If there is an unofficial season I love more than the weeks leading up to Halloween or the days after various holidays when chocolate goes on sale, it's back-to-school.
When I actually was in school, I loved going out to get everything I needed for the upcoming year, whether that meant following a checklist given out by my elementary school or getting the necessities for my college dorm, I always enjoyed the process.
I still look forwards to these yearly sales as an adult. Back-to-school season is when I stock up on my mechanical pencils of choice, composition notebooks, and other essentials for my writing.
Hearing my college-aged coworkers talk about the courses they're taking this semester has gotten me thinking about the classes I took as a student—and the ones I wish I could have.
As is often the case with any college program, there are going to be classes you're interested in but are unable to sign up for due to class size, prioritizing requirements for your major or minor, scheduling conflicts, additional fees, and other reasons. But there are also a few I wish I could have enrolled in that my college simply didn't offer.
Even though plenty of what I learned during that time has helped me grow as a writer and develop my understanding of the craft, I continue to encounter things I wish I had learned sooner and questions I know I'll need to dig into as I work towards my dreams of becoming a published author.
So, in the spirit of back-to-school season, here's a list of classes I wish I could have taken while in college!
As a quick note, I'm going by the classes offered by my relatively small four-year college and its bachelor's degree program. These or similar may be offered at other institutions and at other academic levels like a master's degree or doctorate.
Additionally, while attending a four-year college immediately after graduating high school was the right choice for me, that isn't true for everyone. College is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and many of these hypothetical classes might be found through your community and online resources.
Before we talk about classes that could have been, I should go over the classes I was able to take.
English majors, especially those with any form of writing as a concentration, would take a variety of introductory writing classes like fiction or poetry. From there, we'd have the option to explore courses relating more specifically to our area of study. Journalism majors would take classes in newswriting and other forms of media production, while creative writing majors would spend a semester in an advanced fiction workshop class or screenwriting. These classes could also be used as electives counting towards the completion of the bachelor's program, so a student aspiring for a career in the newsroom could still take that poetry class without difficulty.
As a student, the majority of my fiction writing classes revolved around the short story, reading and analyzing published works while writing our own pieces.
I also took classes in poetry, playwriting, screenwriting, podcasting, and newswriting, the last of which eventually led me to join the student newspaper as a copy editor starting in my junior year.
Although each of these classes was valuable for its own reasons, there are times I wish they had covered more or different things despite the time constraints of a semester.
For the most part, they were introductory classes giving a taste of what each form of writing entailed and covering the basics, meaning they served their purpose, but rarely did we get into the nitty-gritty and explore them in a greater depth.
And that brings me to the first kind of writing class I wish I could have taken in college!
Explaining The Elements
A draw for students enrolling in any creative writing class, whether it was a part of the requirements for their degree or an elective taken for fun, was the freedom it offered. Many felt it provided a sort of mental break from equations and textbooks, particularly if they were not an English major.
The introductory creative writing class had us play around with writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. These assignments would later be compiled into a portfolio that we turned in as our final.
Professors would provide guidance, assign some readings, and offer feedback alongside other students in peer workshop sessions, but beyond that, we were largely left to our own discretion. Deadlines and page counts were often the only constraints looming over us.
The environment had a more casual air, with seats arranged in a large circle rather than in rows, and no wrong answers. These classes did not have a midterm as you'd find in a literature or mathematics class. The equivalent of a final would be a portfolio or completed short story, with some using the allotted time for an exam period to host a reading.
However fun and relaxed as these classes were, they left me wanting more from them.
This especially holds true for the advanced classes.
Taking Advanced Fiction Workshop, I hoped to get into the specifics of things. The Why of writing fiction. It's not just important to know how to craft a story or what elements of fiction work together but why those rules exist.
Advanced Fiction Workshop was the class that assigned a short story of at least twenty pages to be written over the course of the semester. The early classes would be spent looking at published short stories and some of the prep work for our own. About halfway through, the focus would be shifted to peer workshops. We would distribute a set number of pages from our WIPs ahead of our assigned day and have the opportunity to receive feedback from the group.
