My default learning strategy appears to be osmosis. Untouched writing resources are towering over me now as I blog and there’s an even bigger accumulation of fiction built up in book cities beside my bed. They waft their pages at me so that story-tainted air currents and advice-filled dust molecules drift into my grey matter as I sleep. Along with this, I book in for courses so I can sit among the aspiring, direct my brain at the successful, and absorb. I take copious notes and add them to my resource tower.

Whose fault is it if their content doesn’t transmute directly into improvements in my work? When I read an How To guide, I find it all fascinating and exciting; I have great plans for all of that new knowledge and for all of those tips, and the next step is to try to put things into practice. But self-directed exercises are hard and without feedback, how can I tell where I’m going wrong? In actuality, relying on osmosis isn’t enough. And self-directed learning isn’t always as productive as I’d wish. This learning thing is a tough gig.

Kurt Vonnegut said that Socrates, Sartre and Sinatra said,

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That’s why the course I’ve been doing with the generous folk at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program has been so transformative. It’s like uni all over again – funny that – where you get a lecture and reading materials, and then you get an assignment so you can implement what you’ve learnt. You get a tutorial to solidify some of the concepts just before the assignment is due, and you have discussions with other students and facilitators to debate over their meaning and value, and to bring out new ideas. And then you review each other’s assignment work. By participating in every component of the course you get to learn in deep and deeper ways how to, and how not to, write. And tight deadlines provide extra motivation to do be do! If you like writing, and want to get better,

How Writers Write Fiction 2015 is really super. And free. Run as a MOOC, ‘Massive Open Online Course’, participants are from all over the globe.

The course is just finishing up week 7 of 7 but I think you can still join up now to benefit from the videos and discussions, or join in 2016 (I do hope they run it again) to participate fully.

The video lectures are presented by published authors talking about their processes, their books and the theories that work for them. Commentary by students of the course indicates that experienced writers have found it fairly beginner-oriented and that the interaction with other students was the most learning-rich aspect. Certainly there is an enormous amount to be gained from building a community of writers willing to honestly critique each other’s work. But I also think that the video lectures provide a learning opportunity that is greater than the sum of the material presented:

I also find it very helpful to hear about an author’s personal experience, and the more trivial the better because it demystifies the novel writing process and helps to boost my confidence that I can do it too 🙂
Also I think as a writer that wishes to publish, you do have to get comfortable with the idea of talking about, and advocating for your work. I think the confident way these authors refer to their own work, and their conviction that their own work is a respectable example [of the implementation of the ideas being discussed], is a good model to follow. As a marketing opportunity, it can’t be beat! And the more uncomfortable that makes us feel [as writers watching their videos], the more uncomfortable we probably are about marketing ourselves. I know I am! So, I’m very happy for the exposure to it.

(Extract from a course discussion comment I made.)

As a beginner myself I found the course challenging and a marvellous learning experience as well as a great way to meet other writers.

Like in real life, there’s no official delineation between beginner and experienced. You decide for yourself and since self-assessment is so subjective, there’s a huge variation in the quality of writing among those who slot themselves into both classifications.

One tip I would give to ‘beginners’ starting a course like this:

Actively seek out experienced writers to learn from.

I was able to put my best discussion voice on when I was participating in the discussions for experienced writers; Like playing squash, you’ll want to find players better than you to engage with.


Stick to the assignment word limit.

The word limit forces you to be ruthless in editing your writing. My first draft was always 1.5 to 2 times the upper word limit so I always had to buckle down to find and remove the least contributing parts, reword the weak but necessary parts and sometimes remove characters or descriptions that weren’t earning their place. Each cut and rework I did made the story much stronger.

For experienced writers, I would suggest:

Build a group of like-minded writers with similar or greater levels of experience (and let some beginners join too 🙂 ).

Students were able to set up or join groups so they could engage in targeted discussions about particular topics or for particular purposes. I crashed a group that called themselves ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ for ‘Serious readers & writers who can laugh at themselves & want to give & get real critique’ and found some very fabulous writers and readers (these are not always the same thing) there whose stories wowed me and who were willing to provide feedback on my work, from both of which I feel I gained a lot. I look forward to following up those people in their writing careers and looking out for them in online spaces.

Check out these sites for other free MOOCs. You’ll find an amazing array of topics, not just writing.

Have you completed any MOOCs? Which and where (links!) and what did you like/dislike about them?