A Creative Writing Education: Ten Tips for Finding a Writing Class
/by Rachel Marsh/
Over the last several weeks, ‘A Creative Writing Education’ has discussed and debated a number of topics ranging from ‘Can creative writing be taught?’ to ‘Are creative writing classes even necessary?’ And, it is possible that all this discussion of writing and education has finally inspired you into taking a class. Therefore, this week we will end the series not with a debate but with a ‘Top Ten’ list for how to find the best creative writing class.
For many, the solitary writing experience can be quite a burden to bear. Scratching away in journals, filling empty pages on a laptop, and plotting innumerable narratives is great fun, but there can be a sinking feeling that all this work is ‘going nowhere’. This is when many turn to the creative writing class for support and guidance.
I cannot praise a good writing class enough. When the right group of people gets together at the right time, it can be a life changing experience. For me, this is one of the reasons I teach; the on-going group interaction in a field that is often incredibly lonely. Also, I don’t just rely on teaching to find this sort of interaction. I’m a member of a writing group, and this group experience is essential to my growth as an author.
However, the opposite is also true. When a writing group goes bad, or a class doesn’t live up to your expectations, it can be detrimental; often causing the already insecure writer to abandon a life-long dream of becoming a novelist (or poet, or playwright, or screenwriter).
So how do you know if a writing class is for you?
Of course, these are simply my suggestions. If anyone has any further ideas, please post your comments in our A Creative Writing Education Forum.
Let’s say that you find a spectacular writing class. It’s at a coffee shop that serves the best soy lattes, everyone raves about the teacher, and they even arrange for guest authors to speak from time to time. However, it’s on a Tuesday night sandwiched between your son’s piano lesson, your daughter’s karate, and it’s a thirty minute drive from home. If you took the class you’d have to arrive late, leave early, and your family wouldn’t get their dinner until ten o’clock.
Many students over extend themselves, finding they cannot enjoy a class because they’re preoccupied with other commitments, or too stressed about ‘what’s next on the schedule’ to relax.
This is when you must be realistic. If the class is in a time, at a location, or for a price that is unrealistic, then you’re better off not taking the class. Instead, perhaps, you should look for another class or commit to a less structured writing group where you’ll feel more comfortable dropping in and out.
Ignore Tip Number Onefor the moment as excuses are easier than action. There are two reasons why people make excuses for not attending a class:
- Legitimate scheduling problems
- Lack of confidence
If you’re reading this post, there must be something in you that says, ‘I want to be a writer.’ So, it may be time to shift some priorities. Rather than trying to squeeze a writing class into a time slot that doesn’t work, other commitments should be shifted.
Can you move your daughter’s drama class to Wednesday, and can your partner drop your son off at piano practice? Perhaps on the evenings of your class, the kids can go to their Nan’s and you can arrange to leave work early. You might need to sit down and have a chat with a partner, family member or close friend, and ask them to take the burden off you for a couple of hours a week, so that you can attend the class. You’d be surprised at how supportive they’ll be, sometimes all you need to do is ask.
When it comes to scheduling, you’re the only person that can decide what is realistic. If a class is something you strongly want to do, then find a way to make the time for it.
Lack of Confidence
This is much trickier. There are all kinds of excuses we make for not taking a class:
‘The class falls on the same night as Events, and I’ve already gotten sucked into that television programme. And I don’t have Tivo/SkyPlus, so I can’t possibly do a class on that day of the week.’
‘Everyone in my family will die of starvation if I’m not home to heat up a ready meal.’
‘My check engine light is on, and the seats on a bus aren’t hygienic. I can’t get to the class.’
‘My writing finger hurts.’
We can make an excuse for anything, but the real reason behind not joining a class often has more to do with internal factors than external circumstances. The real reasons for not taking a class might be:
‘I’m insecure to join a class because I won’t know anyone there.’
‘I’m afraid I’ll find out my writing is bad.’
‘I’m worried everyone will be a better writer than me.’
