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15 Things to Consider When Deciding Between In-Person Creative Writing Courses vs Online

Creative writing courses, whether online or in-person, can be a great way for you to either learn craft or to supplement what you already know. If you’re a writer, especially a published writer, you know you have to write, even if you don’t know what works and what doesn’t work in your writing. You may write in solitude while writing your first draft (either short story, novel, whatever), or you may write and then meet with other writers at set times—every week, two weeks, or whatever schedule your writing group decides. While what I speak of are writing groups, I consider them courses as well—because you’re learning as you work with your fellow workshoppers.

That said, there is a difference between workshopping your writing with a group of other published or unpublished writers, and taking online writing courses or in-person writing courses. Like getting your MFA in Creative Writing, online and in-person courses are normally taught by professional writers, meaning they have been published, teach writing at the college level, or have, at one time or another, worked as a professional in the publishing industry.

So, let’s tackle online writing courses first. Depending on the type of writing course you’ve enrolled in dictates what you’ll get out of it. There are a lot of courses out there, from to (which is a great resource but is more geared toward the services around writing and publishing books), to individuals who have decided to take their experiences as teachers, writers, editors, agents, and so on to offer their knowledge and background as services that can help writers learn craft, the publishing industry, and how to “break through” the noise in order to acquire an agent and, hopefully, a publishing deal with either one of the large, traditional publishers or an indie publisher. and our blog, is one of the latter. While we haven’t launched our actual courses yet, we’ll be including video modules on craft, recommendations on craft books and books we believe are exceptional representatives of their genre, worksheets, templates, and writing prompts, as well as including manuscript consultations and services of varying intensity/level of editing and personalization for those who benefit from such one-on-one interactions. The courses and materials will be online. The writing/workshopping sessions will be done via email, phone, and either facetime, skype, zoom, or whatever platform you prefer.

At any rate, depending on your learning style, some courses will suit you better than others. Here are the benefits of online courses:

1. Unless the course is a drip course, meaning that you’ll receive a lesson once-a-week or at whatever interval the online course decides should be the interval, you’ll have instant access to the online course and all of the course materials. This means that you can binge the course at your own pace. You’ll be able to watch all the video modules (assuming the course has video modules), and you’ll have access to all of the supplemental materials—the written portions of the lessons, whatever templates, checklists, and writing prompts they offer, and anything and everything they offer for the price of their product/service.

2. If your learning style is having all of the materials before you so that you can refer to them as needed, they’re there for you. You’ll be able to duplicate the templates/worksheets, etc., and use them over and over again for different projects. And you’ll be able to customize them according to your preferences. You’ll be able to review all of the materials at your pace, based on your lifestyle. If you work and have a career, you can jump into the course(s) afterhours or on the weekend.

3. You won’t have to travel anywhere in order to “go to class.” If you’ve ever been part of a writing Meetup or writing group that congregates to work on and critique each other’s work, you know that it isn’t always convenient, and you end up missing some of the meetings to the detriment of your writing.

4. If you’re a beginning writer, you’ll be able to follow a pretty organized structure that will educate you on the basics of writing. You won’t want to take an advanced course if you don’t know the basics yet. At the same time, if you’re an advanced writer an advanced course might help clarify certain things you’re having trouble with while you’re writing, or at least remind you of all of the elements of writing so you don’t miss anything or don’t fall back into the tunnel vision we often fall into when writing, especially when writing longer works of prose like novels.

5. There are plenty of very specific courses, like “Writing historical fiction,” “How to get published,” “Romance writing,” “Book marketing,” “Character development,” and so on.

Now for the drawbacks of online courses, which you’ll have to evaluate for yourself before diving into your pocketbook and pulling out your hard-earned money.

