Share What You Know: Teaching an Online Workshop

Online workshops are valuable resources for writers seeking to expand their knowledge without the financial, travel, or time commitment of attending a writing conference. For attendees, they’re an opportunity to learn more about the craft, pick up marketing tips, or gain information about a specific subject area. For instructors, workshops provide a chance to share knowledge on specialty topics or impart lessons learned from research and personal experience. Thanks to the Internet, these workshops provide an opportunity to connect with other writers and to build a platform and brand. If you’ve ever thought about being an instructor, here are some tips to help you find and teach an online workshop.

Why Teach?

Teaching is an excellent opportunity to brand yourself in a particular subject area. For example, do you write military romance? Have you spent time studying the military or served in the armed forces yourself? Think about creating a workshop designed to give writers a unique view of the military. Topics like proper terminology, protocol, rank, uniforms, and more could all be beneficial to writers who are less familiar in an area you may have specialized in. It’s also a great way to identify yourself as someone with an interest and expertise in a particular subject area and to enhance your author brand.

Another benefit is the opportunity to learn from discussion with other writers. I teach a workshop on writing New Adult, and it’s a great way for me to see what questions readers and writers have about the category, what their concerns are, and what they’d like to see more of in the future. Often these questions inspire me to think about New Adult differently than I have before. Workshops provide an excellent online discourse for learning more about the subject at hand and for thinking critically about the material.

Another benefit to teaching an online workshop is that it’s a great way to make some extra money. Most RWA chapters split the proceeds of the class 50/50 with the professor. Typically chapters charge between $15-$25 per student and many chapters have enrollment minimums (usually around 10 students) in order for the class to take place. This is a great way to gain extra income to put toward marketing or other endeavors without requiring a huge time commitment.

Harness Your Skills

If you’re interested in teaching an online workshop, the first step is to identify your skills and to evaluate how they could benefit others. For example, do you work in the medical field? Could you share medical jargon and help writers add authenticity to characters in the medical profession? Are you in law enforcement? Think about what makes you unique and how your skills would help other writers.

Your credentials play an important role. All workshops will include an instructor bio and that’s your opportunity to sell yourself to potential attendees. Ask yourself what makes you qualified to teach this particular course offering? According to Stina Lindenblatt, author of TELL ME WHEN, the instructor’s credentials is one of the most important factors in deciding whether or not she’ll take an online workshop. You’ll want to highlight any education or experience that demonstrates your specialized knowledge to attract potential attendees and garner interest.

After you’ve come up with a list of topics you would feel qualified to teach, look at current workshop offerings and see what isn’t being offered, but should be. When I began teaching my online workshop on New Adult it was becoming popular in the fiction market. However, when I went through resources like the RWR and looked on chapter websites, I didn’t see any workshops on New Adult. Since it was such a popular topic, I saw an opportunity to fill the gap.

Ideally you want your workshop to stand out from others and be unique. If you see ten different workshops on a particular topic, look for something else you can do to distinguish yourself. Think about the kind of workshop you wish was being offered but isn’t. Carve a niche that makes your workshop stand out.

In addition to being unique, look for a topic that is popular and relevant. If your topic is too narrow, you may have a hard time drawing in attendees. You want a workshop that will interest many, but hasn’t been done before, or at least only a few times.

A great way to find a topic that has a lot of interest is to see what people are talking about. Look at past RWR issues, blog posts, conference workshops. Think about what matters to you as a writer. Evaluate how these topics line up with your own personal skillset. Then look and see if those workshops are being offered online. If you find something that isn’t offered, then you may have just found your gap to fill.

I started teaching workshops on New Adult last year when it was still fairly new and there was a lot of interest in it. I had a two-book New Adult deal with Harlequin and had done research on the market. No one was really doing workshops on NA at the time and so I queried an RWA chapter looking for workshop proposals, thinking to myself, “They probably won’t be interested in this.” Well, it turned out they were really excited about it and that workshop ended up having over seventy attendees. Moral of the story, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and don’t sell yourself short! If you have a special skill or experience, give it a shot.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Chapters are looking for workshops on a variety of topics to appeal to writers at different stages of their careers. According to Natalie Ratcliffe, Carolina Romance Writers Online Workshop Coordinator, “We try to offer a variety of workshops to accommodate the different needs for the various levels of writers from just beginning to published. We want to offer topics with a very broad range from genre specific to craft to marketing.” When developing your workshop topic, be flexible and don’t limit yourself.

Format Your Workshop

Once you have a workshop in mind, start thinking about your teaching format. Most organizations will ask you how long you want your workshop to run and will ask for a workshop proposal before entering into a teaching agreement. It’s a great idea to have this formulated beforehand and once you’ve done it, keep the master file for future classes. Having the basic format set is a definite time saver.

A syllabus is a helpful starting point for teaching. I always do a syllabus for my workshop proposals and hand it out at the beginning of the course so attendees can see the schedule and topics that will be addressed. At this point, it can just be bullet points or daily teaching modules. Consider if you’re going to incorporate assignments into your workshop and what opportunities you’ll give for discussion.

You’ll also want to determine the workshop’s length. Some chapters have pre-determined preferences, but if they don’t, it’s up to you to decide how long the workshop will run. Length is a balancing of factors. You want to consider the time you’ll spend teaching the workshop, how much time you want to give attendees to do the homework assignments, and how much time you want to build in for discussion. You’ll also want to look at your syllabus to assess the topics you plan on covering and how much time you’ll need to do so.

