Making the Most of Writing Classes
Writing classes can be massively helpful to your career. They offer you experience following specific guidelines to produce assignments. They offer you deadline pressure for assignments (though many writing classes can be fairly flexible, learning to meet deadlines is going to be a skill you use over and over throughout your career). Courses offer you specific feedback to pinpoint your weak areas, and your strengths. They can help you try out new things you may not have considered. For example, a course may have you work on both fiction and nonfiction assignments. This can seem upsetting if your heart was set on writing only fiction, but countless writing students have discovered that they actually enjoy nonfiction, that it helps them build skills in research that they use constantly with their fiction, and that sometimes doing a few nonfiction pieces can offer access to a new market or some quick income. For example, I am almost entirely a fiction writer as that is my preference and my greatest strengths, but I sometimes write nonfiction for educational publishers and I do these nonfiction essays for the Institute and other venues. Doing both has made me a more versatile writer, given me some name recognition (which can be helpful when a publisher asks about your platform), and allowed me to add more varied writing credits to my publications list.
So writing classes have considerable value for a writer, but there are things you can do to help the writing class do the most for you. As with many things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Let’s look at four ways to make the most of writing classes.
1. Start Before You Start
Writing classes take time. Prepare by taking a hard look at how you use your time. Don’t magically expect time to appear, instead, mine your life for time you can invest in this learning adventure. For things like this, I find it useful to create schedules for myself. I have a daily plan for what I will accomplish and the hours mapped out that I will use to accomplish it. I try to err on the side of having more than enough time. Sometimes that means I have to get up really early (as I am an extreme morning person, it doesn’t help me to stay up late and try to accomplish things. I definitely flag in skill and creativity once the sun goes down.). If you’re a night person, it may mean that sometimes you have to stay up late. It may mean there are things you do for enjoyment (such as watching television or visiting your Facebook feed over and over and over) that you will need to set aside for a time. By preparing ahead of time with a realistic understanding of what time you have available and how to juggle it, you’ll increase the chance that you’ll be able to meet the demands of the class without cutting corners. Keep in mind, the corners you cut in any class mean you get that much less out of it. Go all in and you’ll get the most from the course. As an Institute instructor for years and a workshop leader now, I can often tell which students will get the most out of what I have to offer. They are the students who are committed to doing the work, even when it gets uncomfortable or boring. The marriage of planning and commitment will carry you to success both through your class and long after.
2. Improving is the Point
If all you’ve ever heard about your writing is praise, you may be in for a bit of an ego ouch when you take a class. Generally, instructors in any course want to see students succeed, but that includes telling people the truth about their present weaknesses. And sometimes the truth hurts. Be prepared. And be prepared to absorb the instruction, even when it’s uncomfortable. Many times, we shy away from uncomfortable things. That’s simply human nature. But if you shy away from tackling the uncomfortable things you need to change in order to succeed as a writer, you’re seriously impeding the chance that you will succeed. So, face the critique, consider it with an open mind, and look for ways to apply it. Application is as essential to your critique response as openness. If your instructor tells you that you need to add more action to your scenes and not depend on dialogue to do the job action is designed for, and you accept it, it still won’t help you unless you look for ways to apply it.
One really useful way to apply feedback is to revise the assignment with the specific feedback in mind. All of the feedback. Even the parts you didn’t exactly agree with. Simply try it. You may find the instructor’s suggestion unlocks new skills for you. You may find applying the instructor’s suggestion doesn’t work for you but gives you a new perspective and new understanding. Trying new things is never wasted time. It’s learning time. You may not be asked to send the revision back to your instructor but do a revision anyway. You aren’t taking the class for the sake of your instructor. You’re doing it for your sake. We have to get over the “will it be on the test” mentality we had as kids that we used to know what we could ignore. In a course you chose for the sake of improving for your own reasons, there is going to be nothing you should ignore. You need to do the work because it’s going to help you to try applying these critiques. It will help your understanding and build skills. Also, doing the revision will give you smart questions to ask as well. Sometimes we think we understand a specific critique but find we cannot apply it without asking more questions. And that’s fine too. Ask questions. Try things. Mess up and try again. The road to improvement is messy, so embrace the mess.
3. Notes, Notes, Notes
Today taking notes can feel old fashioned, especially handwritten notes, but research studies have proven that taking notes by hand helps information sink into your brain. So, take notes. Take them as you read your course material. Take them as you read responses and critique from your instructor. Take them as you write. Take them as you read sample texts. Note things you discover that you feel are important, but also take notes of questions as they pop into your head. It may be that the question is answered in the next paragraph you read, but in case it isn’t, you’ll have a record of what you need to know so you can ask your teacher. Write in your manuals and on handouts. In college, I always figured that a textbook that stayed pristine throughout the course was a textbook that offered me nothing. I wrote in margins: my thoughts, my arguments, my connections with other subjects, and my questions. Writing, especially writing by hand, affects your brain in different ways than simply thinking about things, so don’t be afraid to write things down. You should see my market guides. They are full of handwritten notes about everything I know, experienced or discovered about markets as well as everything I wonder. I have never broken the habit of taking notes and it serves me well even today. Give it a chance to do the same for you
4. Don’t Let Negative People Kill Your Momentum
Many of us have negative people in our lives, people who don’t understand what we do, but are happy to chime in on how much we’re wasting our time. Those people need to be shut down while you’re in a course. Change the subject or say the course isn’t something you want to talk about, because you’re still processing what you’re learning. Do whatever you have to do to eliminate or at least minimize that kind of negativity. You don’t need the drain from that kind of negativity. Sure, there will be things about any good writing course, writing workshop, or even podcast that frustrates you or challenges you to the point of discomfort. And processing that with other people can be helpful but choose wisely. Choose only those people who will both support your feelings and encourage you to press on. Don’t add fuel to the naysayers. I know an absolutely lovely writer who took my course and has taken my workshop as well. She has an amazing writing voice, and she’s willing to do uncomfortable work. She faces challenges as we all do, but her biggest problem in moving forward has been all the negative pushback from the very people you might expect to be more encouraging. When she discussed her writing with these people, they came up with reasons why she should (or surely would) quit. It was very draining for her, slowed her forward progression, and broke my heart. It’s hard not to share important things with the people who are important to you, but if they aren’t really going to support you, then maybe share about your gardening or cooking or any other topic and keep your writing out of it. The energy you conserve that way will be vital to your steady improvement and moving forward.
Writing classes can be costly and not only in money, but they are also going to require quite a bit from you in time and effort and courage. If all you give them is the money without the investment that come directly out of you, you’re not going to reap the same rewards at the end of the class. So, commit to the journey. Do the work. Guard your enthusiasm and don’t let anything drain it away — not discomfort, or effort, or the words of others. It’s probably not going to be the easiest things you’ve ever done, but if you give it your best, what you will receive in return will be worth the investment. I’ve known published writers who estimate courses saved them a solid decade in the time between beginning writing and real success. Make your decision, do the work before you start and all through the course, and be ready to grow. You’ll be glad you did.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.