A writing class can be a great catalyst for taking yourself seriously as a writer. It’s hard to think of yourself as a writer when you are surrounded by bank tellers, dentists, screaming children, landscapers, piles of laundry, plumbing supplies, or whatever it is that keeps you from feeling like a writer.
Years ago, I decided to take a continuing education writing class at a well-respected local college. I had not taken a class for years, and I was just starting to believe in myself as a writer—the “I think I could really do this for a living” stage.
If you go to a place where a writing teacher and other writers read your writing and talk about it, it can be the swift kick you need to make the time to write more and start to feel like the writer you have always wanted to be. But, you have to do your homework to make sure you get the experience you want from a writing class.
When I got there, I saw that the writing teacher was young—probably younger than me—and very nervous. That did not really bother me, though. I was still pretty young myself. And, youth can mean inexperience, but it can also mean brashness, raw talent, passion, fresh approaches, and energy. One of my very best college professors was barely out of school himself, and he was a brilliant scholar and teacher.
But, it quickly became obvious that this was not the writing class for me. We all bought the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Most of the class consisted of the writing teacher asking us to read a chapter, come back to class, and discuss it. Now, Bird by Bird may be a wonderful book; it’s certainly received wonderful reviews. But to this day, I barely remember reading it. I seem to remember that it was funny, but I didn’t want to read a book at that moment.
What I wanted to do in that class—what I’d thought I’d signed up for—was to write, read others’ writing, let them read my writing, and talk about what we had read. We did no writing or sharing until the very last class—we had to bring in a short story we had written, pass it out, comment on it, and then hand it back to the author. Almost no class time was allotted for discussion. It was so disappointing. Ms. Lamott couldn’t tell me a thing about my writing, and our writing teacher didn’t comment on our work, either. To this day, I’m not sure what I paid her for. (At least, the person who, in my opinion, was the best writer in the class made a really nice comment about one particular detail in my short story. To this day, that comment is the best thing I got out of that class. Thank you, kind stranger. You helped me keep writing!)
The writing teacher did not do much to improve things, bless her heart. After a few very dull classes, it might have occurred to a more savvy teacher to change gears. It is my guess that she was used to teaching freshmen and didn’t know what to do with adults. Some of us powered through it, but after the fourth class, people started dropping like flies.
How to Choose the Right Writing Class
- Read course descriptions carefully. Make sure that writing is the main objective, or you may end up reading about writing instead of doing it. Supplemental reading is great, but we definitely should have done more writing and sharing.
- Look for courses in the genre that interests you. You can find courses in blogging, writing articles, children’s books, teen novels, graphic novels, short stories, poetry, and other specific areas. You can also find even more focused courses on topics such as writing good dialog, creating good settings, solving mysteries, romantic scenes, and more. These will help you move ahead with works-in-progress, too.
- Do not be afraid to branch out from your genre if it will help you stretch yourself. For example, if you find your writing to be a bit dry, take a class in poetry to enrich your imagery.
- Don’t judge books by their covers. Give your teacher and fellow students a chance to impress you with their writing. Do not judge them by what you think writers are supposed to look like or what you think their credentials are supposed to be. Highly credentialed writers can be lousy teachers. Unassuming classmates may stun you with their writing. You never know until you get some classes under your belt.
- Your classmates are valuable. If you find someone whose writing you like, meet this person for coffee and suggest trading writing for fun, even after the class is over. You can start your own writing group this way.
- Talk to the instructor if you aren’t getting what you want. You do not have to be confrontational, but you should be able to find out what you are in for if the syllabus does not match up with what is going on during class. If I had politely said to her after the third class, “Excuse me, but are we going to discuss Bird by Bird for the entire class period every time? I was hoping we would get to read and discuss each other’s writing. Can you tell me what to expect for the remaining sessions?” Then, I could have made an informed decision about whether it was worth my time to stay, and also about whether I should request a refund. She would also have had a little feedback, just from my question, about how student expectations might have been different from what she was giving us.
- Finally, if you stumble onto a bad course, take another one. Don’t give up. Finding a useful writing class does not always happen the first time. Think about what did not work for you and how to avoid it in the future.