Why You Shouldn’t Pay For Writing Courses (And The One Reason Why You Should)

Sometimes, it’s tempting to outsource our learning to others, to let them tell us how to write. I know that because I’ve done it too.

I had enrolled in a distance-learning programme many moons ago, when the internet wasn’t as developed and when the learning material would come in the form of snail mail.

“Get paid at the end of the course or you get your money back!” That was their promise. Surely, it was a win-win, right?

Nope.

That’s how I quickly learned that writing isn’t about hoarding techniques and knowledge. You’re not going to improve just by having a mentor tell you what to do. You have to create and find ways to share said creations with the world.

And you have to want to do all that, on your own accord, regardless of the outcome.

But now that we’ve established this gloomy outlook on writing, let’s hop on to why you shouldn’t pay to learn the craft.

Information is free

Just like programming, you can teach yourself a good chunk of writing thanks to the best mentor in the world: Google. For instance, here are the subjects commonly listed under copywriting courses:

  • How to create a customer avatar
  • What is AIDA and PAS
  • Features versus benefits

And here are some for the creative writing courses:

  • How to create characters
  • What is POV
  • How to world-build

Now do me a favour and google the terms yourself. What do you think? Would you be willing to pay anywhere from fifty to a thousand bucks for the above info?

Of course, this excludes the subjective topics such as ‘how to get over writer’s block’ or ‘how to write better prose’, because if that’s what you’re looking for, you can get all that on this site for free. And speaking of subjective…

Art is subjective

I guess my gripe about the mass of writing courses out there is that people can structure their syllabuses however they please.

One mentor’s ‘Most Important Tip For Copywriting’ could very well be a seven-minute video on customer avatars, while another’s holy grail could be the psychology of selling.

But in a field where one person’s opinion on bad form could be another’s bread and butter (I’m looking at you, adverbs and JK Rowling), it’s too easy to adopt the absolutes that some ‘authorities’ claim would make or break your career.

The worst is when the aspiring students sign up for a comprehensive course, then realise that they’d just paid a thousand dollars for nothing, because…

Not everything is used in the real world

Sure, it’s in your best interest to know the differences between PAS and AIDA, but no boss has ever told me to follow a specific framework.

What’s more realistic is your boss saying something like ‘we have a two-minute video to highlight these points’ or ‘can you suggest the taglines and menu items following this app wireframe’.

In fact, even if you followed all the copywriting instructions to a tee, you’d still get someone up the chain of command who thinks it sucks.

That’s the problem with cookie-cutter courses that supposedly prepare you for a writing career. The subjects they teach you might not concern the everyday copywriter, wasting both your time and money.

For instance, white papers might sound like an interesting subject (plus it’s often touted a source for the monies) until you realise that it’s a medium you never want to touch, and it’ll cost you $499 just to come to that realisation.

And while e-mail marketing does have its uses, you shouldn’t sit through a newsletter masterclass just because you think it might come handy someday.

So, should you not pay to learn?

Not really.

There’s only one reason why it’s worthwhile to pay for a course. And that’s if you get a true kick out of learning the craft.

Couple that with having a specific problem you can’t solve on your own and you’ll have a solid investment for your money.

Because again, you could easily learn all about e-mail marketing through Google, and there’s very little that other people can teach you that’s not already available online.

But if you’ve been sending out newsletters for a while, and you don’t know how else to increase your open rates, then it makes sense to seek out the help of a professional to tackle your exact problem.

More upsides to writing courses

It’s not all doom and gloom for writing courses. There are benefits to them after all.

For one, you get to network, especially if it’s an in-person course. Because who you know is as important as what you know. Also, writing’s such a solitary pursuit that connecting with like-minded people would be such a plus.

Then there’s the benefit of workshopping, or feedback-based learning. That’s a luxury worth its premium too, since proper critique is hard to come by these days, especially for writing.

Lastly, there’s the chance of rubbing shoulders with industry experts. Maybe you’ve always wanted to know how an e-mail marketer in your area earns her living, or how a renowned novelists writes their first draft. It’s always great to get insights right from the horses mouth.

Which brings me to my next point.

Joining a masterclass

If you’ve ever sat through any of the famous Masterclasses, you’ll probably know that they’re more like exclusive interviews than actual classes.

