Which is the best writing course?

The question that people seem to be asking me most often at the moment is: Which is the best writing course for me? So rather than sending lots of individual (but identical) replies, I’ve decided to turn my universal reply into this article, to save anyone else from having to ask the question!

You’ll find a number of excellent courses listed in The Fastest Way to Write Your Book, and there are several more on the ideas4writers website, all of which have been recommended by members.

We’ll look at some of these in more detail in a moment, but my first recommendation, especially if you’re new to writing, would be to begin with a local evening class in creative writing, if there’s one near you. This will give you a chance to find out what writing is all about, learn the basics, try some exercises, see how good you are – or more likely how much you still have to learn, meet other writers who are at the same stage as you, and have an experienced tutor that you can learn from and ask questions of – in person.

Once you’ve completed the beginner’s course, you could consider doing a more advanced one locally, or try one of the courses we’ve listed, most of which are much more comprehensive than a local course can be.

The biggest correspondence course in the UK is the one run by the Writers Bureau. This is also the one that most of our members seem to be signed up to. Fair enough – it’s a great course, and they offer you your money back if you haven’t earned enough to cover your course fee by the time you’ve finished. But don’t expect it to be easy, because it isn’t.

In fact because so many of our members are doing this course, and because it’s tough going, and because Writers Bureau don’t offer a support forum of their own, we set up a forum on the ideas4writers website for Writers Bureau students. However, this forum isn’t widely used. This is a real shame, because that means most students have to struggle along on their own, and might well drop out of the course entirely when the going gets tough. Whereas if they joined in the forum they could get help when they needed it, share ideas, pass on advice and things they’ve picked up from the tutors, give each other support and encouragement, and so on. Then they might actually go on to complete the course and become great writers, and make lots of money…

My own experience of the Writers Bureau is that although it’s a very good and comprehensive course (if you can get through it), they do have a high drop-out rate and very few people seem to complete the entire course.

They also push you into getting your work out into the marketplace (naturally, they want you to earn back your course fee so they don’t have to refund it). Some people have told me that they felt this aspect was over-emphasised and they didn’t feel particularly comfortable with it. Others would probably feel that it was just the kick they needed to start submitting work and maybe making money from it, rather than tucking it away in drawers and folders because they’re too scared to do anything with it!

The Writers Bureau course covers the whole spectrum of writing, including newspaper reports, magazine articles, non-fiction books, short stories, novels, and so on. Many of the students I’ve spoken to told me that they didn’t want to cover all of these things, and were really only interested in just one aspect, such as short stories or novels. So they found it a bit of a pain to have to work through all the other sections before getting to the part they were really interested in, especially as the course kicks off with non-fiction. I guess this is why so many of them drop out. (Handy tip – they’ll let you start off with fiction if you ask nicely!)

The idea of the course is that you learn how to make money from writing in many different disciplines – and you might even discover that you’re more suited to writing articles than short stories, for example, even if that wasn’t your original intention. And writing skills are fairly transferable from one discipline to another – you can give your non-fiction writing an extra boost by borrowing a few fiction-writing techniques, and vice versa.

So if you want a wide-ranging and comprehensive course that gets you submitting work into the real world, and perhaps making money from it, then Writers Bureau could be just the one for you. (Especially if you take advantage of our WB forum – you’ll need to be a member to access it, but you only need to buy a copy of The Fastest Way to Write Your Book and send back the voucher to join.)

However, if you’d prefer to focus on just one discipline, such as short story writing, then you might find that a course which only covers that particular topic is more suitable (and probably cheaper).
Writers News Home Study works in exactly this way. They currently have nine different courses, with short story writing being one of them, so you could just do that one. They also offer separate courses for novel writing, journalism, poetry, scriptwriting, writing for children, and so on.

