Following up on my last post about free online writing courses, here are the most transformative paid online writing courses I’ve taken. 

I resisted paying for a writing course for a long time. Then a fiction-writing friend declared they changed her writing life: Paid courses gave her time and attention from trusted mentors, connections to other serious writers, and the push of solid deadlines. When I looked at the prices–often in the ballpark of $500 CAD or $400 USD–I balked. I wasn’t paying that much!!! But luckily I was working full-time and found enough spare cash to try one out.

I was hooked! I ended up taking four courses with Creative Nonfiction magazine, mostly working with the incredible Joelle Fraser. Then I dipped into the Canadian literary world and found Rachel Thompson and Nicole Breit. I have found such incredible writing buddies and mentors in this way and have made incredible progress with my writing in the last few years. I’m so grateful to these instructors and courses for helping me along this path.

(Please note the sequence below reflects the order I took the courses and the impact they had on my life. They may benefit you differently, depending on where you’re at in your writing life, of course!)

1. SCENE AND SUMMARY, Creative Nonfiction magazine

Instructor: Joelle Fraser

The Scene & Summary course transformed my writing life, helping me realize most of my childhood memoir was written in summary (exposition). I find this is one of the biggest mistakes newer writers make.

Summary writing, like the name implies, summarizes broad swaths of time or “tells” about an event after-the-fact. For example, this is summary writing: “Rob nagged me each morning.” By contrast, scene writing takes one of those instances and expands it with sensory details: “Rob’s face grew crimson as he shouted, “Why do you always have to sleep late?” Too much of either slows a narrative down and creates a disconnect for the reader. I’ve read books that are great at “showing” but are weighed down with irrelevant details. Mastering a balance of both is essential. 

In Joelle’s course, I learned how to expand key moments into scenes with dialogue, physical and setting descriptions, and sensory details. She helped me identify these passages in my writing and choose “hotspots” to slow down into scene writing, which strengthened my overall narrative. She also taught me that effective memoir, unlike fiction, has a third, very important element: reflection.  

After Scene & Summary, I went on to take Joelle’s Thirty-Minute Memoir course. This is like a writer’s boot camp. (Awesome, right?!) You write and share 300 words of a memoir project Monday to Thursday, and then on Friday, you share 1000 words of new writing or revisions from earlier in the week. It was so helpful to receive feedback from Joelle and the other students in real-time, reminding me to add physical description or pressing me to follow threads I might have skipped over. In this way, I completed chapters of my memoir as well as drafts of stand-alone essays such as “Studying the Conversation,” which was recently published in Joyland Magazine

Check out the CNF course schedule for their current offerings. Joelle tells me she rarely teachers Scene & Summary anymore, but she’s incorporated the same material into her Thirty-Minute Memoir course. In total, about a third of the Thirty-Minute Memoir course will now address scene, summary, and reflection. That’s even more value all in one course! I highly recommend Joelle’s tutorship.


Instructor: Rachel Thompson (course info)

Once I had essays I wanted to submit to literary journals, I felt overwhelmed about where to begin. A friend had just completed Lit Mag Love and seemed to have a system to keep her on track and submitting each week, so I checked it out.

Rachel showed me step-by-step how to focus my goal and create a realistic submissions plan. By the end of the course, I had sent out five submissions with Rachel’s support. I love the video Q&As where Rachel helps students talk through their fears and questions about everything related to publishing in lit journals. She’s an incredibly warm and supportive instructor. 

Within a week of Lit Mag Love ending, I received my first “yes” from a literary journal (no kidding!) with Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. After six months of following Rachel’s advice, I got a “yes” from my first high-tier literary journal, PRISM international, and two years later I now have a slew of yesses from places like The Rumpus, Grain, and Joyland. I highly recommend this course if you’re feeling lost in the sea of literary magazines!

Check the website to see when Lit Mag Love will next be offered, and keep an eye out for Rachel’s other course offerings, too, like the fantastic Revision Love, which helps you revise your own prose and poetry.

As of August 2020, Rachel also just launched Write & Light, a self-led course designed to help writers generate new drafts of meaningful writing. I was part of the beta testers, and I love how it combines genres (creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry), offers excellent readings and writing exercises, as well as reminders to practice self-care after completing each lesson. I highly recommend it if you’re looking to generate new drafts of writing! Tip: I recommend working on short pieces like poems or flash (very short) essays, though I did draft one longer (1000-word) essay during the course by using it as a focus for my writing assignment for four of the lessons.

FREE RESOURCES: You can read samples of work published by Lit Mag Love students in the downloadable Lit Mag Love anthology. Also, check out Rachel’s Lit Mag Love podcast for more information about specific lit mags, which has now been rebooted as the Write, Publish & Shine podcast with even more information for writers.


Instructor: Nicole Breit (course info)

Breaking away from the traditional narrative that makes up much of creative nonfiction (CNF) writing, the warm and wonderful Nicole taught me new ways to tell my stories: the flash essay, the prose poem, the lyric essay, and the hermit crab essay. (Click on the links to discover my favourite examples of each.) If you’re submitting to lit mags, these innovative forms will help you stick out in the slush pile, and the CNF section usually has fewer overall submissions than fiction and poetry, so your chance of publication is a little higher. 

In Spark Your Outlier Story, I wrote my first-ever lyric essay, “HEAR ME,” which was published in PRISM international, reprinted in the Festival of Literary Diversity’s 2019 conference program, and is now available for the first time online in the Lit Mag Love anthology. Another lyric essay I wrote in the course was a finalist for Creative Nonfiction’s “Let’s Talk About Sex!” issue.  I’ve taken this course three times now and always find it amazing how quickly I can write and revise a polished essay in her class.

Nicole also teaches a course, “Spark Your Visual Story,” about visual forms like the photo essay, diptych and triptych, and the decentered hermit crab essay. Her feedback is incredibly gentle yet direct and actionable. I highly recommend working with her!

4. write.polish.publish

Instructor: Chelene Knight (course info)

Chelene Knight teaches #learnwritingessentials in her self-paced write.polish.publish course. This course is an effective introduction to the writing life and the revision and submission process, with a focus on outlier or hybrid forms of writing. Chelene’s fantastic lessons helped me reboot my writing life after a tumultuous time, pick up new tips from an experienced writer and editor, and generate a full essay draft and other writing drafts with the excellent and energizing prompts Chelene offers.

As a HUGE bonus for a self-led course, you also get personalized feedback from Chelene on ten pages of your writing! She also leads intensive workshops for writers and offers one-on-one opportunities. Check out all of her offerings here.

FREE RESOURCES: Chelene’s Guide to Grantwriting was a lifesaver when I applied to a grant in the fall of 2020. It made the overwhelming process SO much easier. Check out her free 5-day course for a sample of the write.polish.publish course that will help you set up your writing life.

These are all instructors I trust and courses I keep circling back to. If they resonate with you, check out their offerings. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about the courses. Good luck, and happy writing!