Is it better to do a creative writing course online, or face to face?

I have been teaching creative writing in adult education for forty years, and I can attest to the fact that it really does help some people. I have also been teaching the same subject online for the Open College of the Arts, which leads to a degree. When I started, there was a lot of controversy about whether the subject could be taught at all – and so I did an MA to remind myself what it was like being on the other side of the desk. By that point I had had many short stories published, and five radio plays broadcast, so I wasn’t exactly a beginner. However, whereas the newbies chose modules where they hoped they could shine I decided to go for the things I found difficult – namely poetry and non-fiction. And much to my surprise I found I quite enjoyed it, and five years later I won the Cardiff International Poetry Competition.
            I think both methods of teaching are effective, as long as the student is willing to learn. Digital books are a real bonus when you’re carrying stuff to a classroom, and the free versions of classics are valuable resources for online teaching. So: the pros and cons of both methods.

Face-to-face pros:

If you dish out the work to someone other than the writer to read aloud, the author can be anonymous which helps beginners.

The author can listen to their own work read by someone else, and note the stumbles and hesitations which may indicate when something isn’t clear.

The writer can observe the reactions to their work on the faces and body language of the other class members. If someone’s snoring, the pace has fallen off a bit…

You learn a lot when people laugh in the right place, and even more when they laugh in the wrong one.

The student is in the same boat as the rest of the class, who should all understand how to give and receive criticism. Your nearest and dearest is not usually the best critic, as it’s easy to criticise the person rather than the work.

Meeting up regularly keeps momentum going on something like a book, where a new chapter can be tackled each week.

The tutor may be able to tailor a particular lesson to a request from a student.

People make lifelong friends, and I know at least two people who’ve married someone they met in class.

You can carry on going to the same class for years if you enjoy it. Decades, even.

Tutors are not well paid, and this may have an impact on the quality of the teaching.

Face-to-face cons:

If a student misses more than one week, it can be difficult to get back into the swing of things.
One difficult member of a class can ruin it for everyone.

There are bad teachers. If you get one and you’ve signed up for a whole term, you’re sunk.

If it’s an evening class, it can be hard to summon up the energy in the winter when it’s raining/snowing/blowing a gale.

It costs, and if there are insufficient numbers it can be cancelled. There are free courses, such as U3A, but adult education teachers are required to have qualifications.

Depending on where you go, there can be a lot of irrelevant time-wasting paperwork. The best question my students were asked, many years ago, was whether their physical fitness had improved throughout the term.

Online pros:

You don’t have to leave the house, and all your reference books are there to hand. As well as the internet.

You have time to reflect on the criticism you get, which should stop knee-jerk reactions.

You can request a change of tutor if things aren’t working, as the organisation will have more lecturers.

You can work towards a degree.

The course will be well-structured, with a lot of (hopefully) helpful written material to get through.
You can do it anywhere that has internet access. I have had students from all over the world.

The tutors are paid more, will be better qualified, and frequently have an extensive publishing record.
It’s a real plus for disabled students, who can’t get out much.

 A Brief Eternity was started as part of
an OCA course

Online cons:

You don’t get to meet any other writers.

You don’t get to meet your tutor.

The course won’t be tailored to your individual needs.

There will be a time limit for completion of the course.

You need a reasonably up-to-date computer, and you need to be computer literate.

I have had some big successes with both methods of teaching. There’s not a lot to choose between the ability of those who sign up for either method, as I’ve had students get published both conventionally and through self-publication from both disciplines. However, there is a requirement in online courses for students to be able to use English to reasonable standard, and a tutor may question their ability to complete the course if they feel this is lacking. Those who are likely to struggle are better off in a face-to-face class. The financial outlay will be less, and there is more wriggle-room for a tutor to give an alternative homework if they think the class one is too challenging.
            So do I think it’s worth doing a course? Definitely. Students are encouraged to try different forms, which may benefit them in unexpected ways. Budding novelists will learn about effective vocabulary from poetry lessons. Poets will tackle construction in a short story class. Short story writers will improve their dialogue by doing a bit of play-writing. I loved doing my MA, and I learned a lot.


Griselda Heppel said…
An illuminating post, thank you. I feel much better informed about both types of creative writing courses, just from reading the pros and cons of both. The main message is that doing a course is worth it (unless you are very unlucky and have a poor teacher and a disruptive student - I've certainly been on a course with one of the latter and you're right, that student somehow skewed the whole course).

Poetry would be my weak point too so hats off to you not only for tackling it on your MA, but winning the Cardiff poetry prize!

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