Gone are the days when you have to meet up at the bookstore or someone’s home, sit in a circle and be part of a physical writers group to get feedback on your work. Sure, it’s a great luxury if you have the time, and you live in an area with enough writers to create a constructive writers’ circle or support ongoing writing workshops. But if your schedule is already stretched to its limits, if you live outside of a city, or if you’re not quite sure if you’re ready for ‘in-person’ instruction and feedback, you need to look for other alternatives.
We all benefit from having others read our work, from bouncing ideas off other writers, and learning about new avenues to take our writing down. You might write fiction, but have a burning desire to write stock market reports. Or, you might dabble in writing book reviews, but have always wanted to get a personal story published in an anthology. If you didn’t know how to approach these new goals, you might have pushed these interests aside and continued to write what you already know.
Whether you love writing fiction or magazine features, you can join critique groups online and have fellow writers become trusted advisors when it comes to improving your writing. Similarly, writing instruction is also available on the web and can be equally as beneficial, if you know how to truly take advantage of it. Here are some tips:
1. Check your schedule. Even though you don’t have to physically make it to a classroom, you want to be sure you’ve signed up for an online class at a point when you’ll be able to devote quality time to reading the lessons, responding to assignments and interacting with other students. If you’re planning on just collecting the assignments in your inbox and reading them later, you’re not taking advantage of the additional benefits of online instruction.
2. Determine the opportunities for student interaction. If there is a listserv component to the course, you’ll see all of your classmates discussions in your inbox when you log in. You can choose to respond, or ask your own questions as you feel comfortable. If the course instructor has listed office hours, check and see if you’ll be available to attend his or her office hours through the duration of the course. These are set times and if you aren’t available, contact the instructor about possible alternatives. The same goes for scheduled chats. If the instructor has scheduled a two hour ‘meeting’ for everyone to discuss the week’s lesson, try to stop in, even if just for 20 minutes. Participate in the discussion and you’ll be surprised at the tips you can give and get.
3. Introduce yourself immediately. Most instructors teaching courses that contain a listserv component will request that all students introduce themselves to the others in the class and maybe even give a brief background email regarding their writing experience and why they decided to take this particular class. Not only does this let all of the students know who they’ll be interacting with throughout the class, it also gives the instructor an indication of the class’s overall level of expertise as well as expectations of what the students would like to leave with. There will always be some lurkers (those who don’t participate in the discussions), but contributing in some way makes the experience richer for everyone.
4. Keep up with the assignments. We’re all busy, and you might be tempted to save the lessons and get to them when you can. If you do so, you’ll learn from the ‘lectures’, but won’t be taking full advantage of the instructor’s feedback and any critiques from fellow classmates. Sometimes, this can be one of the most valuable aspects of taking a course online.
5. Pass along assignments to other students for feedback. The instructor may be the one with the most experience in the area you’re learning about, but don’t pass up the valuable feedback that other students can offer as well. Another set of eyes, especially ones that are absorbing the same lessons you are, may catch something you’ve missed, or offer a new perspective.
6. Make connections and take them with you. The purpose of a listserv or a chat session is not only to get feedback throughout the course, but to connect with other students and possibly trade resources and continue critiquing each other’s work after the class has ended. You won’t be able to continue discussions through the listserv, but you can trade email addresses with other participants and keep in touch.
7. Follow up with the teacher. As an instructor, I love to hear from my students after the class concludes to see how they’ve put what they learned into practice. Just because the class is over doesn’t mean you can’t drop the instructor an occasional email and let him or her know how your writing projects are coming along. And this type of feedback offers some perspective, so what you have might even help the instructor teach a better class in the future.
8. Make goals for yourself immediately. While you work through each lesson, you’ll get ideas of goals you want to achieve, big and small. All of these ideas will get you excited about writing, querying, or whatever aspect of writing you’re learning about. Take advantage of this adrenaline, and get those queries out the door. At the very least, make a goal schedule for yourself for the next few months and stick to it. Hopefully, the successes that you achieve along the way will push you to continue reaching your goals long after the class has ended.
To get the most out of an online course, it helps to be a self-starter. If you’re already a freelance writer, or thinking of becoming one, this is a trait that you need to possess anyway. The tips you learn, the feedback you get, and the contacts you make can take you far, if you know how to take full advantage of them.
Victoria Groves is a freelance writer and online writing instructor. She is currently teaching three courses at WritersWeekly.com – Cash in on Newsletter Writing and Publishing, Cash in on Teens and Tweens, and The Art of the Press Release. She can be reached at: vmgroves – AT – yahoo.com.