Writing courses are expensive and time consuming, and it is hard to know what you are getting into before you sign up. I've taken a number of online courses through the UCLA Extension Writers Program and thought it might be helpful to share my experiences here. You can find part 1, where I talk about the benefits of writing classes, here.
Part 2: The Downsides of Writing Classes
Many of the benefits of a writing class can be twisted into downsides depending on the teacher, the other students, and a few other factors.
Deadlines can motivate you to get your writing done on time, but if you're already busy they can also put a lot of strain on you. At least 2-5 students dropped out of every class I took because of real life issues popping up, or because they couldn’t find time to do the assignments.
Many of the assignments and readings are time consuming and not all of them are useful. For example, if you want to focus on plotting your novel, then doing an assignment on short stories might not be what you need. Your time might be better spent working on something else, but you still have to do the assignment.
I said in my first post that the best thing about writing classes is being able to meet and interact with other aspiring writers. This is also the worst thing about writing classes. A few bad apples can ruin the entire class, especially when you're forced into writing groups with them.
There are three types of disruptive writers I have encountered in these classes, and there is usually at least one in every class:
1) The newbie
This type of student is new to writing and still learning the basics. This is fine in an introductory course - but in an advanced course, such as the one I took on novel writing, this can be frustrating to other students. These writers ask very basic questions, such as "what is third person?" and take up most of the teacher's time and energy with their questions. Their critiques tend to be all praise without any actual critique of your work. Many of their critiques have phrases like, "oh this reminds me of this other book I read..."
These writers can grow into much better ones, and in general we should encourage them. Many of them are excited about the writing process and want to get better. By all means, be nice to them and help them when you can (hey, we might have been the newbie once!). Just know that they can be a time drainer and might not be as helpful as other students who are on the same level as you.
This writer has a genre bias. They don't think that your genre is a "real" genre and everything you write gets blasted by them because of that. They want you to change your writing to fit their “better” genre and their critiques often don't apply because they don't know anything about your genre. You might hear comments like, "you should remove all the romance and set this in an office instead of a high school," or “fantasy isn’t a real genre, why not write about real life.” This person's critiques are not only frustrating, but sometimes ignorant and rude.
I usually saw the genre hater focus on the young adult, fantasy, and science fiction genres, but I'm sure there are others who will knock people down for writing mystery, romance, horror, middle grade, etc. Just ignore these people - clearly they need to read outside their narrow boundaries.
This student gives you the weirdest, most random, and often inappropriate advice for your work. It is so out there that you are taken back by it, and possibly even offended. There is nothing that you can salvage from their critiques; the best you can do is laugh it off. For example, one student in my class always tried to turn everyone's scenes into racy sex scenes - even if they had absolutely nothing romantic in that scene or in the entire novel.
Often this person's writing will also be unusual - and I don't just mean a genre you don't read, or a plotline you don't care for. I mean the book is so odd or even disturbing that you can't stand to read it. For example, I was in class with one person who was writing a book with graphic animal abuse (in a middle grade book too - ugh) and I just couldn't read it. I had to ask the teacher to put me in another group because it was giving me nightmares.
A good teacher can reign in many of these disruptive students, but some teachers will not do that, and in some cases the teachers will actually encourage or praise these people. I usually see this with genre bias - I had one teacher who wanted everything we wrote to be the same thing she wrote (women's fiction). If you wrote in her genre you got all praise, and if you didn’t she ripped your work to pieces. It was frustrating to say the least.
A bad teacher will let the unruly classmates take over the class by encouraging them or by neglecting the class. This neglect seems to happen the most in online classes, since it is much easier to ignore or miss what is going on there than in a face to face class.
In the end, how good your class is mostly depends on the quality of the teacher, how good their lectures, readings, and assignments are, and how they treat the other students and guide them to be better writers and critique partners.
On Monday in Part 3 I’ll go over a few tips for choosing a good class and how to avoid some of the above problems. Let me know if you have any questions!