Monday, April 19, 2010

Choosing the Right Online Writing Workshop

A quick Google Search will quickly reveal dozens of online creative writing workshops - some free, some cheap, and some relatively expensive.  Deciding to take an online workshop can definitely help direct your writing, but it can also represent a major commitment of time and money.  Here are some aspects to consider before you sign up for a workshop.

What Is Your Writing Focus?
Unlike choice of genre or even choice of subject matter, the focus of your writing is the direction you want your writing to take.  Generally, it includes writing techniques you have not currently mastered but which you would like to.  For example, you may want to write a memoir about your childhood - in this case, your writing focus may include mastering the diction of a younger voice, or you may instead choose to learn more about the perspectives of your parents.

When choosing to take an online workshop, you'll want to make sure the course you select will help you meet  your writing goals.  And this is more than simply taking a poetry workshop if you're a poet or a fiction workshop if you're working on a novel.  If you're writing a novel, but your readers often say the individual lines need more rhythm, then a beginning poetry workshop might help you more than an advanced novel workshop.  If you're writing short stories but have been rejected from every magazine you query, then you could take a short story workshop to strengthen those stories or you might take a publication workshop to find out what editors are looking for.

What's Your Budget?
Setting a budget for a workshop is about more than money - it's about time.  If you're serious about publishing your work, then you've probably already made sacrifices for your work.  Many people like to think the decisions are black-and-white, just a matter of giving up meals out to save money for workshops or even skipping that 60-hour-a-week-six-figure-someday career track to travel abroad in search of "material."  In actuality, the decision to make a living as a writer is anything but simple.  It often takes years of work before a writer publishes, let alone earns enough off his or her work to pay rent.  And we usually can't afford to sacrifice our day jobs - not in this economy, we can't.  The "budget" for your online workshop may involve telling your kids that you won't be able to join them for the Friday Night Blockbuster Rental, or telling your spouse that you might have to cut back on your own cooking/snuggling/yard work.

Now, you might be thinking "I'm not about to give up family time for writing!"  Actually, that's good.  I don't think any writer can afford to forget loved ones for the sake of words.  But make no mistake - writing takes time.  Whether it means scribbling away in your notepad over lunch breaks or typing away at the computer while your kids are watching a movie in the next room, you will have to work.  And if you're a student - not yet working, not yet raising a family - then you'll have to squeeze in writing time between chemistry homework and study groups and hanging out with friends Saturday night.  And this is actually another reason why writing workshops are a good experience - they force discipline by providing some deadlines.

Is This Workshop Worth the Money?
I will be the first to tell you that some workshops are not worth the money.  I love writing and I really love hearing feedback on my work, but I have paid good money for workshops that didn't help much.  Worse, these workshops were offered by credible organizations and led by well-published authors.  Bear in mind that an author's publication record is not the same as a teaching record.  If possible, try to find former students of an instructor and ask them what they thought.  Did the course provide helpful feedback?  Did the instructor post helpful tips?  Or was the feedback simply "This is Great!" while most of the classroom discussion revolved around someone's mention of the neighbor's hilarious cat?

Bear in mind that not every student's experience will match your likely experience.  Also, it's often hard to find  reviews of individual teachers, and those are the reviews that are most helpful.  Any organization which hosts multiple instructors will have some great teachers, some good teachers, and some who are not-so-good.  I've had great experiences with the same organizations that provided less-than-helpful experiences.  Generally, your experience will depend just as much on how you interact with the individual instructor as it does on the quality of the organization.

Is It Time to Seek an MFA?
As I was applying for MFA programs, I felt it important to continue taking writing courses as a way to prepare myself for two years of rigorous writing.  Unfortunately, I took an online course which did not help at all.  The instructor fell ill, and it was two months before we received her feedback on our stories.  And the feedback from other students was not helpful.  In fact, one of the students began giving advice which was essentially wrong.  And it didn't matter that I've never met this individual in person - after reading his stories (which were packed with exposition and dialogue but no tension and little action) and then hearing his comments on my story, I really wanted to tell him off.  And that's a terrible position to be in.  I was a decent writer at that point, but an environment which lacks professional direction can empower the students who are ignorant and endanger those who are uncertain.

If you are regularly taking creative writing classes, then you may eventually reach a point where the "advanced" class feels like a review of basic techniques.  At that point, it may be time to try the MFA route instead - you'll receive more in-depth feedback that most online courses can provide, and you'll also be surrounded by students who have spent a lot of time with their writing.  (I still remember my first workshop with the MFA program.  I remember I had a bit of a stunned feeling.  "Holy cow," I was thinking, "everyone here knows what they're doing.")

Will the Workshop Teach You to Write?
I must caution you - don't fall into the trap of assuming that you know more about writing than the online course can teach you.  When I fault writing courses - especially courses led by published authors - it isn't the quality of the instructor I question - it's the quality of the instruction.  And there is an important difference.  Although I believe the best writers generally are the best teachers, this isn't always true.  In your search for an instructor, you want to find someone who will adjust his or her comments to your current level of writing, always challenging you but never crushing you with information.  You want an instructor who will not only give ideas for how to write, but will also assign helpful writing prompts to get you writing.

There is, among some writers, a debate as to whether or not the art of writing can be taught.  Regardless of whether the art of how can be passed from instructor to student, the desire to write and direction can be provided.  As writers, we learn best by doing, and a good writing instructor will ask you to write and encourage you to keep writing.


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