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Do you dream of writing the great American novel? Do you read magazine articles in line at the grocery and think, “I could do better than that!”? Then you’ll be pleased to know that writing courses that promise to help you make your dream come true are available at every turn. You can take one at your local college, through correspondence courses, or even on the Internet. These courses can fulfill their promise, but only if YOU know how to make the most of what they have to offer. Below are five tips for making your writing course a success.

1. BELIEVE IN THE PROCESS: You’ve dreamed of being a writer since you were a child, so your footlocker and storage closet are filled with half-written stories and character sketches. Maybe you already know what you want to write about. Maybe you know you write snappy dialogue, and you don’t need to practice. Regardless of what you’ve done in the past or where your personal strengths and weaknesses lie, writing courses will start at the beginning and take you through every step of the writing process. For a fiction class, this may mean sketching out ideas for three different stories, even if you already know the one you want to write. It may mean practicing dialogue or character sketching or some other skill you know you’re good at. Don’t think of these parts of the course as wasted time; believe in the process.

You have to realize two things. First, writing is a creative endeavor. Just because you think you know just the story you want to tell, doesn’t mean that exploring other ideas won’t suddenly change your mind. At the very least, it can give you ideas for writing your NEXT book. Second, writing isn’t a skill that you master and then never need to hone again. The fact that you already write great dialogue is a perfect reason to write some more of it. Each time you do it you’ll hear the inflections of those voices in your head a bit more clearly and write the words a bit more brilliantly. ENJOY the parts of your writing course that you find easy. Don’t dismiss them as a waste of time; recognize them as an opportunity to acknowledge your strengths and talent.

2. TAKE DEADLINES SERIOUSLY: One of the most powerful things that a writing course can give you is a sense that you HAVE to do the work. You’ve always wanted to. You’ve often said you would, but now there are people expecting you to. At least one person and perhaps a whole class of people are WAITING for you to do the work that will bring your dream to life. Force yourself to feel the responsibility of that as much as you would feel a deadline at work. This is your opportunity to get it DONE, not just to say you will.

3. WORK REGULARLY: Writers write. I know you’ve heard it before, and I know you think it stinks, but it’s the truth. The millions of people on this earth who SAY they’re going to write are Talkers. The fraction of that number who scribble or type away at a blank portion of paper on a regular basis, those are the writers.

You’ve probably heard the advice to write every day. For some people that goal just isn’t attainable (or even desirable) and knowing that they can’t do that keeps them from doing anything at all. Try for something less. Commit to writing just three days a week or even two. And for then on those days when you’re not writing, revel in your freedom from guilt. You can release yourself from that “if I had any will power I’d be writing” scolding that’s been in your head for years. Commit to a little writing and a lot of not writing. Then see if you can’t change that ratio bit by bit.

4. BE FLEXIBLE: One of the points of taking a writing course is to get yourself some readers. It’s important to keep your own attitude flexible enough that you can listen to those readers. Maybe you sketch out three story ideas, knowing the one you want to write. Only you find that your teacher or classmates like one of your “oh, I’ll just make this up so I have something for this lesson” ideas even better. Now is not the time to dig your feet in and tell them to mind their own business. You WANT to please your readers. This is the time to hear what your reading public (be that one person or several) has to say and to see if there’s any way that you can manage to take it to heart.

5. TAKE A DEEP BREATH WITH CRITICISM: This tip is similar to Number 4, but perhaps even more difficult. Now we’re not talking about people saying, “this idea of yours is better than that one.” We’re talking about them saying, “I don’t think that paragraph works at all,” “I had no idea what you meant,” or “I really didn’t like your characters.”

Your first reaction is likely to be deep horror at your reader’s obvious idiocy and poor taste. The deep breath is to help you get past that. Think of the two parts of breathing as two stages to deal with the criticism. As you draw breath in, try to let your reader’s comments flow throughout your body with the oxygen. Absorb their message. As you breathe out, release your hurt, resentment, and embarrassment.

Remember that you’re taking this class to learn. With as little defensiveness as you can, ask questions of your critic. Try to fully understand what she liked and didn’t like. Ask how she would do it differently. Realize that you don’t have to commit to do anything the way your critic wants you to. In fact, you don’t have to change one syllable of what you’ve written. Ever. On the other hand, if what your critic says has value, maybe you will make some changes. It’s entirely up to you. Just take deep breaths,