1. You don’t know what you’re getting before you actually buy the course. A lot of courses promise the same things:

a. Tons of video modules that last for hours (most of them are broken up into smaller, digestible chunks that last no more than 10-20 minutes)

b. Plenty of worksheets, writing templates, prompts, quizzes, assignment sheets, lists of outside resources helpful to writers/aspiring writers

c. Access to publishing contacts and literary agents who’ll review your work

d. In-depth focus on particular aspects of writing such as dialogue, setting, point of view, storytelling, plot and structure, character development, and more

e. The ability to sign up for bootcamps, webinars, virtual conferences, live online classes, and other options for interactive participation with other writers

2. You don’t know what’s going to work for you specifically.

a. Do you work better one-on-one or in a group? A lot of us writers like working alone. We like the quiet and solitude, because it allows us to think, to concentrate, and to get into the worlds we’re building and the characters we’re thrusting into untenable circumstances. We may workshop our writing later with writers whose opinions we respect, but for the most part we prefer going it alone. Or you may be the type of writer who needs the encouragement and who requires being held to specific deadlines. Writing groups meet on regular schedules (for the most part), and you’ll have the pressure on you to produce work for the next time you meet. You’ll also have to devote time to reviewing your fellow-workshoppers work by that next time as well.

b. What about one-on-one time? Does the online writing course offer one-on-one time to review or discuss your work? If so, to what level? Do they offer services that will review your work and provide constructive feedback based on:

i. Plot

ii. Characterization

iii. Structure

iv. Dialogue

v. Setting & Place

vi. Pacing

vii. Beginnings, middles, and ends

viii. World building

ix. Conflict & suspense

x. Theme

xii. Voice

xiii. Description

xiv. Opening lines

xv. First drafts vs subsequent drafts

3. What’s the price tag for the course you’re considering? The old saying, “You get what you pay for” definitely holds true in online writing courses. There are some courses that go for as little as $7. Other courses, which are more inclusive, and likely include manuscript reviews, editing services, coaching, and other offerings will be more expensive, up to $5,000+, depending on what services you select. Some offer monthly and yearly subscription services that can go from a few dollars to a thousand a month, which, I suppose, is worth it to some. I have to imagine that for most people that kind of money is out of the reach.

Benefits of In-Person creative writing courses

Having received 3 masters degrees, two in-person and one predominantly online (my Low-Residency MFA in Fiction degree), I’ve had the opportunity to experience the differences between taking online courses and in-person courses. While a low-residency isn’t 100% online (MFA programs normally require 2 one-week in-person residencies), for the most part you’re communicating with your facilitator online. Now, while we’re referencing “online vs in-person courses,” we’re including writing groups as well. Courses implies that it’s a structured format taught by professional writers. And this may be the case. But because in-person paid courses are so similar to writing workshops that aren’t fee-based, we wanted to include them as well.

The benefits of attending in-person creative writing courses:

1. Immediate feedback. If you’re attending workshops in your local neighborhood or at the community college or even in an MFA program, you’re in a community of like-minded individuals that you have access to in a face-to-face environment. This means that you can have conversations with your fellow writers on different writing topics, and it also means that you can ask for feedback on either the writing you have with you or, assuming this is a recurring meeting/workshop/class, work that you’ve already previously shared for the purposes of workshopping when you do meet. If you have any questions about what your fellow writers mean in their comments, you’re able to ask them in person, and nothing is misconstrued. Immediate feedback allows you to take your notes, understand without ambiguity the feedback you’ve received, and then progress on your work from there.

2. A shared Frame of Reference. When writers congregate, a number of things happen. First and foremost, you work on each other’s progress/improvement by workshopping each other’s fiction. That’s the obvious benefit. But there are others. When you meet with writers in a workshop situation, you get to share the tips and tricks and insight you have with your fellow writers, and they do the same. This often leads to new insights for you and your craft.

Every writer has a different perspective. Every writer reads different books—novels, short story collections, nonfiction, but in particular craft books—which you can then recommend to your fellow writers. You’re also able to share your experiences with conferences, literary agents (if you’re at that point in your career), publication opportunities that might not yet be publicized, and so on. Can you share these things via email and on the phone? Sure. But chances are that your in-person interactions are going to allow for a more fluid communication (and openness) between you and your fellow writers. It’s easier to avoid answering tough questions or volunteering information when someone’s not in front of you.

When someone is in front of you, it’s the tougher questions and favors (Can you recommend a literary agent? Do you know anyone at XYZ literary journal? Will you read my novel and give me feedback?) that you’ll hear yes to specifically because most people don’t like to say no to someone to their face. (Guilt often works in your favor).

