How to Make the Most of a Creative Writing Class
by Writing Workshops Staff
7 months ago
Having completed an MA in Creative Writing and participated in two cycles of short story seminars 一 with the latter running alongside my full-time job 一 I’ve learned that, to get better at this craft, intentionality is a crucial factor.
If you’re about to enroll in a creative writing class, I want to share what I wish I had done differently, hoping that it will help you get the most out of the experience.
1. Know why you’re doing it
Many of us sign up to a class a little impulsively: you come across a class taught by a writer you admire and think ‘Gosh, I want to learn from them!’ Or, if you’re among the more organized people among us, maybe you decide you want to take a class and do some research to see what options are available.
Either way, if you’ve signed up for a class, it’s worth pausing to ask yourself what led you to it. The answer you give will help you honor the need you felt before you signed up.
Some possible reasons:
- It felt like an opportunity to learn from or meet a writer you admire
- You felt like you needed a writerly community around you
- You wanted to affirm your identity as a writer
- There was a specific aspect of your craft (or an element of an ongoing project) you decided you needed more practise or guidance on
- You sensed your writing skills were stagnating, and wanted to learn something new
- You were struggling with writer’s block or a lack of inspiration
- You needed the structure of a course to get back into writing
- You needed a change in your life
Knowing the reason that brought you to a writing class in the first place, you can approach it more intentionally, seeking to emphasize those parts that will best meet your needs. If you lack community, get chatting to your fellow students and exchange contact details. If you are struggling with a specific aspect of your craft, tell the tutor about it and ask for their feedback. If you’re after a structured re-introduction to writing, treat the deadlines seriously.
Whatever it is, actively look for a way to satisfy that yearning, to avoid a sense of vague disappointment later.
2. Do the reading
No matter what your personal writing goals are going into this class, your instructor will also have their own aims. Drawing from their expertise and experience, they’ll have chosen a number of specific things they plan to show you or help you try out. To benefit from the class as much as possible, do your best to engage with all of the reading material patiently and with thoroughness. Set reading time aside to read in an unhurried way, as opposed to cram-skimming stuff an hour before your class — sadly, I’ve been there, so I can’t moralize. I still went back and read some of the material post-course, but I wish I’d entered those classes feeling confident and well-read.
It’s not the end of the world if you don’t always do the reading in time, because in writing classes, reading material is primarily there to illustrate something for you, and you’ll likely have the tutor explain it to you as well. Still, you’ll enjoy the course a lot more if you make the time to slowly and properly appreciate its offerings.
3. Take deadlines seriously
Some types of classes, like one-to-one mentorships, focus on generating new material or taking an existing project further. In these courses especially, it’s very important that you treat deadlines as holy, since meeting them will determine whether you are able to get feedback in time, or whether you can reach your longer-term goals (if, say, the deadline was just a halfway point). Signing up to a course is your first emotional (and financial) commitment to your writing — next, you have to prove to yourself you really meant it.
It’s also worth noting that for those of us taking classes as an antidote to the lack of structure of writing life, these deadlines can be what will shake you out of writer’s block. As soon as the course is over, you’ll no longer have deadlines to work towards, which is one of the reasons many people struggle to start a new project or maintain a consistent writing habit. A class setting provides an encouraging environment that tries to gently push you in the direction of your writing: you’ve got a reader on the other end of the line, feedback coming in, and a community around you — so, embrace it. Try to be present for your work, because these ideal conditions won’t be there forever.
4. Rely on consistency, not sprints
The fact that classes set specific deadlines often results in frenzied writing bursts pre-deadline, in a mad rush to submit something instead of nothing. Sprint-writing is a useful skill, but ideally, you want to sprint a first draft, not the version you share with your tutor or classmates. If it’s possible for you given your other commitments, try to set internal deadlines a week before your actual course deadline (or even earlier if you think you can do it!). Sprint towards that, then take a few days to reflect on what you’ve written and tweak things before submitting.
Alternatively, you can try to cut sprints out altogether, if they just aren’t part of your own artistic process. ‘Plotter’ types might not rely as much on impulsivity, instead methodically working through your novel outline. If you’ve got that kind of foresight and discipline, you can use your class deadline to reverse engineer a series of smaller deadlines leading up to it, effectively training yourself to maintain a consistent writing habit of smaller, iterative bursts. If you can build momentum with this habit, it’ll serve you well long after the class has ended.
5. Learn from your peers as well as your tutor
In workshop-style classes where you get to share writing with your peers and critique each other’s work, pay close attention to your peers’ work. Don’t assume your tutor is the only source of knowledge — your peers’ writing can teach you things, too. Giving other people feedback forces you to articulate what you think works or doesn’t work about a specific passage, and the more you articulate your feelings and opinions about someone else’s writing, the clearer and more distilled they become in your own mind.
You may encounter work that inspires you, or flawed work that gets you to spend time trying to understand what doesn’t quite work for you. If you pause to break down a piece of writing into its granular parts, weighing the impact and contribution of each piece, you’ll come away a more confident writer as well as editor.
It works the other way around, too: when it’s your turn to receive feedback from the group, you may naturally look to the tutor for detailed commentary. But if your classmates are generous enough to engage with your work and share their perspectives, you’ll be in the wonderful position of meeting your first readers: people whose responses tell you new things about your own writing. Listen openly, taking what you feel is useful from these responses, positive or negative. It’s always a privilege to come across someone willing to read your work and share their honest opinion.
Like I said, I haven’t always made the perfect student, and you’re probably going to feel like you ought to have made more of a class anyway, because that’s simply how retrospective insight tends to work. Still, I hope reading these thoughts can help you feel just a little bit more prepared. Don’t forget to have fun!
Kleopatra Olympiou is a writer from Cyprus, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Durham University. She’s previously written for Electric Literature, LitReactor, and Reedsy’s blog for self-published authors.