Though peer feedback is an incredibly valuable resource to have, it didn't always provide enough information to fine-tune my WIPs. The critiques of these workshops tended to be on the broader side, covering the big-picture stuff like needing to add more description to a setting or better explaining a character's motivations. Admittedly, I found myself giving similar comments on classmates' works. This could have been because of a few things, like the size of the class and the number of stories we'd have to read each week, but also because I didn't at that point understand the importance of the smaller details.
I wish we had a course breaking down all of the little elements of fiction, the things that go into the crafting of a story and using the art of language to your advantage as a storyteller. There are a lot of tiny nuances that can make or break a manuscript that weren't covered in the advanced writing courses my college offered.
Varying sentence length, paying attention to diction, how to use the Oxford Comma and semicolons properly, picking up on alliteration, finding the words that flow together, and so many other things that can make an enjoyable story an easier read.
These details may not be exciting or fun, but an awareness of them is vital.
It wasn't until I started working with beta readers for one of my novels years later that I started seeing all of the little elements that needed to be tweaked and revisited.
So much time was spent on setting up a story that the skills needed to polish it later kind of fell to the wayside. A class period or two dedicated to reviewing some of these would go a long way, benefiting writers for years to come.
Fine-Tuning The First Draft
The fiction classes I took in college did a pretty good job when it came to the prep work for a story and writing the first draft. Many of the exercises focused on worldbuilding, laying out the groundwork for the plot, and character development.
But that's as far as it went.
At the end of the semester we would have a completed work, but one arguably unfinished.
While we would have feedback from workshops and our professors, those comments didn't go into the nooks and crannies of the areas needing more work. After implementing recommended changes, we'd likely have an improved draft, but a draft nonetheless.
If there is one class I wish my college offered English majors or any students interested in writing, it's one focused on editing fiction.
The majority of my editing lessons came from working on the student newspaper as a copy editor. There is a bit of crossover, but editing articles and nonfiction is a different game than editing fiction like a novel—and I'm still learning how to play the latter.
Editing articles written by my peers had me following the guidelines set by the Associated Press in order to uphold a sense of uniformity across the board.
Fiction calls for a looser grip on the infamous red pen. While there are standard rules pertaining to formatting and punctuation and the like, storytelling can get into an almost lawless territory. Characters don't always speak with formality and proper grammar. Sentences can be one word long. An action beat can serve as enough attribution for a line of dialogue, meaning "said" can get thrown out the window; there may even be a full exchange between characters in which only one or two of these tags appear because readers can infer who is speaking.
It took a long time for me to break away from the rigidity of the newsroom and begin editing my fiction as fiction. Prior to this, there was what I would describe as an almost textbook vibe to my narration, a habit I'm still learning to break.
Oftentimes, my descriptions of a setting would be straight and to the point but not immersive because I was still editing with the mindset of a copy editor on the student newspaper, not that of a storyteller.
Having a class geared towards editing fiction would have been valuable—especially if we could use that time to revise what we had written in the Advanced Fiction Workshop course.
Prologue to Publishing
I do know of a few master's programs offering courses and degrees of this nature, but this was not available at my college.
Publishing can get confusing. It's not straightforward, especially in this day and age where you have the option of self-publishing in addition to the traditional path and taking the hybrid route, and some of the steps might remain unknown until you get there.
I would have loved the opportunity to take a class about the publishing process because there are so many things authors need to do along the way, and having information about the different methods of publishing could make the it less daunting.
In my mind, this would center on discussions about traditional, self, and hybrid publishing, what each entails and their respective pros and cons.
I could also see going over how to write a successful query letter or pitch, tips for handling rejections, what happens when your book goes on sub, everything leading up to release day, and subsequent matters like the way authors are paid. There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes, much of which the writer isn't directly involved with, but being knowledgeable of them could prevent (at least a few) surprises along the way.
Marketing for Creators
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions among writers and non-writers alike is that if you successfully land a traditional publishing deal, you won't have to worry about marketing. To my knowledge, while publishers do have a budget for promotion, their focus is usually on established clients and authors. Newer authors, therefore, find themselves in the position of navigating promotion; even if they become an instant New York Times Bestseller, authors will still be tasked with marketing in some capacity.