3. Community. Building a core group of writing friends is an invaluable thing to have when you’re writing fiction seriously. You want people whose opinions you respect when it comes to your writing, and that’s not always an easy thing to come across. I personally know great writers whose opinions on writing are less than stellar. I know others—both published writers and non-published writers—whose words are like manna from heaven. When you’re part of a writing community, it means you hear of all of the latest and greatest writing resources, the best new books to read, the writing competitions you might have missed out on if you weren’t part of that group. Plus, if you’re workshopping each other’s work, so much the better.

4. A built-in cheerleading section. A win for one of you in your in-person group is a win for all of you, in particular when you’re a tight-knit group. You’ve gained personal friendships and writing partners whose progress you’ve helped, and you’ve been there when they’ve received constructive criticism from others. If everyone gets along, you’re all rooting for each other’s successes. When you’re feeling down and having difficulty writing, they’re there to cheer you up and motivate you to keep on trucking. Human contact, especially with people who have the same goals as you is invaluable. When you find a good, productive, helpful writing group, stick with it for as long as you can. Keep an open mind. And never get defensive. Just use what makes sense for your writing, and discard what doesn’t.

The drawbacks of in-person writing courses:

1. Attendance. If you’re in an in-person MFA program, if you’re a member of a weekly/bi-weekly/monthly or quarterly writing group, or if you take individual lessons from a paid writing coach, you have to be there. You can probably call it in if you have a paid coach, which they may actually like, but mostly you’ll have to drive or take a bus or walk or ride your bike to show up to the course or workshop. There’s not really a phone-in option for an in-person course. That means that if you have a career or a family or other obligations, you’ll need to set those aside or make plans for someone else to take care of what you would normally be there to take care of yourself.

2. Personalities. Writers are artists. They are competitive (not all of them, but plenty). They see the world in different ways, and often that leads to minor (and sometimes major) disagreements or even clashes. Over my career I have seen writers make other writers cry. I’ve seen writers yell at each other. I’ve seen writers insult each other over the inanest things you can imagine. Some writers don’t know how to give constructive criticism. They berate, they question writing choices they express to be sophomoric, and they are simply negative people when it comes to other writers’ works. They’re often narcissistic personalities who view their writing as fantastic and everyone else’s writing as mediocre. We know the truth, but the truth is hard to fathom for them. That’s okay. Just know that you’ll likely bump into those types when you have in-person writing courses and workshops. Of course, you’ll encounter all sorts of personality types, but that particular one sticks out because of it’s obvious cruelty to their fellow writers.

3. Costs. When you attend in-person courses or MFA programs or potentially even writing workshops or meetups outside your local neighborhood, you’re going to be shelling out money to pay for tuition or accommodations or food, parking, gas, flights, or all of the above and more. For many people pursuing writing as a career, or at least seriously, education is the field in which they have their careers. Most educators simply aren’t paid what they deserve, and so the costs of MFA programs in creative writing (or traveling for workshops and meetups where they have to spend the night), are often either cost-prohibitive or taxing on their financial situation. This is not to say that other professionals don’t feel the same sort of pains—they do. But it isn’t inexpensive, pursuing your dreams of writing seriously. You have to weigh the costs of pursuing your craft and passion.

Depending on how much it’ll cost you to participate in in-person writing courses/classes/programs, you may need to rethink what’s possible and what’s not. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford the cost and time of chasing your dreams, that’s fantastic, and we’re happy for you.

4. Finding the right fit. Finding the right fit—whether at an MFA program, a writing group, or a writing coach, doesn’t necessarily automatically happen the moment you decide you’ve made your selection. I’ve been a part of numerous writing groups that simply didn’t work for me, for a variety of reasons. As mentioned above, personality conflicts have arisen in some. In others, the level of craft wasn’t there, meaning there were some writers who had no idea of either what made a story or even how to get there, while others were self-publishing every first draft they wrote.

You have to evaluate those types of issues for yourself, in particular with writing groups and paid writing coaches. As for MFA programs and the courses they offer, you’ll benefit profoundly from the criticism and recommendations from some of your facilitators and professors, while others will fall abysmally short of providing anything worth applying to your work whatsoever. Like in any field, there are great educators and there are less well-equipped ones who maybe are good at what they do but lousy at the teaching of it. It’s your job to evaluate whether or not the program/group/coach is right for you. Don’t waste your time and money on something that isn’t going to advance the areas of your craft and writing that you want to advance. Life’s too short.

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