‘They’re going to make me read aloud.’
In truth, classes can build confidence, friendships, and, of course, help the author grow as a writer. Sometimes, exactly what we need the support of a class. So just push those nagging fears aside and take the class. Yes, it is that simple.
One of the biggest mistakes is signing up for a class at random. It’s listed in the community centre bulletin or at the local college. It seems simple enough, but without a little research a writing class could become a disaster.
I’ve had students in my class who solely wrote poetry, only to find that the class focuses on prose. Students have also come to my class expecting a very specific teaching style and were disappointed in my methodology.
Sometimes it’s as simple as reading the class description. You’d be surprised at how many people pay good money for a class, and don’t even know what they’re signing up for.
If the class description does not provide adequate information, call the institution which hosts the course and ask for more specifics. Often the person answering the phone won’t have answers, but they should be able to put you in contact with the teacher, and a good teacher will take the time to speak to a future student. If you can’t get answers from the institution or the teacher (perhaps they are away on holiday), try to find others who have taken the class. Or got online and find classes that are recommended by your local library, community centre, or writing group.
For example, years ago I had a student approach me about taking a class I was teaching. It was a very general writing class that covered basic topics like importance of character, building narrative, and describing the scene. The course was aimed at those beginning a project, and this particular student felt she needed guidance on a novel she had already finished. She was looking for an ongoing class that allowed her to workshop specific scenes from the novel each week. Obviously, the class she approached me about was not really what she was looking for.
However, at that time, I was starting a writing group which I thought this would be better for her. She joined the group, edited her novel, wrote a second novel, and has recently secured a publishing contract for that second novel. By asking questions, and finding the group that was right for her, she was able to get exactly what she wanted out of the class.
Like everything in life, asking a few questions can help make an informed decision.
This tip is a natural progression from Tip Number Three. I’ve argued that you should do a little research before signing up for a class, just so you know what you’re getting yourself into. But, what if you don’t know what you want? What if you’ve only just started writing, have never taken a class before, and you have no idea what to expect?
This in itself is not a bad thing. Often, not having any expectations is the best way to avoid disappointment. Although, one of the most frustrating things I hear from students when I ask ‘Why are you taking this class?’ is ‘I don’t know.’
I almost always ask this question in the first class. It helps give me a guide of where I should take the lessons; does the majority of the class need help with motivation? If so I’ll incorporate more in-class writing exercises. Is it a fairly mixed class, with some looking to finish a long project, while others are only beginning? If this is the case, I try to put like-minded people into support groups.
So when a student stares at me slack jawed and says, ‘I don’t know why I’m here’, I’m expecting the next series of sentences to be something like ‘Isn’t this the Ritz? How did I get here? Where’s my dog? Who am I?’
No one wakes up one day, having never written a line of fiction or even daydreamed about a plot for a story, and thinks, ‘I’m going to take a writing class.’ Unless you’re lost, there’s a reason you’re in that class.
Granted, knowing what you want out of a class doesn’t have to be specific; it can be as simple as ‘looking for guidance’ or ‘peer support’. Or, you could be looking for time to write, as you don’t get much time to yourself at home. Or maybe, you need the structure of a class in order to finish your project? Or, maybe you have very general questions about how to write? Your reasons need not be specific.
In case you’re reading this and thinking, ‘I still don’t know why I want to take a class, I just do’, I’ve listed below five questions you should ask yourself before starting a writing class:
1. Do I prefer to write poetry, prose, drama (scripts), or any combination thereof?
2. Would I prefer a specialised class (screenwriting, crime writing, novel writing, poetry, etc.) or one that has a more general focus?
3. At what level do I consider myself: beginner (having hardly ever written), regular writer but unpublished, published author (even if only on a small basis)?
4. Would I feel comfortable in, or even prefer, a class with others who were at different levels?
5. Do you prefer a more ‘lecture’ style of teaching, a workshopping approach, or a class that focuses primarily on in-class writing?