And as someone who’s watched both Neil Gaiman’s and Margaret Atwood’s courses, I can safely say that the act of writing itself has taught me so much more than both Masterclasses combined.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t check them out, especially if you’re fans of their work. They did have some great insights, and perhaps those tiny nuggets of wisdom could take your writing to the next level, but just keep in mind that a few hours’ worth of videos won’t magically bestow you with Gaiman’s graceful prose or Atwood’s work ethic.

Those you’ll have to find on your own.

The best learning you can do…

…is to write. I know, I know, it’s super cliche at this point. But it’s true.

The biggest lessons I’ve learned in writing were garnered through plain ol’ trial and error. No amount of reading On Writing or The Elements Of Style has done so otherwise.

Yes, it’ll feel like you’re stumbling in the dark, and you won’t even know if you’re making any progress sometimes, but every word you put down is rewiring the connections in your brain, even if you don’t realise it.

One day, you’ll look back and see how far you’ve come, and you won’t be able to describe how you got there.

Like I said in my previous post, the best thing you can do as a writer is to get your first million words out. Then the real work begins.

So there you have it. A million words. The best takeaway I can give you on writing. And it didn’t even cost you a dime.


What would you pay for in a writing course, and what would you expect out of the syllabus? Let me know in the comments! Also, if you haven’t joined the newsletter already, you’re missing out on a ton of exclusive content similar to this one!

54 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Pay For Writing Courses (And The One Reason Why You Should)

  1. well said. everyone is coming out with masterclasses. But, do you really need it? what was the specific problem one is facing that can be solved by the class. if your answer yes. do you really need it now?

    taking classes blindly without specific problem is not gonna bring any real value.

    i was thinking about this lately. Glad to have comr across your post n blog today.

    • On a smaller scale, this is me and YouTube. Do I REALLY need to learn how to arrange my Scrivener binder? Or create character sheets? The danged YouTube algorithm gets me sometimes though, and I find myself ‘learning’ things I don’t need, lol.

      We really need to be more discerning with the material we choose to absorb for sure, especially when it involves money.

      Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. I’ve bought a few books about writing, from structures to writing series, characters, screenplays, etc… And they are in a box somewhere. Trial and error really is the best teacher, and so is studying other written works, or in the case of art, watching livestreams or analyzing their finished works. Granted, I got a long way to go with my art and writing, but I find the lessons sticks better when I’m actually working on a project rather than paying someone.

    • Like Bruce Lee (IIRC) said, doing is better than knowing is better than listening. Or something like that.

      I mean, the knowledge hoarder in me still wants to get my hands on every craft book and sift for The Ancient Forbidden Technique, but I know that my best growth lies in the actual practice, so there’s that.

      Thanks for your spate of encouraging comments, JB. I appreciate it!

  3. Great post Stuart!
    I love the in’s and out of all you said. I’m a hands on learner so I could benefit from such classes I’m sure. Google does tell all but I don’t have the time or I’d never write..
    But I am starting a writing course to whip up a few buck if you want to join in.. 😂😂😂💖😎

    • Yup, I definitely learn better with a mentor around. It’s just that it’s hard to find a course worth the money these days, especially since I live so far away from where the actual fun courses take place.

      Lol, always appreciate your fun energy in the comments. Thanks, Cindy!

      • I hear you and the time like we just mentioned. It’s finite and precious…..
        but always worth a moment to laugh with you!
        Glad you liked that! You’re welcome and thanks you !
        💖

  4. I really enjoyed reading your arguments. I teach two writing classes — one for high school students about how to write a college essay and the other for adults on grammar, punctuation, and writing for work. The classes used to be in person but are now live online. I have seen tremendous improvement in my students who have chosen to repeat my basics course two and three times. I used to dissuade students from repeating my courses because I didn’t have new materials to offer them each term, but I learned this past year that the repetition is precisely what causes them to improve. The more writing — the better the result, just as you say. I start each class with a 15-minute prompt and then students peer edit and finally group edit as a class. This is where the magic happens. My adult class is free to members of a union and my high school classes are taught in a public school (so obviously free). I just moved my college essay workshop to an additional online platform, charging a fee, but I believe in the curriculum and think it gets real results. Thanks for making me think about this topic.

    • So glad to hear your perspective, Suzanne. I was particularly interested in you saying that that the peer and group edits are where the magic happens. Having someone else look at your work (plus mentorship) is definitely worth the money. And you have so much experience with the classes you’re teaching, so I’m sure your fee for the college class is totally justified.

