This post was originally written in 2017 and updated in February 2021.
My first exposure to online writing education—for adults outside of degree programs—was Writers Online Workshops, a division of Writer’s Digest. Prior to that, my experience and prepared curriculum was entirely centered around the traditional classroom.
As I gained experience managing and evaluating online education through Writer’s Digest—and teaching online courses myself—I began to field more questions from authors who were curious about doing it themselves, but didn’t know where to start. And so I came up with the following tips.
One big caveat is that I am not an expert in curriculum design or creative writing pedagogy (either online or offline!). So I invite those who have more formal study and knowledge to share suggestions in the comments.
The primary motivation for adult writers who take online classes is to:
- Acquire new skills
- Complete a writing project (be motivated and be held accountable)
- Get personalized feedback and instruction
People also appreciate the immediacy of online education in serving their needs. Freedom and flexibility are often critical for adults deciding to take an online course—more important than even price.
A course’s success depends greatly on understanding or anticipating the needs of students, creating and delivering material that leads to learning and engagement, and thus producing the outcomes they most desire.
Deciding What to Teach
Here are some starting questions for those who have never taught online before.
- What will the course focus on? If you’re new to online teaching, choose a class you’ve taught multiple times, where you have confidence in your approach and knowledge base. It’s also easier from a marketing perspective to teach topics you’re well-known for, that you have demonstrated success in, or that you know would interest your community or clients.
- How long will the course run? Unless you’re enthusiastic about “boot camp” style courses that run in a weekend or a week, I recommend a minimum of four weeks and a maximum of twelve weeks for a craft/technique course. You could also choose to create a self-study, but this post focuses on writing courses with a specific start and end date. (The best writing classes typically have interaction and engagement with an instructor who can offer feedback/critique.)
- How much personal attention will be offered? This would include critique/feedback, live office hours of some kind, forum discussion, or even an in-person component. The more interactive the course, the more expensive it generally is, but obviously the more time the instructor must commit.
Course Benefit and Structure
With writing courses for adults, it’s important to focus on what the students will achieve or have in hand at the finish line. The course might focus on one large-scale project (first 25 pages of a manuscript, a completed essay or story) that is worked on and submitted to the instructor for feedback; or it might focus on completing a series of smaller assignments. While readings can help illustrate important principles or lessons of craft and technique, any energy devoted to group discussions about readings are almost never a good use of student time and energy.
Most online courses are best when there’s one goal, focus, or lesson per week. More often, and students won’t be able to keep up; less often, and students will become disengaged.
All courses to be effective must incorporate regular opportunities for Q&A with the instructor—basically, office hours. I recommend about one live session per week, whether through text-based chat or audio/video conference.
Course Lessons or Lectures
An online writing course should avoid relying on student production of material for critique (as in a traditional university writing workshop). The instructor should offer writing instruction in some form, usually on a weekly basis. What constitutes a lecture can be very flexible. It might be:
- A live video conference session using software such as Zoom (and recorded for students who can’t attend). This is usually the most intimidating for new online instructors, as well as experienced—it’s more or less like doing a live webinar. I don’t recommend that you be merely a talking head, but that you have visuals to share, and budget plenty of Q&A/break time.
- Recorded audio or video lessons using software such as Camtasia or Screenflow.
- Written lecture: using PowerPoint or Keynote helps incorporate visuals (preferable for some types of material), but text only can work well.
Always build in next steps or actions. Students will learn better if they’re given a specific task or action after watching a lecture or series of lectures. Make them put what they’ve learned to work, or get them writing. By incorporating action steps into your curriculum, you will see satisfaction skyrocket, because people feel like they are accomplishing, creating, or learning something. Progress toward goals is very inspiring.
Course Community and Discussion Area
Students will find a course more valuable if they meet other like-minded people with whom they might even continue a relationship after the course ends. For this to happen, the course needs a discussion and community area for posting. The easiest method by far is to create a private Facebook group for the course, but you could also create a private WordPress site with forum capability through a plugin such as BBPress.
Instructor Critique and Engagement
Instructor feedback or interaction is critical to a writing-focused course. A critique can be written or audio recorded and delivered in private, and/or done in a more traditional workshop manner, where all students can see and benefit from observing the instructor’s critique of the work.
