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Six Essentials for a Great Writing Masterclass

15 October, 2011

Has anyone else noticed the recent invasion of writing education offerings tagged as masterclasses? The term is becoming so popular that the more prosaic term, writing workshop, is in danger of going the way of the dodo.

The masterclass label can be stretched only so far. Go beyond that and term loses meaning. Here are two stretched examples I recently found—a masterclass of three hours and what can only be described as a general masterclass. What’s wrong with the three-hour one? Given that a masterclass suggests an in-depth learning experience, does this mean the presenter simply talks faster to cover the material? And the general masterclass, what a contradiction in terms. This masterclass covered fiction, a subject so huge that people study it for years to gain mastery.


To consider what a writing masterclass could encompass, I turned to the world of music. Here a masterclass refers to an intense educational activity, led by a world-famous conductor or musician. The aim is to improve the technique of a the talented group of musicians selected to attend.

The format of the masterclass often involves having each musician play a prepared piece, then the leader demonstrates how to improve the performance. Participants may be asked to play their piece again and again until they accurately apply the advice. The leader, drawing on his or her knowledge and personal experience, may also discuss common problems the music presents, as well as wider issues in music.

Although the leader usually works with one person at a time, the session is group-based. Participants learn by listening to the exchanges between the leader and each student and by observing the changes they and others make in their music.

Six essentials

Before you pay big money for what sounds like a prestigious opportunity to develop your writing, consider what an advertised offers.  Here is my list of what a masterclass should incorporate. In creating this list, I am applying my definition:

A writing masterclass is an intense, focused learning experience that an illustrious writer runs for high-achieving participants.

  • A notable, respected presenter
    People sign up for a masterclass partly because they want to hear pearls of wisdom from a respected, successful writer. Consider carefully if an advertised masterclass is being led by a one-hit wonder or someone who is not currently writing or being published. The presenter needs to be a well-known expert in the field, preferably with a national or even international reputation. If the presenter has won prestigious awards for his or her writing, even better.
  • A knowledgeable, caring teacher
    A strong reputation as a writer is only one aspect of what an expert needs to bring to a masterclass.Would you be happy sitting through a class with a famous author who is windbag, full of anecdotes, or who is the dictatorial type–do it my way? The best learning experience happens when the presenter enjoys working with writers and brings out the best in them by challenging, supporting, and demonstrating different ways to improve their writing.
  • High-calibre participants
    For a masterclass to work, participants need to be at a similar high level of skill and knowledge. For this reason, the masterclass is not open to everyone. Those who apply are sometimes asked to provide details of their writing history and achievements.
  • An intense learning experience
    Intensity is achieved partly by how much time is provided for learning. A couple of days seems the minimum; even better is a class that covers a week, fortnight, or longer. These longer masterclasses lend themselves to a residency. Here intensity is increased because participants have removed  themselves from their normal life to immerse themselves in writing.
  • Narrow focus
    To provide in-depth learning, the writing masterclass must work within a narrow focus. How narrow?|
    A masterclass on nonfiction is much too broad, compared with one that centres on a single type of nonfiction, such as memoir or nature writing. A masterclass about a single genre, such as crime writing, may still be too general, compared with a masterclass that concerns a single element—voice, character development, structure. Whatever the topic, it should fit realistically into the amount of learning time available to enable in-depth learning. A week-long masterclass in romance writing may be doable. A two-day masterclass in romance requires a smaller topic, such as innovations in developing romance protagonists or special issues in plotting a historical romance.
  • Interactive learning and feedback
    Ideally, a masterclass  includes opportunities for participants to share their writing and to get oral and possibly written feedback from the teacher-expert. It is valuable for participants to have more than one feedback opportunity, such as getting additional feedback on work they have revised according to the suggestions of the expert.

What would you look for in a writing masterclass?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 November, 2011 2:35 pm

    Hi Marsha,
    Can I create a link on my writers’ group blog to your article? I think this is exactly what our writers need to know. I am in Perth, teach prose/poetry in Fremantle and I am beginning to hear from many writers that the “so-called Masterclasses” (festivals in particular) have failed where they have been ‘all lecture’ (chat, chat, chat), with ‘limited writing’ and if ‘no writing’ is done at all, the participant doesn’t learn how to apply what is being taught. The term ‘masterclass’, I believe, is becoming a misnomer in place of the plain & ordinary ‘creative writing class’. Cheers, Helen


    • 27 November, 2011 6:39 pm

      That would be fine, Helen. The upward creep from ‘workshop’ to ‘masterclass’ is problematic for exactly the reasons you give. Participants tend to expect something special in a masterclass. It would help if writing centres and festivals clarified what the term describes so that participants know ahead what will–and more importantly, what will not–be offered.


  2. 19 October, 2011 8:00 pm

    Hi Marsha,

    Some very valid points here, which I wholeheartedly agree with. These so-called Masterclasses might build up an expectation within the writer that at the end of the classes their writing will somehow be miraculously elevated to Booker Prize heights, only to discover the one truth about writing: it is hard work. Case in point: I’ve been working on the first of a romantic comedy series for the last 3 years, in between what has unexpectedly turned out to be one of the busiest times in my life – family and teaching commitments and a lot of travel – and because of this my writing time has been erratic.

    This is reflected in the writing itself because I often lost the ‘flow’ – I wasn’t 100 percent focused. To prove the point I’d like to share something that happened to me only yesterday.

    Having sent eight hard-earned chapters of said book to my agent a few weeks ago, she got back to me by email yesterday to say she “loves the main character, the main premise is fine,” but I have “occasionally fallen into the trap that affects a lot of authors of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.” Happily, she has set up a meeting and we will go through the sections that are infected with this affliction and I can then do the required re-writing.

    I wanted to share this with you and your readers, to ‘show’ that even published writers get it wrong. As I said when I taught a series of classes on fiction writing at Varuna two years ago, writing is all about re-writing. There are many craft points that have to be examined against a check-list: characterisation, dialogue, ‘show, don’t tell,’ adverbs versus active verbs . . . the list goes on.

    So, if anyone out there thinks that writing is easy, or they are angry because publishers and agents keep rejecting their work, take heed! Writing is a bit like creating a new recipe: it never comes out perfect the first time.

    Cheers Marsha!



    • 23 October, 2011 10:32 am

      Hi Maree, I’ve not surprised to hear that you’re hard at work on your next book. As for the essential rewriting, I agree and am always suprised how many people in writing groups simply do not want to rewrite, or think of rewriting as changing some words and punctuation. I wrote about the masterclass as an inflated term for a workshop, but that’s a good point about what kind of ‘magic’ participants may expect to get from it. Having said that, I’d love to be picked for a week-long masterclass run by a writer I admire. As for the telling not showing, I listened to a John Burnside story this morning that was mostly telling–and it was great! Maybe telling works better with short stories? This story, Sunburn, was published in Sleepers Almanac. Best of luck with your rewrite and series plans. Marsha


  3. Anonymous permalink
    15 October, 2011 1:56 pm

    Helpful article -very clear – thank you.


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