(If you’ve never taken a writing class before, you most likely won’t know the answer to this question. So, think of it this way: do you prefer to sit in the back and listen, to interact with a group, or do you need a little push towards productivity?)
If you’ve answered ‘I really and truly don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’ to any of these answers, then base your class preference on more practical information like class times, location, etc. However, most people will have a preference. Some people are very shy, and would hate a class that forces the students to read their work aloud, while some beginning authors may feel nervous in a class filled with published writers. By knowing what you want and doing a little research, you can find a class that’s perfect for you.
No matter how professional your intentions are, a big part of a class setting is how well you get on with the other people on the course. Over time you’ll grow to trust the opinion of some in the group and also learn who in the class to ignoring. (Yes, you don’t always have to take people’s advice when it comes to your writing. But this is a topic for a different post.) And often students will form their own writing group after the official class has finished, allowing the momentum found during the course to continue. However, the ‘friends’ aspect of a writing group can be implemented before you’ve even stepped foot in the classroom.
Do you have a friend who is a fellow writer? If so, suggest that the two of you pick out a class together. Not only will walking into a room full of strangers be easier with a mate at your side, but you’re more likely to continue going to the class every week if you have a buddy.
Or, do you have friends that go to a regular writing class or group? Do you have friends that work at the local library, community centre or College who can recommend a class? Don’t be shy about asking for advice. Writing can be such a personal experience, that some people are afraid to even tell like-minded author-type friends that they’re writing a novel/play/short story/memoir. Sometimes we’ll tell friends our most intimate of secrets – problems in marriages, troubles with family members, or even physical ailments that should only be discussed with a doctor – but we won’t tell our friends that we’re aspiring writers. This is absolutely silly. Asking friends for advice on writing, which class you should take, or even asking a friend to join you in a class can help not only build confidence but also give you access to writing techniques.
With this said, not everyone has a supportive writing community around them. Not everyone has friends who share the same hobby/passion/desire to make a ‘go’ at writing as you do. Not all friends or family will see writing as a worth while pursuit. While this lack of support can be devastating to the beginning writer, sometimes it is easier to keep your writing habits to yourself and find a supportive community elsewhere – such as social networking. (Yes, I should not be encouraging people to keep secrets from friends and family, and we should all stand up and pronounce the importance of writing, creativity and literacy. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s easier to maintain the status quo, and find solace in the technological arms of social networking.)
Currently there are numerous social networking sites for writers and authors, not to mention blogs that act as social networking tools. These can give you support via ‘groups’ and message boards, provide information on local events and classes, and some even offer webinars and online tutorials. Of course you know about ShortbreadStories, but have a look around and see if you can find any other sites that appeal. Do you write crime fiction? Look for a writer’s site aimed specifically at crime writers. Have a web browse as I’m sure you’ll find something that appeals.
This tip may not go down well with a lot of teachers, as tracking down references from past students can be time consuming. Not all teachers remain in close contact with former students (a very understandable personal decision), and some well known authors who also teach may find it to be a bit of an insult; however, I believe that if you are paying for a class, you are paying for a service, and you have the right to all the information before paying for that service.
It is at this point that I will also add a caveat to this tip: use your common sense and be courteous. If you’re paying £/$20 for a one-hour workshop, don’t bother with asking the teacher for a reference. This takes more time than it’s worth, and if the workshop turns out to be a dud, then all you’ve lost is the equivalent to a nice lunch. Also, if you’re going on a weekend retreat in which the tutors are well known authors and teachers, the bios are provided by the institution, and you’ve rung and asked about the course, then getting references is not only a bit redundant, it’s slightly rude. It’s saying, ‘I don’t trust this organisation’.
With this stated, there are times where asking a creative writing instructor for references is appropriate: those looking for private tuition, those looking at long term programmes, or when instructors are hired for specific events or to lead a new group. Then, most certainly, ask for references from previous students.
