People often ask me if they should take a writing class or workshop. Do I think it will be valuable for them? The answer is a nebulous, “It depends.” It depends on what you hope to accomplish, where you are in your career, and what types of courses are available to you.
Over the years I’ve taken many writing classes. Some were creative writing classes, while others were professional workshops on technical or corporate writing. As with anything, there have been some winners and some losers. I’ve gotten different things out of them depending on when in my career I participated. I’m at the point now where I don’t see myself taking any more, though, unless I found one taught by one of my idols.
Why? Well, it’s not that I’m perfect and have nothing left to learn. Hah! If only… It’s that, these days, my questions tend to be very specific and aren’t covered by most courses. Or if they are, I’d have to sit through five weeks of stuff I already know to get to the one week covering my question. At this point in my career, I prefer to ask other professionals directly, or Google for answers. I also have a critique group, as well as editors and author friends, so I have less need of the workshop or classroom setting for getting feedback on my work.
Back in the day, though, writing courses were useful to me. I knew nothing, so anything the instructor threw out was interesting. Getting anyone to look at my work was valuable. If they gave me solid feedback, that was gold! I got a lot out of most of those early classes, although there were some that were a total waste of time and money.
(Note that I’m not talking about getting your MFA or any other degree in creative writing. A degree is an entirely different beast than a class or workshop. A class is short-term and generally a low-cost investment. A degree is costly, a huge time commitment, and may even require living away from home or moving to satisfy residency requirements. One is entered into lightly with little risk. The other is a big damn deal and you’d better be certain you’ll get your money and time’s worth.)
Okay. Now that’s out of the way… Is a writing class right for you?
Motivation. Having to write for a class can motivate you the way few other things can. Knowing that everyone else is producing pages makes you want to work.
Accountability. When you know that people are expecting to see your work, you have to get it done. It’s not like toiling alone where you can say, “Eh. I don’t feel like writing today,” and go watch TV. You have to pull your weight in a class and that means producing work for others to read.
Exposure to different writing styles. It’s interesting to see what your fellow writers produce. Some of it will be good, some will be bad. All of it will teach you something about what “works” and what doesn’t.
Confidence building. Constructive criticism and deserved praise can boost your confidence. Even negative feedback can build confidence if you can see where you went wrong and understand how to correct it.
You learn to take and give criticism. There’s value in learning how to provide useful feedback. Not only are you helping other writers, you’re improving your editing skills and that will be useful in your own work. And, of course, there’s value in learning how to take criticism. Writers get a ton of it, so building a thicker skin in a safe environment prepares you for the real world.
Guidance. This is why you likely took the course. You want someone to help you improve your work, to show you what you can do better. A good class can improve your skills.
Usually low cost or even free. Most writing classes are pretty inexpensive. Some are offered through local extension programs, or are night classes at a college. Some are offered by local authors or hosted by libraries. Most are low risk financial investments.
Low risk exploration. A class can give you a chance to try out new material or new forms of writing without going through the crushing submission process. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t invested months or years in the project.
Networking. You’ll meet other writers at various stages of their careers. It’s also possible that the instructor is an industry professional. While a class isn’t typically a shortcut to publication (and you shouldn’t be cheesy about networking, or force yourself on other people), there’s no harm in making new contacts and friends.
Growth/enjoyment is group dependent. You know all of those positives I listed above? Almost every one of them assumes that you have a great group of fellow writers in the class. If you get a bunch of people who don’t engage, don’t share their work, are rude, dismissive, or don’t provide constructive criticism, then your experience is not going to be great. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know how the class will go until you’re in the class.
The instructor can make or break a class. If you get a good teacher who knows her stuff and can facilitate a discussion, your experience will be rewarding. If you get someone who’s just trying to market their own work or fill in a resume slot, it can be a disaster. You can do a little checking up on the instructor ahead of time to mitigate the risk, but no matter how wonderful they sound on Facebook or in their press kit, they may still be a disaster.
Classes aren’t always clear (or honest) about who they are for or what they’ll cover. What you get out of a class depends on how fitting that class is for your level and goals. A beginner’s class isn’t going to help a veteran. An advanced class is going to be embarrassing for a beginner. A class on marketing isn’t helpful for the person looking for a critique of their work. Unfortunately, some course descriptions are less than helpful in giving you an idea of what the class will cover. Unless you can find someone who’s taken it before, you’re going on faith that what’s described is what’s offered.
Can be problematic for introverts. Workshops are difficult for introverts. The idea of putting work up for discussion, offering criticism, or asking questions can be paralyzing. If you can’t get over this hump, it will be difficult to get the most out of a class.
Some students take everything as gospel. Some students assume that what’s taught in a class is the exact way things should be done. The thing is, there’s a lot of flexibility in the “rules” of writing. And the process that works for one writer won’t work for another. You can hinder your own work if you try to do everything in the exact way that the instructor describes. Take what you need and discard the rest.
Online or Off?
This is going to come down to personal preference, but having done both, I recommend an offline class if you can find one. It’s just much easier to ask questions, get and give feedback, and have interesting discussions in person. There’s something to be said for seeing someone’s expression as they critique your work, or being able to quickly ask for clarification. It’s easier to bounce ideas off of one another and have wide-ranging discussions. Sometimes the class will take the discussion into an area not covered by the syllabus and that ends up being the most useful part of the course.
Online can be good if you have no other choice, but you lose out on the personal connections. Online classes don’t flow as well, either. The back and forth that’s useful and creates a deeper experience is lost when you have to wait for feedback and answers to questions. It’s harder to tell what people mean and easier to take offense when none was intended during a critique because you can’t “read” the other person. It’s also less likely that the class will deviate from the syllabus, thus you miss out on those serendipitous discussions that end up being game-changers.
Classes have value, but finding a good one is like dating. You have to find the right one that fits the right time in your writing life. Get it wrong and you face boredom and frustration, not to mention wasted money. But if you hit it right, it can be a rewarding experience that furthers your career.