I typically find that eight modules, with at least two question days, works best for my workshop. I can either do two modules per week in a monthly class or four modules per week (typically Monday through Thursday) in a two-week class. I typically leave one day per week open for any questions or discussions the class has. You’ll want to have a syllabus and instructor bio highlighting your qualifications for teaching the workshop in place before you start pitching organizations.

Finding Teaching Opportunities

Now that you have your workshop in mind, you want to find teaching opportunities. Your first stop should be any local or special interest chapters you belong to. Teaching a workshop is also a great way to help your chapter since they will receive half of the workshop proceeds. Contact your program director/online workshop coordinator to see if they would be interested. Frequently, chapters will put out a call for members to submit workshop proposals. I found my first online workshop through this process.

Next, the RWR and RWA eNotes frequently include information on online workshops. Look there and examine which chapters are putting on workshops. Then you can go to the chapter websites and query them directly to see if they are interested in hosting your workshop. Many chapters have workshop proposal forms on their website. Others may require you to email the workshop coordinator.

The Internet is also a great place to look for teaching opportunities. Other writing organizations outside of the RWA network frequently offer online workshops. Check out popular writing sites and online conferences to see if any of them are looking for instructors.

Sometimes, if you have an established brand and a reputation for teaching, workshop opportunities will come to you. Rhonda Helms, editor at Carina Press and author of the upcoming New Adult novel SCRATCH, was approached by LitReactor. According to Helms, “They know I write and edit New Adult, so they asked if I’d be interested in teaching a workshop for them.”

Word of mouth plays a huge role in scheduling workshops. I’ve had chapters contact me about teaching an online workshop because they’ve seen that I did one for another chapter. According to Ratcliffe, the Carolina Romance Writers chapter has several methods for finding workshop presenters. “We both seek out presenters and some presenters contact the chapter. While we do find some from websites and from other chapters, the best ones are often the ones we find via word of mouth. These workshops are typically ones where the participant has not only learned a lot of really good information, but also truly enjoyed the class.”

Additionally, name recognition and familiarity with the presenter typically plays a role in which workshops attendees decide to sign up for. Stina Lindenblatt says most of the workshops she takes are through chapters she belongs to and she’s likely to take a class if she knows the presenter. If you enjoy doing workshops, once you start teaching you’ll find even more opportunities developing.

Teaching Your Workshop

Once you find a workshop, you’ll need to determine how you want to organize your workshop. Structure is key to a successful workshop. The original syllabus or topic list that you originally sent in your workshop pitch is a great starting point.

Each presenter’s style will vary slightly but it’s useful to organize each topic into one day of teaching. According to Helms, “I have a syllabus and I distribute it to students beforehand. I post twice a week for 4 weeks, and they have homework every week that I review and comment on. The time it takes depends on how much participation I get.”

I typically send out an email in the mornings with the lesson plan for the day and upload a copy of it for those who want to download the class files later. I highly recommend sharing any resources you’ve found—websites you use for research, special interest groups you belong to, etc. If you’ve found something helpful, pay it forward. Once you’ve developed each lesson plan, save them. You can always tweak them for future workshops and it saves so much time to have a structure in place.

Depending on the topic, the lesson plan might include an optional assignment where attendees write a short scene and receive instructor and sometimes, class feedback. I love including assignments because frequently that’s where some of the most valuable questions and discussion opportunities come in. Attendees like it because it’s an opportunity to share and gain feedback on their work. I typically find that while perhaps twenty-five percent of the average class will submit their work for discussion, those submissions are helpful learning tools for the entire class.

As an instructor, definitely build in time to read and respond to these assignments. I tend to keep these assignments short—usually two hundred and fifty to five hundred words—to lighten the load on attendees as well as keeping the loop manageable. Responding to submissions is usually a large chunk of my teaching time and the amount of work for each workshop usually varies by the level of class participation.

One of the most important tips for making your workshop a success is creating an environment that fosters open dialogue. According to Ratcliffe, “Making a workshop successful can be tricky, but we've noticed the most successful workshops are the ones that both contain detailed information and generate an atmosphere of conversation.” Workshop attendees agree. Lindenblatt says that the workshop format plays a role in her decision to take a workshop, including whether the course is lecture-only or provides opportunity for feedback.

The actual format for teaching your workshop will likely vary depending on the host. Organizations like LitReactor use a forum on their own site. In contrast, many RWA chapters have chosen to use Yahoo Groups to conduct their workshops. RWA chapters will provide you with a group moderator who can help out with technical issues and will set up the workshop and invite all of the attendees into the group.

One of the benefits to teaching an online workshop is that it can be easy to arrange around your schedule. Attendees can be in different time zones, so modules can be completed at the attendees’ leisure. Respond promptly to posts but no worries if you have a day job or other responsibilities that dictate your working hours. The amount of time you spend on the workshop will vary by your structure, the amount of attendees, and the level of class participation. The great thing about online workshops is the flexibility.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a way to build your brand, or make new connections, or earn some extra money, and you love chatting about your craft and the industry, definitely consider teaching an online workshop. It’s an easy way to widen your net and enhance your author platform while simultaneously learning more about your craft through discussions with other writers. 

Originally published in the July Romance Writers Report. Republished with permission from the Romance Writers of America.