      I think repetition and rote learning is underrated. I know we all learn differently, but there’s something to be said by familiarising yourself with a syllabus.

      Anyway, thanks for your lovely perspective! I’m sure others would find this useful as well.

  5. I paid for a copywriting course to earn a credential and have never used it at all. I applied for couple things, never heard back, and gave up. Will never waste my money like that again, knowing that useless certificate + laziness = waste of time and money.

    • Lol, you remind me of my accounting diploma. I did manage to get a full-time job that paid USD300 per month with it though, so I guess that’s something.

      But who knows? Maybe it’s just not your time. Steven Pressfield skittered around in his writing till publishing his first book in his fifties. Then the floodgates just never closed.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Hetty!

  6. I can’t say [exactly] how much I’d pay for a course [I can let my distrust for poorly planned courses tighten my purse. Sometimes, I surprise myself with the way I splurge], but if there’s one thing id definitely love to see in a course is input from different perspectives.

    I really don’t like it when it’s just one person taking the whole class, except there’s room for contributions and lots of discussions. Else, two or three [hundred🤭] instructors/teachers/tutors wouldn’t hurt.

    Thanks anyways for this.👍🏽

    • That’s interesting that you’d like more perspectives in a class. I myself would splurge on expertise that I trust, which means going for certain personalities or writers with the achievements I’m looking to reach myself.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. They make for valuable points of view!

  7. I feel like you write this one just for me Stuart! Such amazing advice. My main reason for wanting to take a class is networking and feedback that’s more than people just telling me they liked it. I wanna grow darn it!

    • Networking is such an underrated aspect to classes. Having worked in a coding bootcamp, I’ve seen all the opportunities that the students have gotten just by being at the course and getting to know the people. Speaking of which, I better find a class soon, lol. Always great to see you here!

    • Indeed. Which is why it’s prudent for new writers not to hop onto the first programme they come across. But personalised advice and critique is always worth the money!

  8. I was going to sign up for a travel writing class that was taking place in a city I’ve always wanted to see (Charleston, South Carolina, USA) but it didn’t work out. It wasn’t cheap and I probably wouldn’t use the info to “become a travel writer” but it seemed like it would be a kick. Maybe next year…

    • Oh yeah, if you have an innate desire to learn because you foresee yourself enjoying it, then definitely go for it! That’s much better than me, a clueless writer at the time, signing up for a course that was going to ‘give me a career in writing’.

      But I guess it kinda worked too, in a roundabout way, lol.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. My daughter kindly enrolled me in two creative writing classes online. I know the classes must have cost her a pretty penny! So I made sure I was a good student!
    I enjoyed both classes, the prompts and the challenge of writing without editing, sharing with classmates, and getting feedback. At times, I could not always write impromptu short pieces.
    I felt confident that although I am not a prolific writer, I could contribute to the discussions in the class and offer my opinions about different topics without feeling my contribution wasn’t good enough.

    • Wow, I never considered being gifted a course, and if that’s the case, I say always go for it :P

      Glad to see that you’ve been enjoying it, and that it’s helped you realise more aspects to your writer self.

      I envy your confidence though, because I myself always suffer from impostor syndrome no matter what I do.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

      • Answer to your comment, “I envy your confidence though because I myself always suffer from impostor syndrome no matter what I do”, Stuart is … I am not confident and don’t consider myself as a writer. I just write what comes from my heart.

        The credit goes to the professor who conducted both classes. She was excellent at encouraging all participants to speak. Some of the participants were published and articulate but she made me feel that what I had to say was worth listening to.

    • You have no idea how much that means to me! I guess now I’ll have to keep checking your blog to see if that’s going to happen. Do get started. I’m rooting for you!

  10. I joined a writing workshop last year (it was free) coz I wanted to meet other aspiring creative writers and get inspired by learning something new. Unfortunately, it didn’t inspire me and I’ve been unable to find any other courses in my town. The good news is, my copy seems to work (at work) and I never think of AIDA. I looked up PAS and I actually dislike the idea that everything starts with a problem. I never start my copywriting with anything negative, as I aim to sell. But I know this is also one the things pros say about fiction: the plot needs a protagonist who overcomes a major obstacle, otherwise it’s boring. So maybe it’s just best I steer clear of advice anyway, since I just want to do my own thing!