I’ve found that—unless students are in a university program—it’s very hard to mandate that other students give feedback. And usually, it’s not desirable to mandate feedback unless the students are insightful in giving it. Good feedback doesn’t happen by accident, and writers need training in how to give it, which may be outside the purview of the course being taught. In any event, in most non-degree writing courses, the students are seeking the insights of the instructor, and not the other students.
Student satisfaction is often tied directly to how they feel the instructor interacted with their work, their forum/discussion posts, and/or their questions during office hours. Responding in the forum or otherwise being present in the forum, proactively posting questions and doing check-ins, and in general “showing up” is vital. Students can tell when you’re phoning it in, or just posting lessons then disengaging.
Protecting Instructor Time
I recommend two levels of registration for any class involving critique:
- Basic registration: All curriculum, lessons, community discussion features, instructor office hours or Q&A opportunities, plus a basic amount of critique/feedback
- Premium registration (usually limited in number): Everything in the basic, but allows for more material to be critiqued, more revision and feedback, or more one-on-one time with the instructor
Students love having a choice because they may not have the time or ability to produce a large amount of work during a particular time, and/or may be mainly interested in the curriculum.
I favor the following tools for online courses.
- I use the Restrict Content Pro plugin installed on WordPress, although this isn’t an ideal solution for the average instructor (it requires considerable customization to work for online learning). A better beginner tool would be a plugin like LearnDash, specifically suited to online courses. When students register for a course, they receive login credentials and can immediately access curriculum on a schedule you determine. There are other teaching platforms available, some with extensive and robust features, such as Teachable, Zippy Courses, and Podia. Which tool you choose is mainly about your budget, your comfort level with technology, and how much customization you require.
- Zoom: This is a great tool for office hours, live lectures, or webinar-style classes. It allows everyone to see and hear each other (assuming you have a webcam), plus you can share your screen and do text chat. Students can dial in through a phone number for audio only, and you can record sessions for students who miss.
- Camtasia or Screenflow: both are excellent tools for recording and editing audiovisual lectures.
- Private Facebook groups work great for the discussion and community aspect of an online course because nearly everyone is familiar with it and logs in at least once a day.
For Video-Based Lectures or Lessons
These are some of the principles I encourage you to adopt.
- For audiovisual lecture delivery: Hopefully, you already use PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, or some other slide-based presentation tool to accompany your lectures. If not, I suggest you develop slides unless you have other visuals. Ideally, your lecture doesn’t consist solely of audio with a static visual (or a talking head); this leads to student boredom and distraction. Use summary lists, imagery, graphics, and other visuals to reinforce the points you’re talking about. Images help engagement a lot. When you can’t think of anything, add a cat GIF. Attention will skyrocket. (Only half joking.)
- Break up your lectures into 3-6 minute increments. If you’ve ever used Lynda, you know the model. It’s less daunting to tackle a video lecture when things are broken down into their smallest steps or components. (For efficiency, when you record a lecture, you can certainly do it all in one take, while giving yourself a pause between lessons or sections. Later on, using Screenflow or Camtasia, you can break up a long video into the intended lessons.)
- For live lectures, build in question breaks. Almost every live lecture should leave 5-10 minutes at the end for student questions. I typically build in at least one additional opportunity for students to ask questions. This might be halfway through, but you should base it on when you think the most questions are likely to arise (e.g., during the most confusing or complicated material). If it makes sense, build in a third break for questions.
- Rather than using your computer’s built-in external microphone, you may need to purchase an external microphone for best possible results. Apple’s standard-issue earbuds—the ones with a built-in microphone—also work very well.
- Find an enclosed room where you will not be interrupted. Unplug your phone and turn off your cell phone ringer. If necessary, post a sign on the door that says, “Recording in progress.” There is nothing worse than being distracted during a live session or recording, trust me.
- Be prepared to share your slides in PDF form. This will depend on the nature of the session, but one of the first things students will ask for is a copy of your lecture. If you’re uncomfortable doing this, you should prepare a handout with the key ideas, lessons, resources, websites, or tips from your presentation. Having something in writing, like a tip sheet, is very helpful with online courses, so that students don’t have to search through recordings to find that 1 minute when you referenced a particular resource.
It’s Your Turn
If you’ve taught online writing courses, I’d love to hear what has worked (or not) for you and your students. And if you’ve been a student in an online writing course, tell us about any positive experiences—what made the course valuable to you?
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.