Masterclass for Writers – is an annual pass worth it?
I’m coming to the end of a Masterclass annual pass that I bought last year and I’ve been meaning to review the classes I took. So here they are. Note, the links to Masterclass are NOT affiliate links (I applied, they rejected my application!). I really enjoyed the courses, so I thought I’d share. The links to Amazon are affiliate links and if you click through, I get a few pence (but it doesn’t cost you anything extra).
First of all, what is Masterclass.com? – it is a streaming service, where you can take courses, delivered by celebrity experts, on a variety of creative subjects. If you’re wanting to learn welding or difficult maths, they (probably) won’t help you. But if you want to learn about the more creative side of things, it’s bang on target.
Each course is about 4 to six hours long, delivered in bite size ‘lessons’ that range in length from about 4 minutes to about 25 minutes. I used to watch them while having lunch, when a half an hour lesson is exactly the right length. You can watch the lessons at 1.5 speed or double speed, if that’s what works for you.
The courses are delivered by celebrity experts. They are famous for doing what they do. It’s probably worth noting that they are not necessarily experts at teaching what they do. I found that some were brilliant and I took away a lot of notes. Others, not so much. All of them were inspiring.
The cost is £170 ($180) for an annual pass – there is a payment plan too. Or you could buy a single class for £90/ $90. If you’re going to do more than one class, it’s well worth getting the annual pass.
By the way, the default is for the annual subscription to auto renew after one year. There is a cancel button on your account profile. You can ask them to send you a reminder 30 days before it auto renews. Or, you could buy yourself an annual pass as a gift voucher (which will last 365 days from the day you activate it, rather than the day you paid for it) and that will just run out after a year. If I were to get another annual pass, I’ll probably do that, because I’m forgetful.
I’ll start with the various writers’ classes that I took.
Neil Gaiman – Masterclass on the Art of Storytelling
This was the reason I signed up for the Masterclass annual pass. I find Neil Gaiman’s work completely immersive and I’m in awe of the way he thinks. The Masterclass is fun. He talks about his process and a little bit about how he works up his ideas. The class reinforces the fact that only Neil Gaiman can write like Neil Gaiman (which is fair). I didn’t take many notes, but the course was inspiring in some undefinable way.
Dan Brown – Masterclass on writing Thrillers
I’ve read a few of Dan Brown’s books and I find them very compelling. I wanted to learn how to write books that had a page turning quality. Did he teach that? Well, yes, he did. I have pages and pages of notes from this class. He talks about the tools and techniques of writing. He talks about suspense and how he creates it. I may not agree with some of them (e.g. as a reader, I hate it when a character notices something that surprises them but doesn’t tell the reader what it is), but I now know what they are and I can think about how to adapt them for my own storytelling. Highly recommend this one. 9 pages of notes
David Baldacci – Masterclass on Mystery and Thriller Writing
I haven’t read anything by David Baldacci (partly because I thought it might be too violent for my tastes), but now I really want to read one. He talks about the tools used to add suspense. He also talks about character development in long running series. His section about the business of being a writer is brilliant. Another one that I highly recommend. 2 pages of notes, but lots of overlap with Dan Brown.
Shonda Rhimes – Masterclass on Writing for Television
This is about writing for television, which is a completely different skill set to writing novels, but it is about storytelling in long arcs. Once again, I haven’t seen any of the shows (I watched a few clips on YouTube to familiarise myself with the characters – besides which, everyone knows what Gray’s Anatomy is about, right?).
My favourite take away from this one was that your characters have to happen to things and remember that actors need screen time.
I learned a lot about the 5 acts of a television show and about mapping A, B and C storylines in one hour long episode. I also learned about the stages involved in getting a TV show produced. I didn’t know any of this stuff (arguably, I don’t need to know any of it), so it was an eye opening set of lessons. At the end, there is a workshop where Shonda takes a script from one of her episodes (the Papa Pope episode in Scandal) and breaks it down into acts with a group. I found this really interesting. You got to see the structure of the episode emerge on a whiteboard. Amazing. 12 pages of notes.
Completely unrelated, I loved her outfits.
David Sedaris – Masterclass on Storytelling and Humour
This one should have been right up my street. I love listening to David Sedaris (I feel his voice and speaking style really adds to experience). The masterclass is good in that he tells you what he does. Like Neil Gaiman, it’s more inspiring than educational. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish this course. 5 lines of notes.