    • It’s great that you know what you want! To be honest though, all the products I’ve written copy for always seemed to highlight a pain point we can solve, or a dream they can aspire to. Even the latter suggests that their status quo isn’t enough. When in Rome, I guess.

      But yeah, in ad agencies and marketing teams, people rarely bring up AIDA or PAS or whatever other framework there is for their own sake. Which is why I kinda dislike vague courses that teach these technical terms just to look fancy.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. Sad that you couldn’t be inspired by the course you attended, but networking is always a fun thing to do.

      Glad that you decided to stop by!

  11. I think in the beginning we could outsource to find out how to write…but in the end, we must find our own voice…our own style. No one writes the same and everyone is different in the way they express things. I think if I have never written a novel, I may want to know how to do it and would likely go to Google first..its FOC…haha…

    • Oh yeah, in this day and age, there’s no excuse to check everything with Google first, lol.

      But to give the internet more credit, many people have learned skills that traditionally require a teacher—such as playing the piano or a martial art—purely through the internet alone, so anything’s possible if we really want it.

      But yeah, if you’ve not written a novel before, it’d be good to have a mentor—only if you google first and figure out what you’re paying for.

      Great to see you again, Jeanne. Hope the running’s been well?

  12. When I started blogging just over three years ago, I had to ask myself what I hoped to get out of it. My main answer still hasn’t changed. It gave me opportunities to practice writing. The type of writing I do on my blog is not the same as the type of novels I’m trying to write (MG novels) for children. Still, it’s helpful to formulate our thoughts in a cohesive, organized, and articulate manner. I’ve also met many cool people in the process and made some new friends. I even met two bloggers in person a few months back.

    One of the most helpful things I’ve done is surround myself with others who enjoy writing. Finding a critique group has been invaluable, and it’s free! Getting regular feedback is crucial if we want to improve.

    • I envy you for having a critique group that’s free! I think either having personalised mentorship or a group to help you workshop would be one of the best things to pay for.

      Oh yeah, I definitely know about you meeting the bloggers, especially since those bloggers were powerhouses on WordPress (like you).

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Pete. I know I’m repeating myself every time I say this, but always glad to have you here!

    • After all I’ve said, I actually wouldn’t mind doing an MFA, if I had the resources for it, of course, lol. But yeah, only pay for courses if there’s something you really want to learn, otherwise, it’s fine if you’re not tempted. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. I think this is really a question of aligning on expectations. I have paid for writing workshops and writing retreats before, because I wanted the opportunity to write to prompts with a facilitator, get good workshop feedback, get writing and/or revision tips, and in the case of writing retreats, go to another location. Some workshops/ retreats also offered more tips on the business side of publishing which I considered a nice bonus, but this generally wasn’t my primary motivation. I should mention here that I have a full-time career, and I write as a hobby. So all in all, I felt like the writing workshops and retreats I paid for were worth it, but my goals were not to make it as a professional writer (I have met professional writers / aspiring professional writers at some of these)

    • Exactly! You’ve approached paid courses with due diligence, and joined these programmes with mentorship and workshopping in mind. Those reasons are totally worth the money, not just for a hobbyist, but to any writer in general. Location was something I’d totally overlooked so thanks for bringing that up.

      The problem arises when writers unsure of where to start pay for a bunch of videos on general topics they could’ve gotten off Google, and emerging nowhere better than when they started. That pains me.

      Anyway, it was great to see your point of view, JYP. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I agree with your point that the best way to learn is to write.

    Before I started my blog, I never really considered myself a writer, although every job I have ever had has involved writing in some form. After I started blogging, I thought, “I actually like this—maybe I could do freelance writing as a retirement gig.” So, I signed up for an online Plain Language writing certificate program through Simon Fraser University. I took a few courses, enjoyed them, learned some stuff that was helpful—although I have definitely learned more from just writing my blog.

    Then, I realized that everybody (and their brother and maybe their brother’s dog) is doing freelance writing and I’d be further ahead to explore a retirement gig where I have a unique talent or value proposition to offer. So, I abandoned the Plain Language Certificate in favour of a retirement lifestyle coaching certification.

    Maybe I’ll go back and finish the plain language certificate one day—if only because I hate to leave things unfinished.

    • And that’s the only reason why we should pay to learn—the innate desire and interest themselves, instead of wanting a certain result. I am totally for you finishing this language certification quest of yours!

