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Learning the Craft
by Dawn Copeman

Return to Starting Your Writing Career · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Writing, just like any other career, involves serving an apprenticeship: a period in which you are expected to hone your writing skills and learn the craft. But just how should you go about it?

The best way, as with any other apprenticeship, is to learn from those who are already practising the craft -- i.e. other writers. There are a variety of ways in which you can learn from your fellow writers:

  • Books
  • Free Online Courses
  • Writing Newsletters
  • Writing Groups/Circles/Forums
  • Paid Courses (distance learning, evening classes, day classes, summer schools, campus based MFA's, distance learning MFA's.)

But how do you choose which one is right for you?

The answer depends on three questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What do you need or want to know?
  2. How much time can you commit to learning the craft?
  3. How much money are you willing to spend to learn the craft?

What do you need to know?

If you're an absolute beginner, the answer is obviously everything! There are many specialist courses aimed at the complete beginner; they are, of course, comprehensive, expensive and time-consuming. But they might be worth the investment if you are serious about changing your career.

However, you might not have the time nor the money to embark upon a comprehensive writing course, in which case you should choose an appropriate short course that meets your immediate needs, such as one on how to write a query letter, or how to write grammatically correct English.

Alternatively, why not buy a book to learn your craft? There are lots of them out there and they cover all the basics a beginner needs to know. Moira, for example, has just released her popular online course "How to Write for Magazines" as a book. So, before you spend money on a course, see if there are any books out there that could steer you in the right direction.

How much time do you have available?

How much time can you realistically put into your course? Do you have the time and dedication to complete a distance learning course? Will you be committed enough to set your own deadlines for assignments or to meet those set by the course provider? Can you commit to attending an evening class every week for the duration of the course? Do you want to study in your holidays? Or do you want something you can study when you can find the time?

How much money are you willing to spend?

Finally, you need to consider how much money you are willing to pay for your course. Can you afford to take a paying course or do you want to start out with something cheaper or even free?

If you are on a tight budget, do not despair: there is a lot of free writing information out there. I learned most of the basics right here at Writing-World.com. Don't ignore writing sites in your quest to learn the craft, they are full of useful information, you just need the perseverance to track it down. Plus there are thousands of free courses available on-line that can start you off in the right direction.

Obviously, courses you need to pay for do have advantages over free courses.

  • You are set appropriate yet challenging writing tasks to improve your writing
  • Your work is appraised by an experienced writer and you will receive useful feedback.
  • You are given tips on how to improve your work and even on how to sell it.

But free courses have their advantages too:

  • They are usually quite short and quick to complete.
  • If you don't like the course, you can stop at any time and start another.

Let's look in more detail at the other options available to you.


Any writer's bookshelf should have some books on writing on it. Many are written by highly successful freelance writers and are packed full of information. A basic writer's bookshelf should include a guide to grammar and style, a copy of the most recent Writer's Market or Writer's and Artists Yearbook and a few books on the basics of writing in your chosen genre.

Writing Newsletters

Choose them wisely. There are thousands of writing newsletters out there covering all writing genres and it would take you forever to read them all. Subscribe only to those that you think will be of real, practical use to you. Have a look around the site first; if it is full of information covering the basics, then the newsletter will be useful. If, however, it's full of more advanced, specialist articles; then it's probably one to join later, when you've built up some experience.

Writing Groups/Circles/Forums

These can either be a wonderful support structure, full of useful advice and friendly support from people who know what it's like to be a beginner, or they can be places where people are either too kind to offer constructive, helpful criticism, or where people are incredibly harsh towards new writers. If there isn't a writing group near you, then why not join one online? My advice would be to wander around as a guest first; check out the topics being discussed and the help on offer before joining. When you do join, remember to give and not just receive feedback. (For more information on groups, see How Online Critiquing Can Help Your Writing, by Moira Allen.)

Free Online Courses

Whilst they don't offer the feedback or assignments you get with paid for courses, they do offer an excellent introduction to their topics. I always do a free online course on a topic I'm interested in before I commit to a paid course; they offer you the opportunity to 'test the water' and see if the topic really suits or interests you. Just because they're free does not mean they aren't any good. In fact, many successful writers and writing organisations, such as Harlequin, offer free courses. The real drawback with free courses is that you have to be disciplined enough to do them and to finish them. Nor do they generally offer any feedback on your work.

Paid Courses

There are a wide variety of these courses. So here's a guide on how to choose the best one for you.

  • If you can get to an evening or day class that is appropriate to your needs, these courses not only offer feedback, but also a supportive community of writers in a similar position.
  • If you cannot attend an evening class, consider a virtual one instead. Many on-line courses meet at the same time each week and offer a students' forum for virtual networking.
  • If you can afford the time and the money, a summer course offers the opportunity for a dedicated, intense period of writing and learning and a chance to network with other writers.
  • If you are committed to learning writing, but need flexibility; consider a home-study course.

When choosing a course you need to pay for, ask your writing friends for recommendations. Failing that, check your favourite writing magazines or sites for details of any classes they are offering or promoting. If a course is being offered via a writing site or magazine it is usually (though not always) a reputable course. Also, on writing sites you will find details of what the course will cover, any assignments you will have to complete, the number of lessons and often testimonials from previous students.

Alternatively, search online for a course that meets your needs. If you do this, try and get feedback from other people who have done this course. If no testimonials are given, post questions about the course in writing forums.

If you are considering taking a distance-learning course, the course organisers should send you plenty of detailed information about the course, including student testimonials, before asking you to commit to anything.

When will your apprenticeship end?

This is a bit of a trick question, as the answer is "never, really." Even when you've mastered the basics, there is always more to learn. Writers need to keep learning, to keep improving our skills. Personally, the fact that there is always something new to learn is one of the attractions of writing; I can never get bored!

On a practical level, we need to keep improving our skills to ensure we will always have work; magazines close, editors move on and standards change. In order to keep working we need to extend our range and to keep up with developments in the industry. In many careers such continual professional development is compulsory. To really succeed as a writer, not just now, but always, you need to build time for your career development into your writing plan. Take time every week or month to increase your knowledge and develop as a writer. It will be worth it.

Find Out More...

Getting the Most from Online Classes, by Moira Allen

Writing-World.com's links to Writing Classes

Copyright © 2006 Dawn Copeman

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).


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