Regardless of the publication path an author chooses, a lot of marketing work will fall to them, which means at least a basic understanding of marketing and promotion is worth having.
My school also had a business program. I even took the introductory business class early as an elective.
However, there wasn't a class designed for the creative mind.
Quite a few authors work with a publicist to aid in their marketing, the duties of whom may include setting up book tours and getting in touch with online outlets like bloggers for reviews, but this isn't a feasible option for everyone. This is why having an understanding of marketing is wise to have in the Writer's Toolkit.
Branding as an author is its own beast.
Social media is such an asset for writers of all genres, and can be one of the best methods of introducing your work to readers. From tactics to graphics, knowing what works and what doesn't can be one of the determining factors in your sales. Writing promotional material requires a different skill set than writing fiction. Networking requires a different demeanor then making writer friends online, and demonstrating a lack of professionalism can make for an unfavorable first impression.
Additionally, some of the most popular things authors will do on social media can be negatively impactful. Dropping links to your Amazon author page in the DMs of new followers will make your name known, but this also makes me less likely to purchase these books because the connection feels ungenuine or spammy.
Promoting your work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and any other site you can think of is great, but each has its own nuances. Twitter encourages brevity, whereas success on Instagram requires an ability to be eye-catching, which leads authors to incorporate a recurring aesthetic or color scheme with their posts. Identifying how each platform operates and the factors contributing to a successful presence there can be a huge part of success in marketing as an author.
Growing your online presence can be as intricate and it is intimidating. Being able to take a course in this would make the process less intimidating for internet introverts like myself.
It's a known adage that writers take to their hobby or profession because it lets them tell a story to an unseen audience, that they can work in the proverbial wings and create an experience for others to escape into.
However, authors might find themselves being pulled out of this comfort zone.
As you start promoting your book ahead of its release, chances are you may set up a few interviews. This might be in the form of filling out an emailed questionnaire, but it's also common to hop on a live Zoom call or film a video to be uploaded on the interviewer's platform.
Readings and speaking engagements can be great opportunities for an author to expand their reach. These allow you to share your work with your audience and introduce yourself. Sometimes, there may be a Q&A portion or signing afterwards that gives you a chance to interact on a more personal level. They can also be great for supporting local communities, libraries, and independent bookstores.
Book signings can help you settle into your niche as an author and make connections with your readers to better establish your platform. While attendees might already be readers of yours and come with their personal copies to be signed, the venue or group hosting often has some on hand to sell at the event.
Depending on the author and the number of works they have published so far, they might even have the previous installments in a series at the ready in case a reader wants to catch up before they get to the one that was featured during the reading.
Attending these events as an audience member is a wonderful experience, but for folks like myself who face insecurities and anxiety, being put in that spotlight can be dreadful.
This is why I wish I could have taken a public speaking class, even if it would have induced a ton of discomfort for me at first.
Classes in public speaking can help build up your confidence and confront these fears, and teach skills that are valuable for almost any career path--including writing.
Even if you're not at a speaking engagement, public speaking can be integral to your writing. For one thing, it can guide your writing style.
Recently, I've been attempting to reshape the way I write my stories, specifically concentrating on my narrative voice and improving its overall flow. You may have already noticed a shift in tone in newer blog posts.
I've been taking the Mic Drop Theory and expanding on it. Instead of applying the concept of telling a story to an audience to only the closing line, I've been picturing this crowd whenever I'm writing narration.
This has me easing my way into public speaking lessons from podcasts and videos.
As I continue writing the first draft of a new project and editing an older one, keeping this image in the back of my mind has helped me to find my voice as a narrator, one I wish I had been acquainted with much sooner.
Being done with school doesn't mean you're done learning. While these are classes I wish I could have taken as a student in college, I'm consistently looking for resources to fill in those gaps and improve my understanding in those areas.
A huge part of the writing process is evolving, and one of the greatest lessons to learn is how to grow and finding out what you need to know.