      Oh yeah, it’s so hard to build a brand as a writer without having something we’re known for. In fact, some of the top writers or bloggers in the world today are either marketers, entrepreneurs, travellers, or tech enthusiasts. You don’t get people who are known truly for their writing anymore (for the general population, at least).

      Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Michelle!

  15. I have yet to pay for writing courses. In my case, I really hate courses, because they always (always) fail to adapt to my needs. I’m sure there are some great courses out there who can adjust, but I haven’t found those yet.

    Take for example, the copywriting. I can’t design a avatar, but I can do the other two things.

    The problem with frameworks is that they sound nice and good on paper, but in the chaos of real world, they hardly work. This is true in marketing, and this is true in writing as well.

    If I’m going to join a course, it has to be something truly worth my while, otherwise a hard pass from me.

    Thanks for the article, Stuart.

    • Ah, when it comes to the customer avatar, I’m certain you can do it too, since in marketing terms, it’s basically writing down a list of your customers’ demographic, wants and needs, so it’s not much different from the other two tasks. But yeah, I bet that most course providers will fall short when it comes to being fully accessible.

      Yep, at the end of the day, frameworks can make you look like a nerd when it comes time to execute, and the experience you gain through work will give you more valuable experience than the theory you pick up through cookie-cutter courses. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Tanish!

      • The “Avatar” bit brought an image in my mind, so I thought I couldn’t do it.

        But if it is just a sort of list, (I’m still understanding it wrong probably) then I can do it no problem.

        As long as they are clear on what they want.

        Another thing which these courses don’t teach that often, clients are not clear on what they want.

  16. I would love to take a class that compares and contrasts how writing has evolved over time globally – are we all simplifying – is the news of the world affecting our writing evolution? Would J.K. Rowling be equally successful in the 1700s? Ok, maybe I just want to time travel :)

    • Lol, that sounds more like you need a history (or at least, English literature) class rather than writing, but those are interesting questions to pose as well.

      I doubt JK Rowling would’ve been successful. She would’ve been labelled a witch and promptly been burned at the stake.

      Which is why you should take adequate precautions when travelling to that time era. Make sure you don’t stand out, and that you speak their version of English. Do let me know how the trip goes!

      • Very practical and sadly true advice, thank you :)..on a serious note, I do think that a focused writing class with some coverage and discussion of English literature as a backdrop would be interesting.

  17. I, like many writers, cringe when I look back on stuff I’ve written in the past and how bad it is. On the other hand, it’s nice to know I’ve improved. On the other, other hand, how much do I still have to learn? How am I to know?

    I attended an expensive writing workshop at which I learned nothing. Then I won $500 in a random unrelated drawing that made me feel better, as it made up for the cost of the workshop! (Huzzah!) Whatever I spent on a used copy of Self-editing for Fiction Writers was money well-spent. I’ve learned a great deal from reading other writing platforms/blogs, in general. So, you’re right–not much need to drop a lot of cash on this. :)

    • In this day and age, it’s possible to be decent at something without ever having to spend a dime on courses. Of course, we’re not talking about the higher echelons of the pursuit, but going from total newbie to knowledgable is a very achievable goal.

      Heck, even during the pandemic, BJJ practitioners were drilling on puppets made from pillows and teddy bears in gis.

      People just don’t give themselves credit for how resourceful they can be.

      I’m sure that the right course is worth the money though. It’s just that randomly picking a course isn’t going to be the best way to go around learning.

      Thanks so much for your valuable input, Betsy!

      • Love this: People just don’t give themselves credit for how resourceful they can be.

        That, and pillows and teddy bears in gis. Cute! :)

        Always a pleasure, Stuart!

  18. I have paid for a writing course – several in fact. If you get a special tutor, feedback and lots of writing prompts it can be useful, especially when you are beginning.

    Of course, it’s an industry and writers don’t earn enough just from writing, so the courses are mostly just to supplement their income.

    I’m kind of over them, now, unless I’m going to get some detailed critique from tutors whose writing I really rate. But that’s one (paid for MA) and several workshops later and I don’t regret most of them.

    • Feedback and specialised mentoring are definitely worth the money. Unfortunately, it’s hard for the beginning writer to know that, and thus they’re too easily sucked into these general programmes that seem to have been created from Google search results.

      And yeah, writing doesn’t readily pay well, and perhaps I should supplement my income by creating a course too :P

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

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