Is an On-Line Writing Class Right for You?

Screenshot 2015-01-04 10.38.54

At the start of my writing project, blissfully unaware of the challenges involved in putting down words on a computer screen without deleting them all in horror moments later, I had no idea of the vast industry that’s grown up around budding authors. The business of teaching writers to write has grown to the point where there’s a degree of backlash, as in this snarling post complaining that what world needs now are more obedient readers, not upstart writers.

When I did a quick search to locate writing how-to books, I was floored at the sight of thousands of titles that filled the screen. I’m a fast, lazy reader. Several of the books had solid, practical advice on writing a genre novel (my favorite is Writing Fiction for Dummies), but I didn’t have the discipline to work through pages of writing exercises without someone looking over my shoulder. I did attend one in-person creative writing class — the semester before the university decided to dump their community class program for a far more profitable Masters in Healthcare option.

On-line courses sounded like a reasonable alternative, although virtual interaction with instructors and classmates doesn’t match up to the weird and wonderful characters that inhabit a creative writing class. To date, I’ve taken over fifty-four weeks of writing classes, along with various webinars and virtual workshops.

As the success of NaNoWriMo demonstrates, there’s a large community of people eager to check “Write A Novel” off their bucket list, and plenty of options available to help with that goal. Most of my experience has been with the Gotham Writers Workshop, but other classes I’ve taken have followed a similar format: a software program is used as an interface to mimic a real-life class experience. The ‘classroom’ is open 24-7, allowing students in different locations or time zones to access lecture material on their own schedules. Students submit writing assignments based on the course material, along with chunks of manuscripts for critique by classmates and the instructor. Some courses have live class options, via Skype, or offer a chatroom at a specific time for social interaction and to share tips and support.

At the core of many of the courses is the critique process, which can be harsh. Gotham insists on a ‘glass booth’ approach. When your work is up for review (for one long week) you’re not allowed to post anything about the comments. In other words: no whining! At the conclusion of the process, after the other students and the instructor have torn your submission apart, word by word, you’re allowed to crawl back in and post a question to the class. In turn, you critique every other class member’s submissions, preferably with sensitivity and deep insight.

Now all of this sounds wonderful, and the home pages of the on-line writing companies are full of glowing tributes to the enlightenment attained by attending the courses. But there are downsides as well. First, there’s cost. On-line, not-for-credit writing classes are similar in price to community college courses, often $400 or more for a ten-week course. Classes I’ve taken through universities, which might be applied for college credit, can run well over $600. There are also ‘low-residency MFA degrees’, in which you take a number of computer classes, then fly out for one intensive week to complete the program.

Next is the issue of participation, or lack there-of. Given the anonymity of the internet, it’s easy to slack off, not participate in critiques, or drop out all together. My experience has been that most of the lecture material has not been terribly helpful for me. After all, passively reading about POV, setting, dialogue — any of a number of great writing books can give you similar information. What was far more valuable to me was having my writing put under a lens, with real readers (because we all love books, or we wouldn’t want to write them) telling me what worked and didn’t. When half the class drops out by the second week, the class becomes far less interesting. An active chat room can also be a great resource. People swap advice about writing apps, other courses, conventions…and of course their favorite books. My wish list of novels I want to read after hearing glowing reviews from classmates is overwhelming.

If you’ve never taken an on-line course before, I’d advise you to try it. Plan on it taking up a significant chunk of time during your already busy week. If you go into the class with an existing short story or part of a novel, volunteer to submit early. Everyone’s enthusiastic at the beginning of the class. The last week or so? Not so much. Be considerate of the instructor’s time and of your classmates’ efforts. Write a critique for everyone who posts work, if you expect that back in return. And have fun. Because writing is better with friends, even if you never meet them face to face.