to read well–and that many of the things we perceive as writing problems are actually reading comprehension problems.

      So: online book clubs? Moderated by someone (human? bot?) that can present reading strategies & questions designed to draw readers’ attention to details, connections, main ideas, etc? Of course there, we come down to the same problem of participation…

  13. deadgod

      6.  Technical subjects lend themselves to unambiguous assessments.

      17.  If teaching [in general] were better understood, then even a relatively poor teacher would probably be, on average, a little helpful.  This is decidedly not the current state of affairs.

      While it’s true that assessment of technical problem-solving is more straightforward than that of interpretation (or of, what, aesthetic reaction), and this directness will impinge heavily on pedagogy (and, perhaps, on students’ eagerness to please), I think the problem of knowing ‘how to teach‘ is ubiquitous in education.

      I mean that, even though the answers to problems in math and physical sciences are generally unambiguous, somehow causing or stimulating or catalyzing the student ‘to think’ the answer out of a problem set generally-and-so-specifically is a hell of a trick.  It’s hard to turn the algebra light on – or to get them to turn it on for themselves – in the case of cognitively stubborn students (even ones who aren’t rotely rebellious).

      (I know this perspective doesn’t go straight to your issue of how usefully to machine-teach writing, but maybe it’d be helpful to consider for a moment how many – and why – math teachers are terrible at getting students to understand what’s unambiguous – and obvious – to the teacher.)

  14. Mike Meginnis

      I think you’re absolutely right on all counts, here. The method you describe of blending descriptive and prescriptive approaches (using collaborative description to establish what’s been done, and using collaborative prescriptive discussions to discuss what can and should be done) is, I think, ideal, and it’s the one that’s worked best. I think I would argue that teachers should prioritize descriptive pedagogy, simply because it seems to be the more difficult skill to master. 

      But I also think that most people in workshops are aware of the descriptive vs. prescriptive divide, and believe themselves to be very sensitive to it. Another of the worse instructors I had went so far as to divide workshop and written notes into periods of “neutral description,” “asking questions,” “making suggestions,” and “author response,” or something along those lines. She was also easily the most prescriptive instructor I ever had. The format seemed designed to make this impossible, but when you’re not really aware of how inherently argumentative description is, or reflective enough to examine the values your descriptions imply, attempts at teaching from a descriptive method tend to become more prescriptive than ever. The fact was that she rarely demonstrated familiarity with the texts she was discussing (she frequently missed very basic and clearly narrated facts about the characters and situations) beyond her own gut reaction to their most obvious features.

      Which is, as you say, really a failure of reading, and I think you’re right to suggest that this is in many ways the more common problem. I’m not sure, though, how to address it except as a secondary issue to writing, in practice — reading fiction over a long period will probably tend to make people better writers, but if you’re trying to make quicker, more targeted interventions designed to increase a person’s quality of life, novels are probably the wrong way to go about it. Nonfiction would be more effective and people would be more likely to participate, but there is still the problem that getting people to read each other is more difficult than getting them to write; thus our community’s rather weird structures for distributing the time and money of readers and writers. I think that a community of readers and writers that encouraged people to act as both in a variety of genres would be the richest experience.

      If you think about it, hubs like HTMLGiant already provide this service to some extent. A lot of the writing that surrounds this site is rather samey, a little too intensely enculturated for my tastes, but the pressure to read and to write is such that most people who spend sufficient time here become very literate in very particular ways. What I’d like to see (/build) is a structure that could provide that service outside the class of “people interested in (publishing (their own)) experimental fiction and poetry.”

  15. Oh, autodidactica | botolph's

      […] Mike Meginnis wrote his piece on HTMLGiant about a new model for teaching and learning writing (which I briefly discussed yesterday), […]

  16. Anonymous
  17. Sarah Gallien

      Wait… I’m a little confused. I’m thinking really hard about this because it may be very important to me. Are we trying to find a replacement for the MFA program? Helping to teach people to write in general? Specifically creatively with an audience in mind? It seems to me that the answers from 29 downward vary with target audience. I can’t think about that many things at once.

  18. Mike Meginnis

      Well, my feeling is that an online platform designed to facilitate the learning of writing would work for any kind of writing — that the divisions between these target audiences are artificial. Of course, I would be interested to see people argue otherwise, but my feeling is that a fundamental triad of practices (writing, reading, and assessing — both self-assessment and other-assessment) is going to be used in learning writing for any purpose. You would be reading, writing, and assessing different types of texts depending on your needs, but you would still be practicing those skills.

  19. Sarah Gallien

      Well, I don’t know. I have an MAT, not an MFA; I’m a licensed Middle/High School English teacher and… I hope to God that these kids’ writing looks different by the time they get to an MFA program.

      The two aspects I think would be different for a 12 year old and a 22 year old (or better, 32 year old) using an online program (not even touching ESL learners) are in the mechanics of writing and receiving feedback that is emotionally/developmentally appropriate. While the mechanics of writing could probably be handled (at least in part) by computer programs without overwhelming a student, I think the other part may require a humans to connect on an individual, personal level. As a parent (and, admittedly, probably someone who already sees their profession undermined), I’d prefer that person be trained.

      Maybe not. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. I’m just imagining that professor you had talking that way, not even in person, but online, to a kid the way he/she talked to you (only probably even more critically, since none of my seventh-graders are good enough writers YET to get into any MFA program) and just shutting them down entirely. The psychological reasons for writing, and for seeking constructive criticism, are varied, and while I would expect an adult to be self-aware enough to know what they’re looking for, I wouldn’t expect that from the younger audience.

      There’s some good stuff on Read Write Think if you’re a self-motivated learner (stuff designed for K-12), but, then, reading and writing a lot probably does more good than any assessment tool.