Personally, I still keep in contact with several of my former students and fellow-teachers, and I would always be happy to provide a reference. In fact, when I moved to Britain, I asked a few of my students to write a letter of support, and I took a copy with me. Teaching creative writing is no different than any other position, and it should be treated as such.
A good reference can give more than just ‘yes, he/she was a good teacher’ or ‘yes, I enjoyed the class.’ A past student can tell you what they got out of the class, what the atmosphere is like, or even if they’re still writing. This sort of information can help you not only decide if this teacher is the ‘one for you’, but also if a writing class is exactly what you need at the moment.
I’m going to address this topic with a bit of trepidation. I said in Tip Number Six, ‘if you are paying for a class, you are paying for a service’. And by paying for this service, you are acquiring the time, resources and experiences of an expert. Therefore, just as you wouldn’t expect an electrician to rewire your house for free, teachers should not be expected to lead a class for free. I’ve come across far too many situations in which the following concept prevails, ‘Oh it’s just a bit of writing. Anyone can do that.’ Some believe that being literate qualifies an individual to write a novel, therefore writing classes should either be free or dirt cheep. This certainly is not the case.
Many instructors will teach for little to no compensation, and I have often taught for free because I had faith in my students’ abilities and knew they could not afford to pay for a class. Additionally, some local centres, councils and organisations will compensate the teacher, so that the course can be advertised at a low rate.
When approaching the cost of a course, remember that the value of a good writing instructor should not be underestimated, and if you are serious about starting a career as a writer, you should be willing to pay for your training.
But let’s get back to the title of Tip Number Seven, ‘Pay Only What You Can Afford’. Times are tight and only you know your budget. If you have to turn off your heating for a month to pay for your writing class, don’t take the class. First, you’ll have such high expectations of the course (the ‘I’ve sacrificed a lot for this, it better be worth it’ syndrome) you won’t be able to enjoy it. Second, there are ways to get inexpensive/free writing help in the form of blogs, writing websites (like ShortbreadStories) and social media networks, which may be an option until you can save enough money to comfortably pay for a class.
Second, if you’ve only just started writing—maybe in journal form or a couple of short stories – don’t spend thousands on a degree course. Or, if you’ve only got a vague notion that you ‘have a novel in you’, and you’ve yet to put any words on the page, don’t spend hundreds on some sort of intensive weekend retreat with famous authors. Instead, start small: your local community centre, library writing group, or a small evening class at the college. These should not be too expensive, and they can help you decide if this is a career/hobby/pastime/passion that you want to continue with. Then, if all goes well, think about going to the next level and signing up for a more advanced (and sometimes more expensive) class.
On this same note, if you’ve been writing for years, you’ve got stacks of short stories, or you’ve got a stack of notes for a novel, perhaps it is time to splash out on a writing coach, intensive writing week away, or accredited course. Your budget should remain in line with your needs and expectations.
This may seem obvious to most people, but it’s happed to me enough that it needs addressing. If you want to take a class on improving business writing skills, but you can’t find a class in your area on business writing, do not take a creative writing class and try to circumvent the lessons to fit your personal needs. It should go without saying that if you sign up for a creative writing class, it is just that – a creative writing class.
I am not talking about those who take a creative writing class hoping to get information on plot development, but find the class leans towards character sketches. I’m not talking about taking a class on screenwriting, but being surprised to find it focuses more on form and ignores dialogue. I’m not even talking about a prose writer who takes a poetry class hoping it will help you develop timing and rhythm. These are reasonable exceptions, and in these situations the student should speak-up and ask the teacher about relevant topics they would like to cover.
Tip number eight is talking about people who knowingly sign-up for the wrong class, assuming that they can turn the course into whatever they want.
This issue has most commonly arisen with students wishing to take a grammar class, a business writing course or learn how to get published. Unfortunately, I’ve had students sit through an hour or two of class, or even come to several classes, before saying, ‘I’ve already written my novel. I don’t need to know this stuff. I just need to know how to get it published.’ Or, ‘I’ve written tons of short stories, I just need someone to proofread them.’
