Whether it's been days or decades since you last heard the school-bell ring, continuing education is the smart choice for the smart writer. It allows you to widen your knowledge base, hone your technical skills and increase your marketability.
You don't have to enroll in a full-time Master of Fine Arts program to get these benefits, either. Besides the traditional college courses, there's a wide range of classes and workshops available via the Internet. Here, we'll tell you about some low-stress options and give you tips for how to choose the best one for you.
Filling in the gaps
Begin by taking a clear look at your needs. What are you hoping to gain? Are you looking for more insight into your area of expertise, a better way of marketing yourself or a more efficient way of running your business?
Maybe the class you investigate isn't technically related to writing at all. Shelley Divnich Haggert had been writing professionally for years, but she decided it was time to take some refresher courses to get a new perspective on her work. So she signed up for a Canadian history course to deepen her political knowledge.
"The history courses have helped me to develop a broader understanding of the country I live in, its history and its politics," she says. "Because much of my writing is commentary on everyday life in Canada, this has been invaluable. It gave me a solid background on government structure. When doing interviews, I waste far less time searching for the right contact, and I don't need to spend as much time getting the backstory."
After focusing on what your needs are—writing-related or not—the next step is to take an honest look at your abilities. By choosing courses that reflect those strengths and weaknesses, you'll work toward increasing your writing skills and marketability. Other factors to consider are finances, logistics and your personal writing goals.
Online writing courses
The Internet learning community has exploded in the last few years, offering writers a wide array of classes covering just about anything you could imagine. There are genre-specific classes for horror, science fiction and romance; scriptwriting and poetry courses; and plenty of seminars on how to get published in today's market.
Though many online classes are aimed at the novice writer, some are designed with the more experienced writer in mind. This gives you a good chance at finding an online course right for you.
Diane Benson Harrington, a freelance journalist and writing coach who teaches a query-writing course for Freelancesuccess.com, says one of the main benefits of online courses is the opportunity to network.
"Writing is such a solitary venture," Harrington says. "Because most editors today don't fill the role of writing coach, taking classes and connecting with other writers makes sense. It gets you out of a writing rut and gives you a new perspective on what you do, how you do it and why you do it."
Joe Stollenwerk, manager of educational services for WritersOnlineWorkshops.com (a Writer's Digest sister site), says that online instruction is perfect for people with busy lives. One of the greatest benefits of online instruction is that you don't have to be in class at a specific time on a certain day. And if you're worried that online instruction won't be as personal as a more traditional classroom, Stollenwerk offers this: "Most students and instructors bring their personalities to the workshop, and many of our students form ongoing writing relationships that last beyond the duration of the class."
When looking for an online class, be extremely picky about where you spend your money. Do your research, and make sure the class you're taking is from a reputable Web site and a qualified instructor.
If online learning isn't quite your style, the community-college route is certainly a viable option. You'll often find well-qualified instructors and reasonable course fees.
Judy Teng, dean of contract and continuing education of City College of San Francisco, believes her college's diverse offering of writing classes answers a need. "Many of the writing classes we offer came about because people requested them," she says. So if your community college doesn't offer any classes of interest to you, speak up and let them know.
For those of us who are more productive when we have a designated time and space in which to work, the physical classroom may be a better option than a less-structured online format. And many writers thrive on the creativity that comes with personal contact with living, breathing colleagues. Because writing is such a solitary job, leaving your computer to attend an outside class can be invigorating.
Many colleges and universities now include writing centers that, in addition to offering degree programs, serve as a community meeting place for writers to take workshops. The Center for Excellence in Writing at Portland State University in Oregon, for example, has a mission to assist working and aspiring writers in making writing a career. Program coordinator Sydney Thompson says that many of the people who take workshops are trying to change careers or expand their writing into a full-time occupation.
Community writers' groups occasionally offer workshops to the general public. Do a Web search or check the community bulletin board at your local library for information on writing groups in your area. Some national groups, such as the Romance Writers of America, have local chapters that offer workshops and other continuing-education opportunities.
Once you've plugged into your local writing community, you'll no doubt find that opportunities to continue your education abound. Your only dilemma is choosing the one that works best for you.