By Kristen Hall-Geisler
Summer vacation is over, and that means one thing: back-to-school supplies! One of my greatest indulgences as an adult is trawling the back-to-school aisles and filling a basket with notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, folders, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Maybe some highlighters. Maybe new markers for the whiteboard in my office. I stuff my new purchases in my backpack and walk home like the fourth-grader I used to be, ponytail swinging.
I don’t buy all these supplies only for fun and nostalgia. I really do use them all year long, because I love taking online classes. I almost always choose the free options, though I have paid for seminars and certificates. I also have received access to courses that were themselves free but were part of a membership I have or a Patreon I support.
There are classes online for almost anything you can think of, which is the best of news and the worst of news. It means there are likely online classes that can help you brush up on any weaknesses in your writing or help you establish a creative routine. It also means that finding those classes can mean hours of searching.
Here are my best tips for finding the online classes that work for you.
- Find lists of MOOCs. Many large universities offer massive open online courses, sometimes called MOOCs. Open Culture, a fantastic site itself, curates a list of MOOCs, which are almost always free to take. If you want a certificate of completion (which does not count for course credit at the university), you usually have to pay a small fee, somewhere in the $100 range.
- Search specific universities. Universities you have definitely heard of host their own open courses that are often recorded lectures from past academic terms. MIT Open Courseware has loads of top-level classes to take online. I see there’s one right now on the physical process of making books. Open Yale Courses is another great resource for reliable information, and they’ve got an Intro to the Theory of Literature class that looks good.
- Sign up for a portal. Rather than searching every university for its writing-related online offerings, you can use an educational portal like Coursera or FutureLearn to find classes from universities around the globe. These courses are often structured so that you can interact with other students and even do homework assignments that are (generously) graded by your instructors or peers. You can sign up for a class in advance or add it to a wish list to be notified when it’s about to begin. Neil Gamain’s art of storytelling class for Masterclass is ridiculously popular—for good reason—but it is not free.
- Take an online seminar. Many people in publishing offer small-group seminars in subjects like creativity, indie publishing, book marketing, and more. These are almost never free, but you will get more tailored attention to your questions and your project. I recommend signing up for the instructor’s email list, listening to their podcast if they have one, and visiting their blog or Facebook page often to see if their style meshes with yours. You don’t want to pay for a course and then bail because the instructor is too much—or not enough—like a drill sergeant for you.
There are a few scenarios to be aware of when scheduling yourself for online courses.
- For classes that will be taught live, make sure you will be available for live instruction and group chats. Also, keep in mind that you will need to make your deadlines for any homework assignments. You’ll often get one-on-one attention from the instructor, but you’ll have less flexibility when life inevitably gets in the way.
- Some classes have a window of access. The course may be four weeks long, but it begins on a particular day, and you only have access for five or six weeks. This means more flexibility, but within limits. You can study at five in the morning or nine at night, but you’ll still be able to interact with the instructors and your fellow students.
- Other classes are available all the time. You can start and finish whenever you like. There will be little to no interaction with your classmates or instructors, but you’ll have the most flexibility for learning at your own pace.
I sometimes build myself a little themed academic term based on a course I’m taking. Right now, for instance, I’m honing my French skills. So in addition to an online course, I’m using a workbook and writing the answers in the notebooks I picked up at the back-to-school sale. I also listen to podcasts and watch movies in French with the English subtitles turned off.
For writing courses, be sure to read any of the suggested materials included with the course and do the exercises! If you have the option of talking to your classmates via a forum or comments during the course, do. No matter which course you take or how you find it, your fellow students will be international. It’s fun to talk about writing and realize the struggle is real no matter what continent you live on.
Online courses remind us that while kids have to take classes, we adults get to take classes. New notebooks and pens and only taking courses we know we’ll enjoy. Being a grown-up is pretty great.
Kristen Hall-Geisler has been Tracking Changes in manuscripts for Indigo since 2012. Her favorite editorial projects are nonfiction, historical fiction, and works in translation of just about any genre. She’s written three books, including Skull and Sidecar (2018), and so has also picked her way through pages full of red marks from her editors.