First, even if you’ve already written your novel, there’s always more to learn. Second, there are courses and lectures on how to get published and also on business writing, take one of those. Third, there are people you can pay to proofread your work; in fact, a creative writing teacher may even do proofreading on the side, but I guaranteed your work will not be copyedited in the middle of a creative writing class.
Now, I don’t want to discourage students from asking questions in class or playing a part in the group dynamics, and general creative writing classes may give a minimal amount of information on other related subjects such as grammar, publishing, marketing or even journalistic writing. Therefore, a small amount of information on this may be relevant. Also, a good teacher should notice if the class as a whole (or at least the majority) would like to steer the lesson in a different direction than originally planned, and then will discuss topics that are of interest to the class.
What should be remembered is that you wouldn’t take a vegetarian cookery class hoping to get tips on gardening, so don’t take a creative writing class hoping to learn about something only partially related to creative writing.
Back in the days of Mac Toasters, when I was doing my undergraduate degree, the University I attended offered correspondence courses. They were accredited the same as regular courses, but you could study from home. Several people I know took one or two of these courses along side their regular class schedule, arguing that since they could study ‘at any time’ it would be easier than trying to fit another class into an already busy timetable.
Now remember, this was back before the internet. (Actually, I did have an external dial-up modem for my Toaster. I was with the ISP Prodigy, and I was the only one in the dorm online. Ah, those were the days of waiting fifteen minutes to upload a geometric message board to talk about local bands. But I digress.) So, in order to take one of these correspondence courses, the University sent you Xeroxed materials in the post once a week – or I believe you could pick them up on campus – and you had to then return a completed homework assignment based on the material. They would correct the homework and send it back, and at the end of the semester you took an exam. There were no video lectures, no group message boards, no emails, no live or even virtual interaction with other people.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t know anyone who completed a correspondence course. I think everyone dropped the class within a few weeks. Without classroom contact it was easy to get behind in homework assignments, not understand information, or even just forget what work needed to be done.
Obviously, things have changed.
My first experience of a contemporary VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) was when I did my Postgraduate Certificate in Education in 2006. I did it online. I was a bit wary at first, because these old correspondence courses were still coming to mind. But as I was studying for a qualification to teach English as a second language, the online aspect ended-up being a huge benefit. There was only one other local person on my course, all the other students lived and taught around the world. Regularly speaking with people in other countries gave me access to global pedagogy. We could compare and contrast our own experiences of teaching in different parts of the world. For example, a Chinese woman teaching English to Chinese students was very different than the British woman teaching English to Italians, and my own experience of teaching English in Scotland to people of various nationalities was different yet. We could compare and discuss methodology and culture in ways that a normal classroom would have made difficult.
When studying a topic that lends itself to a global market, like teaching English as a second language, the benefits of studying online become obvious. But what about something like creative writing? A field that can be very personal?
As technology continues to rapidly develop, many online course have video lectures, live online tutorials, and use Skpe and Second Life based workshops, thus making the VLE appear as ‘personal’ as a traditional classroom.
These online classes, webinars and internet tutorials for creative writing can have several benefits over a traditional classroom. They are often more flexible than the traditional face-to-face class, and you could find yourself in a VLE with students from all over the world – a prospect many writers find exciting. Additionally, due to the flexible nature of such online courses, you might have access to authors and teachers that you normally would never meet. Obviously, it’s easier and cheaper for that famous author to pop online from home for an hour and do a guest webinar, than it is for an organisation to fly that author to a location, set up a space, and put up that author in a hotel. Currently, there are some really exciting things happening online.
One advantage to be found in online courses is the flexibility, but this flexibility can also be a big drawback. Without the one-to-one lessons and the structure of regular meetings, it’s easy to skip lessons and get behind in work. Also, the people you meet in a creative writing class can turn into life-long writing buddies, and this is less likely to happen in a virtual environment. Finally, when lessons are explained via uploaded text or video stream, some students become nervous asking questions, or there is less of an opportunity to become interactive. Group interaction is such a large factor in creative writing class success.
