Writing Masterclasses: A Review (Part One)

Recently, I’ve been taking part in online writing classes via Masterclass.com, and I thought it might be beneficial to others for me to review a little of my experience so far. So, here we go.

Overview

Masterclass is an online streaming service that offers video lessons in a range of topics from world-renowned experts with wealths of experience. There are over 80 courses, consisting of twenty lessons at ten minutes each on average. Topics are grouped together under Culinary Arts, Design, Photography, and Fashion, Film and TV, Music and Entertainment, Business, Politics, and Society, Sports and Games, Science and Technology, Lifestyle, and of course Writing.

The writing classes are what this review is going to focus on, as it’s the particular thread I’m pursuing.

In total, at least right now, there are 251 video lessons on writing from twelve different writers: David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, David Baldacci, Billy Collins, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, R.L. Stein, David Mamet, Malcolm Gladwell, Judy Bloom, and James Paterson. These cover storytelling, writing comedy, drama, mysteries and thrillers, writing for younger audiences, writing poetry, etc.

Features

As a streaming service, you can access Masterclass via pretty much any device with an internet connection. I personally use the site ‘in browser’ via my laptop, but there are apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android devices, and Roku (though I hold my hands up here and will admit I have no idea what that actually is).

As well as the main video classes themselves, there are semi-regular ‘Masterclass Live’ special, one-off lessons.

There is a community forum to discuss the teaching on offer, ask questions, and request feedback on work, though I’m not sure how well this is moderated. From the brief look I’ve taken, it doesn’t seem like the instructors themselves interact with this space at all.

Each class comes with its own dedicated ‘workbook’. These can be downloaded in PDF format and are nicely designed, all different in layout and style but all equally easy to read, with the information broken up into manageable chunks that match up to the relevant lessons.

Lastly, there are assignments, but these are purely optional and a very casual affair. While students have the opportunity to share their work in the aforementioned community section, there is absolutely no pressure. There are no grades. You don’t have to pass anything to proceed. For some people, I have no doubt this will be a feature while other people consider it a flaw. Ultimately, I think it means you get out of it as much as you put in.

First Impressions

One thing that Masterclass clearly has going for it is that the teachers are indeed masters. I’m not sure any other service or learning platform offers quite such quality content, but of course that comes at a price (which I’ll come to in a minute). The only thing vaguely similar that I’m aware of is Skillshare, which I have also tried, but I wasn’t hugely impressed with their offering and didn’t continue on after my free trial.

On a different note, Masterclass sadly has a lack of diversity. The twelve writers offering classes are mostly male, mostly white, and mostly American and I honestly think this could easily be so much better. It’s 2020 and there is no excuse for offering such a limited range of experiences.

In terms of accessibility, I personally find the site easy to look at and navigate. All videos have subtitles/closed captioning, though it is a slight bugbear that the setting needs to be turned on for each and every video separately and can’t be set as a more general preference.

My Experience So Far

So far, I have completed classes by David Sedaris and Joyce Carol Oates, and tried out about a third of the Neil Gaiman videos.

Sedaris’ class is primarily focused on the humour of personal essays and consists of thirteen lessons plus a ‘bonus reading’ of one of his own pieces. His longest lesson is 25 minutes, 29 seconds and his shortest is 6 minutes 27. The workbook for his class is 38 pages and he gives examples of what he means and doesn’t get bogged down using complicated terms.

Joyce Carol Oates is teaching on short stories. She has eleven lessons, plus three revision workshops, and focuses a little more on craft than David Sedaris did. Her longest lesson is 21 minutes 50 seconds and her shortest, which is her into., is 3 minutes 58. The workbook for her class is 66 pages.

I liked Sedaris’ videos and rated them four stars. What I’ve seen so far of Neil Gaiman I would put at five stars, but Oates I only gave three stars because while I generally liked her advice and actually got inspiration for a one-act stage play out of the class, the revision workshops really didn’t work for me. I will stress that this is just my personal experience, and therefore highly subjective, but I didn’t engage with the pieces of work being discussed and generally didn’t agree with the feedback offered on them, so this is why my star rating for her class is lower. I’m sure others will enjoy what she has to say very much.

Value for Money

The price for a Masterclass ‘All-Access Pass’ in the UK right now is £170 for a year, which works out at £14.17 per month. Not cheap, but also not an impossible amount of money, depending of course of your own personal circumstances. On the one hand, people from lower incomes will likely be put off, but on the other hand, the teaching is coming from literal masters and that legitimately is worth something.

The greater number of topics you are interested in from the full list above, and the more videos you watch from those topics, the more you will learn and the better value your investment will become. Outside of the writing classes, I’m curious about a few of the lifestyle videos, but most of the other content sadly doesn’t appeal to me personally.

Masterclass doesn’t offer a free trial, but you can view trailers and snippets of lessons on their YouTube channel, and they do have a thirty-day money-back guarantee. If you sign up, pay, and then find within your first month of use that it’s not for you, apparently you can email them for a full refund. They also offer grants to “accredited charitable organizations”, which I think means people who might not be able to access the service in the usual way because of a range of disadvantages might still be in with a chance (more on that here).

Outside of this, Masterclass sometimes have offers on. I personally signed up while they had a promotion running, giving two people access for the price of one. I can’t say whether it’s good value for money for anyone else (because I can’t speak to anyone else’s circumstances) but, purely from my own point of view, I had been tempted by the service but the full price tag would have prevented me from signing up, so I don’t honestly think I’d have given it a go without the offer I used.

All I can do is offer up my experience, and all anyone else can do is call on their best judgement. Either way, I will follow this post up with more details when I’ve taken part in more classes and gotten an even better feel for the whole thing. If you have questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below this post and I will get back to you.

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