Online Creative Writing Classes: Why They Can Work

December 11th, 2008 · 6 Comments
by Seth Harwood

[BS: Today, we host podbook pioneer and published author, Seth Harwood. Seth, who boldly went where few authors had gone before, podcasting his novels as they were being written (and bravely handling real-time feedback!), is now trying a new adventure: online education. See how he’s approaching this new challenge.]

Having taught on-the-ground creative writing and English classes for seven years now, I used to be one of the first to pipe up and defend the face-to-face experience as invaluable for literature and creative writing. That’s right, even though I do most all of my writer’s promotion online and have gotten further with that than from any other outreach I’ve done, I was a total stalwart when it came to my classes. Until now.

Last summer I caught up with an old friend from grad school who taught classes for Stanford Online. Since she’d seen what I’d done with outreach and building my audience as a writer online, she suggested I get into the mix. When I saw I could teach Creative Writing in Crime Fiction (starts Jan 10th — sign up now!) I decided to give it a try. What followed was a lot of work: pitching the class, writing the class proposal, and finally, writing the full ten weeks of the class—lessons, exercises, discussion topics—before the class even started.

As a permanent procrastinator, I’d never planned a class ahead of time to this extent. Sure, I was never forced to plan a class ahead of time before, but now that I’ve gone through that process, I can see how much it’ll add to the class overall. Don’t get me wrong: I always have a good idea where my classes are going, but not to this multi-pronged extent. By writing out the full ten lessons ahead of time, I was really able to figure out what I thought was most important for crime writing and what I needed to get across. It was a challenge to incorporate a workshop session for everybody, lessons and writing exercises that led up to a finished piece, as well as strong criteria and strategies for revision, and don’t forget readings and discussion. Without a doubt, the class will be a challenge for the students.

But what I like about it is that it’s all there. It all fits, and I have time to tweak things before the class starts, the students will see things unfold as they go through the course and, maybe most importantly, they can incorporate the parts of the class into their own lives as they see fit—when they can find the time. When I normally teach a writing workshop that meets once a week (most do), my fear is that some students do all the work the night before. The online class experience, on the other hand, is much more like trying to maintain the work of a real writer: you pinch and save time, you plug at something and get called away and you come back. You structure time to work at your project consistently. Not only do I think sticking to this course will be a great education, I think it’ll more closely model the dedication and work that students will have to do as “real writers”—those who have to consistently motivate themselves—than my usual classes. They’re also more consistently in touch with me and the other writers in the class.

And it’s realistic: the class can be taken for credit or not, graded or ungraded. Once you’re into the class, you decide for yourself how much of the work you can do. Something comes up, you take the time off you need, but the ship keeps moving. You get right back on when you can. From a writer’s point of view, this also seems more realistic to me.

Being online also makes the class a great entry point for online promotion and research resources. I can explain how I built an audience in the thousands online by podcasting my work, show sites where students can podcast their stories, and even invite them to organize a class episode for my CrimeWAV site. I can introduce relevant listservs for crime writers and also research sites to get answers to those pesky forensic or ballistics questions. Through links, I can incorporate these pieces of the online world right into the class. They become parts of the discussion.

Though I haven’t started this course yet, I’m as excited about this it as when I was a student gearing up for workshop, bright-eyed and ready to put my own writing into the mix. Even more-so, now that I have more perspective and I know the points we’ll be discussing. I almost can’t wait.

If you’re interested in seeing this class in action or aspire to write crime or mysteries, check out Crafting Successful Crime Fiction: How to Write the Action (Online Course).

Seth Harwood received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa, the University of Massachusetts, and at the City College of San Francisco. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary and crime/noir journals and his first novel, Jack Wakes Up, reached #1 in Crime/Mystery on in a small release last spring. Three Rivers Press (Random House) has since bought the rights to the novel for a May 2009 nationwide release. He can be found at and hosts the online series of crime story podcasts on

File Under: Square Pegs

6 responses so far ↓

  • April Kihlstrom // Dec 12, 2008 at 10:37 am

    I, too, was offering workshops and writing classes in person and now teach my Book in a Week class online and I love it! I can have students from around the world and they can read and respond to the lessons at any time of day that works for them. Ditto for me. I love that there’s every day response–if desired. It’s a great way to share information.

  • Mardi Link // Dec 12, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    I’ve taken three online creative writing classes through three different vendors (, Gotham, and Writer’s Digest) and had really solid, challenging experiences in each one. They helped me focus my work enough to get my first true crime book published this last July, When Evil Came to Good Hart, which was picked up by the University of Michigan Press. I ended up signing a multi-book deal with them for three true crime books, even though I don’t have an agent. As a single parent living in the middle of nowhere, I can’t speak highly enough of the opportunities online classes provide. Seth, I’m clicking over to your class description right now! Maybe I’ll try my hand at fiction . . .

  • Seth Harwood // Dec 12, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    That’s great to hear, Mardi. I hope to see you in the class!
    Whether you’re writing fiction or non, we’ll be working on techniques for scene, dialogue, voice, characters and more. It’ll definitely help your work. True Crime? Bring it on!

  • James // Dec 24, 2008 at 9:12 am

    I’ve been looking for a class like this. A lot of creative writing classes are too artsy for my taste.
    I’m looking forward to this class. It’s my first attempt at taking a class in creative writing. My experience is limited to writing fan fiction for the Sarah Connor Chronicles for the past year. I’m hoping this class will help my writing improve significantly.

    My Favorite Crime Fiction is Dick Francis and Robert Parker.

  • Chris // Jan 9, 2009 at 2:47 am

    I enjoyed your comments, Mardi. I’m not looking to do something like Seth’s course yet, but I am curious as to which of the three online writing courses you found to be the best value for the money. I’m thinking of starting with a few children’s stories. Thanks!

  • Ted // Jan 12, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Ok – Just about anything will work, after a fashion, I suppose—with involvement. But the advice I have for prospective writers is: DO IT YOURSELF!