Personally, I’ve set up online classes that have been a success while others have been a failure. Currently, I’m coaching a student through writing a novel, and we’re doing the entire process online. (He’s in the US and I’m in the UK.) But, about a year ago, I attempted to start an online creative writing forum for some of my former students, but due to the fact that I didn’t put enough security on the site (a lesson well learned) random internet-crashers were finding the forum, which made my close-nit group of students nervous, causing the forum to die.
As with anything, there are benefits and drawbacks to online classes, and you should think about what you want out of the class and the type of environment you’re most comfortable with. Those who are already in other online environments (such a Second Life or various gaming environments) will be comfortable with the format, while others truly need that face-to-face interaction. If you live in a remote area or you work an awkward schedule (perhaps you work the night shift), do think about taking an online course. Start with something small like a webinar, then if that goes well look into an online class.
Just remember to keep an open mind, and do a little research first.
Two minor post scripts:
1. While I was completing my online English language course, I did not have the internet at home. I did this year-long postgraduate qualification using the local library’s free internet service. So, it goes to show that you can do an online course without having the internet in your home.
2. For those in Britain (and I believe some Commonwealth countries) don’t forget about the Open University. They’ve been teaching through non-conventional methods for thirty years, and from the beginning have found ways to cross new technologies with face-to-face learning, so that the student has the best of both worlds.
The last rule of ‘How to find a great creative writing class’ is ‘Ignore all the other rules’.
It is so easy to NOT do something. You’re always too busy, and it’s possible that you can’t get enough information on a chosen course. Or, maybe, you don’t even know what you want from the class, and you’re not even sure if you want to be a writer. Your friends keep telling you that writing a novel is a silly idea, and those that are supportive are better writers than you. It’s not easy deciding if an online class is the right choice, or if a traditional course has more advantages. Plus, none of us have money to throw away on leisure classes.
Every year, every semester, every month and every week, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, I’ll take a class next year/semester/month/week.’ But the class is never taken and procrastination prevails.
The only time to take the class is now. It’s time to just go down to your local college or community centre and sign up. Then on the day, turn up. It is just that easy.
Once you’re there, the course may go well or it may not. They might make you read your work aloud, which may cause you to panic. The teacher might assign a writing task, and your mind may go blank and all you can think about is your shopping list. Everyone in the class may be mean, snooty and pretentious, and maybe you realise that writing is just too hard and you never want to see a blank page again.
But this isn’t likely.
What is more likely is that you’ll find some things you like about the class and some things you don’t. You’ll learn some new things, and you’ll write a little. You might go home after the class excited to start that novel, and you might even write a few chapters. You’ll hopefully discover that some of your scenes work, and you’ll also find out that other parts of your writing needs serious revisions. And, most likely, you’ll discover that writing is fun and you want to keep going.
All you need to do is keep an open mind. Even the ‘bad’ aspects of the class are part of the learning experience, and the next time you take a class try to avoid those negative aspects.
Yes, I promise, it’s that easy.
What is the difference between a creative writing class and a creative writing group?
A creative writing class is often a much more structured affair. It will usually have some form of an instructor, run for a specific period of time and will usually charge a fee for attendance. Not all creative writing classes are credit bearing and some are more casual than others. This is something you should look into before signing up for a class.
A creative writing group is often an informal gathering of like-minded writers. There may be a leader (either official or just someone who takes charge), and the meetings can be extremely structured or closer to social gatherings. Some writing groups only ‘invite’ members so they can control how large the group gets, while others are open to the public. You’ll find writing groups often advertised at your local library, bookstores and coffee shops. A positive aspect of a writing group is that it is free, and if you don’t like it, you can drop out without much trouble. However, beware. Writing groups often turn into social chat sessions, and without a strong leader to make sure the topic stays on writing, the meetings can often continue on without any discussion of writing.
Check out the ShortbreadStories writing courses.