Should You Do a Writing Course?

by Marg McAlister

 

First, let's tackle the question that is uppermost in many aspiring writers' minds: "Do I need to do a writing course to sell my writing?"

No. Absolutely not.

I have never done a writing course (the kind with assignments and feedback). Yet I've now had published (or have in production) around 56 books for children, half a dozen ghost-written titles, a co-written book on networking and self-promotion, dozens of articles, short stories, and even short poems for kids. Besides that, I've written promotional material for businesses and business professionals, speeches, blurbs for posters, educational materials, web site copy and more... the list is long.

How did I do it?

  • I always loved to read. Like most readers, I tend to 'absorb' the rhythms of the language, correct grammar and punctuation, and the conventions of many different writing genres - mystery, romance, suspense and so on. (There's a very good reason for so many people advising you to write what you like to read - you "know" the genre without having to study it!)
  • I started buying "how-to" books on writing and marketing early in my career. You can learn pretty well everything you need to know from these books. The trick is USING what you learn. There are a lot of would-be writers out there who have groaning shelves full of how-to-write books - but who do very little actual writing.
  • I subscribed to industry magazines such as The Writer's Digest and The Writer. I photocopied and filed the articles in relevant categories. Over time, I built up a considerable collection of 'how-to' articles.
  • I attended writing workshops and joined professional associations. I volunteered to be on the Committee of one of these professional associations. In that capacity, I made lots of contacts - editors, agents, and authors.
  • I joined writing support groups. I never actually started one of my own, but that's not a bad idea if you want to have the support of a critique circle.
  • I WROTE. I experimented with fiction, articles, non-fiction and fiction. I wrote for adults and children. I found out what I liked to write and what I didn't like to write.
  • I treated writing as a business. I've always invested in my writing career - by buying books, attending workshops and conferences (in Australia and overseas), buying good quality equipment and, in recent years, establishing an internet connection.

Should YOU Do A Course?

 

What was right for me, however, may not be right for you. I had always excelled in English at school. I loved to write stories, from the time I was a child. I knew I had a good grasp on the mechanics of the English language. I was fairly certain that I could "teach myself" to write.

As it happened, I was right. BUT - If I had done a course, and received quality feedback on my work, I may have started getting my work published a bit sooner. A course involving carefully structured lessons and good feedback can show you what you're doing right and where you're going wrong early in your career.

As a tutor for several correspondence courses in writing, I have seen countless variations of the following comment: "I thought I knew how to write. But when I kept getting rejection letters, I decided to enrol in a course to see if that would give me any insights into why... I found out there was a lot I didn't know! Some of the mistakes I was making seem so obvious now!"

So, even though you think you know how to write, you may discover that:

  • Your style of writing is somewhat outdated.
  • You haven't fully grasped the requirements of the particular genre for which you're writing.
  • You are making mistakes in grammar and punctuation that you weren't aware of.

 

A few simple 'tricks of the trade' can take your writing to a whole new level very quickly.

The fact is, many of us can't "see" what we're doing wrong - until it's pointed out to us. And this is the case even if we've read advice about that very thing in a writing "how-to" book! If you are not having a lot of luck with your submissions, then a writing course could be just what you need to speed you on your way.

What Kind Of Course Would Be Best?

If you do decide to do a course, then shop around to find out what would be best for you. Don't rush into a decision. You'll find that writing courses vary in length, in quality, in mode of delivery, and in cost. For example, some "courses" on the Internet are free - but they're pretty much the same as reading a how-to book, because you don't get any feedback on your writing. These courses are really more like mini-seminars.

University Courses

There are plenty of university-level courses around. You may need a certain level of education to be eligible. These courses are useful if you want to have a university qualification on your CV (say if you want to use your writing skills to obtain a job or career position). If you attend regular lectures and tutorials, you also have the benefit of face to face interaction and immediate feedback on your writing.

The downside (for some) is that you could take years to get through the course, and you may have to take other subjects of very little interest to you to achieve that final qualification. And (it has to be said) some writers who want to work on "commercial" or popular fiction find that other students are only interested in literary fiction, and literary snobbery becomes a problem.

Short Writing Courses

There are a number of writing courses that let you pace your work to suit your lifestyle. For example, the company that markets the writing courses that I have written (I'm not going to name them here because this is not an ad - it's a general discussion of what's right for you!) allows students to take up to 5 years to finish the course. However, if you want to move through it quickly, you can do the course in 12 weeks. (One tutorial and assignment per week.) There are plenty of writers with talent and drive who can complete the course in this short time. They can then move on to advanced courses or just write up a storm and start marketing their work!

Internet Options

The internet is an incredibly fertile source of information and learning for writers. (For example, you subscribed to this free tipsheet!) Free information is everywhere. You can, however, also buy e-books on writing and enrol in structured writing courses with assignments and feedback. The fees vary.

The advantage of using the Internet is that you can work on the lessons at a time that suits you. You can email assignments away at two in the morning, if this is when you work best! Most courses allow you a fair bit of flexibility in the amount of time you take to finish the course.

The disadvantage of doing a course via the Internet is that some courses on offer have been around only a few months or a year. I recommend shorter courses, because if you decide to do a course over an extended period, you may find that the provider has shut up shop!

Community Colleges

Six- or eight-week courses in writing are often on offer through community colleges or night classes. These can be general in nature (Creative writing) or more specific (Writing for Children). Try to ensure that the person delivering the course has the expertise you require. It's your money! The benefits of these courses: they're short; they offer face-to-face interaction; they can provide you with the nucleus of a critique group if you all get on well.

Bottom Line

You don't have to do a writing course to get published, but it can certainly help. If you are at the stage where you need feedback on your writing before you can move on, then it's probably a good investment. But do your homework first - ask for testimonials and ask about the qualifications of the tutor. Check on how long you have to complete the course, and what happens if a family disaster takes you out for several months. Make sure it's the right course for you!

(c) copyright Marg McAlister

 

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