Again, these are very good courses, run by well-respected tutors. However, some of our members who have taken them have reported that there is an emphasis on market study and a strong push to get your work out into the marketplace. And as with the Writers Bureau course, some of them weren’t comfortable about doing this at such an early stage in their writing career, even if their tutor felt they were ready for it. Some of them were only intending to write for pleasure and had no intention of seeking publication, so they found this emphasis on market study and writing for a particular market distracting. For those seeking publication however – and that’s probably the majority if we’re honest – this is an essential discipline to learn.

The other courses I’ve listed in the book and on the website are all pretty much on a par with each other as far as I can tell. I’ve included a mixture of correspondence courses and real-life classes, so choose the sort that suits you best. The costs seem quite reasonable for what you get, they all cover the same sort of material and, although I have no direct experience of any of them myself, they’ve all received good feedback from our members, so it doesn’t really matter which one you choose.

writingclasses.co.uk is quite an interesting one, as it’s run entirely online and you interact with the tutor and other students via conferencing software that you install on your computer. Each course lasts for ten weeks, though the first week is just for familiarisation while you get to know the software and “meet” everyone else on your course. You’ll then be able to take part in the conference for your course, just as if you were in a real class – except you don’t have to leave home and you could be anywhere in the world as long as you have internet access. You’ll work with your tutor and fellow students in real time, receiving feedback almost instantly. You’ll also be able to download study notes, receive exercises to work on in your own time, and so on. Class sizes are restricted to between six and ten students.

We each have different ways of learning of course, so what suits me might not suit you. But several of you have asked me what I would do if I was in your situation, so here’s what I would do:

  • I’d start with a beginner’s creative writing evening class held locally.
  • Then I’d read The Creative Writing Coursebook and do the exercises in it. This is based on the Creative Writing MA course run by the University of East Anglia. Many famous writers have taken that course. For those of us unable to attend, this is the next best thing. And very good it is too.
  • Then I’d do an intermediate/advanced level creative writing class locally, just to polish my skills and meet people again after all that book learning!
  • Then I’d submit a piece of writing to a professional editor or critique service (or post it in the ideas4writers critique forum). By doing this I’d find out where my weaknesses were – plotting, characterisation, description, or whatever.
  • I’d then either look for a course that covered these weak areas, or find some books on them. You’ll find plenty of suitable books in our writers’ bookshop. If you choose to learn from a book, make sure you also do the exercises it contains. You won’t become a better writer just by reading about it – you need to actually do it. (Sad but true.)
  • With those topics mastered, and my former weaknesses now strengths, I’d then submit another piece of writing (or revise the previous one) and find out whether it was now good enough for publication or if I needed further learning/tuition in a different aspect.
  • Repeat this process until the feedback says your work is of a professional standard in all aspects, or until you start getting published regularly, or until you win a major competition. Or until you stop learning anything new and start hearing the same old stuff time and time again. When you reach that point it’s time to stop learning and start writing. And of course, we also learn by doing, so the more you write the better you’ll get.

Whatever you do, don’t just dive straight in and start writing without any idea of how writing works. I made that mistake at the start of my career, and basically wasted three years of my life. I thought I was churning out wonderful stuff. I wasn’t. It was pretty awful. I can tell that now, and I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. But I couldn’t at the time.

You really need to spend some time at the very beginning learning the basics: how to structure a piece properly, how to make your characters realistic, how to create drama and tension, how to vary the pace, when to switch viewpoints and when not to, the proper way to set out a manuscript and submit it for publication, what editors, agents and publishers are looking for, and so on.

There’s plenty to learn, but it can be a lot of fun. And there are plenty of others who are at exactly the same stage as you, and who would welcome a new friend to chat to. So if you’re a member of ideas4writers, visit our forums and introduce yourself and let everyone know what stage you’re at. And reply to the others who are brave enough to do the same. You’ll find the link to the forums at the top of the members’ home page after you log in. And if you aren’t a member yet – well, buy the book and send back the voucher. It’s that easy! Go on – do it now!

(It’s a pretty good book too – even if you are only buying it for the voucher!)


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