Aaron Sorkin – Masterclass on Screenwriting
I have not seen The West Wing (well, I’ve seen two episodes), but I love Studio 60. There was a wealth of interesting and useful stuff in this class. There are a few table reads, where he talks some students through their pilot episodes. This was really interesting because you got to see the questions he asked of them when he heard their opening scenes. Towards the end, they break a new fantasy episode of The West Wing. Seeing the mechanics of how they build the story from the ground up was eye opening. Highly recommended. 8 pages of notes.
Margaret Attwood – Masterclass on Creative Writing
I have only read one of her books (The Blind Assassin) and I really enjoyed that. I also like that she’s a literary fiction author who writes science fiction and doesn’t talk down to genre fiction. [In fact, she addresses this directly at one point – literary and genre are marketing distinctions. It’s not for the writer to worry about. Just write the best book you can]. I listened to most of this one night lying down in a dark room because I had a migraine, so I didn’t take notes (although, I did have an idea in the middle of and had to find a piece of paper to write it down). I’d say this was an inspiring and practical guide to being a novelist. If you’re familiar with story, you’ll know most of it. If you’re new, it’s brilliant.
Mira Nair – Masterclass on Independent filmmaking
Okay, another one that doesn’t have that much to do with writing, but I love her work (especially Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, both of which gave me the confidence to write This Stolen Life). This is about storytelling in a different medium. The people aspect of directing was fascinating, especially the practical scene where she pretty much pulls a super emotional performance out of an actor. Really interesting. 4 pages of notes
James Patterson – Masterclass on Writing
I wasn’t intending to watch this – I’ve read a couple of JP’s books but wouldn’t consider myself a fan. I caught a short part of one and found him, as a person, incredibly engaging. Seriously, he is so easy to listen to!
This is another nuts and bolts course. Very solid with useful takeaways. I genuinely enjoyed all of it! 2 pages of notes.
Other random courses that I took (you know, for fun):
Steve Martin – Masterclass on Comedy
Another one that’s inspiring. There are some great anecdotes, but not much that you can apply directly. But then again, I’m not a standup comedian, so maybe I missed some stuff. No notes.
Sara Blakely – the founder of Spanx – Masterclass on Self-made Entrepreneurship
I wanted to watch this because my day job is university tech transfer – taking new inventions and working out where the market is. I wanted to find out how someone took one good idea and turned it into a global empire. Sara has a level of hustle that I don’t think I could manage. By the end of the class, I was properly in awe of her. I genuinely enjoyed this. It’s got nothing to do with writing, however, so YMMV. 11 pages of notes
Chris Voss – Masterclass on Negotiation
I stumbled across this one by accident. I watched one episode and was hooked. It’s very compelling. I’m not sure I’d manage to apply most of these techniques (I guess I’d have to practice a lot), but at least now I’d recognise a negotiation technique when it’s being used on me. I don’t mean that it would put me off, people being engaged and willing to negotiate without being antagonistic can only be a good thing. Anyway, fascinating stuff.
As you can see, there’s a huge variety of famous people that you can take lessons from. Each class comes with a workbook, which has exercises and notes that follow on from the classes. You can download these as PDFs to work through later.
I’ve only looked at the classes that interested me as a writer. There’s classes on science (Chris Hadfield! Neil Degrasse Tyson!), cooking, game design, economic theory, magic … with more being added on a regular basis. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably something in there of interest.
As a writer, I think what you get out of it might depend on where you are in your writing journey. If you’re quite new, you’ll find TONS of useful stuff – absolutely bucketloads of it. If you’ve been writing for a while and know the basic things about storytelling, you’ll pick up a few nuggets here and there. I enjoyed seeing how the best people work. I really enjoyed learning about writing for screen, which is not something I do. I picked up some interesting techniques that will help me when I think about story for the next book.
Is there a ‘best’ way to do a Masterclass?
I tended to watch the lessons one after the other, making notes if I felt I needed to remember something. It was a sort of binge watch. I’m not sure it was the best way to get value from them. On the one hand, the information pours in (and I like that), on the other hand, there isn’t time to fully absorb. I think it might be better to watch each lesson, then do the exercises. I also didn’t engage as much as I could have in the forums. If I’d had more time on a daily basis, I would have, because with forums you tend to get more out of them if you participate regularly.
Some of the tutors do ‘office hours’ – where you can email them a question and they will send a reply within a day or two.
I really enjoyed my year of doing Masterclass lessons. I could have done many more courses, but I had to do inconvenient things like sleeping and feeding the kids. Still, I like to think I got my money’s worth.
Have you tried Masterclass.com? Which ones did you do?