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At some point in their careers, many writers may teach writing courses, either before a "live classroom audience or, these days, online. But how does a new teacher develop that first course proposal? What elements should go into it?

Sometimes a prospective employer may offer guidelines or forms, and when those are online they help everyone. Check your local adult education center's website to see if it offers online proposal guidelines. Read whatever information you can find for online writing classes at your favorite writing sites, too.

In most cases a proposal will need to include at least five basic elements:

1. Your contact and personal information (such as citizenship status, for payment purposes) as well as your professional biography.

2. Your sense of the target audience for your class.

3. Your sense of what students will gain/learn from your class.

4. Your sense of course expenditures (including costs for guest lecturers or other needs, especially for "live classes).

5. Contact information for individuals who will serve as referees for you.

Still, if you can't find the specific program proposal guidelines and requirements that you need online, you must contact program directors at local colleges/continuing education programs by phone or e-mail, yourself. Explain that you are a writer who is interested in learning about the procedures for proposing courses. Be forewarned that institutions and programs operate on different schedules; some may plan ahead just weeks at a time, while others may have an entire academic year already set the previous winter.

Fine. What if, after all that, you're simply instructed to send a cover letter and a general course proposal? What then?

I trust all professional writers to handle cover letters. You should also take this opportunity to update your resume or c.v. and review your list of references in case you are, indeed, asked for that information as the screening process continues, too. It's also a good idea to review your clip file and consider which of your writing samples you might submit if requested to do so.

As for the proposal itself, here are some additional elements that will render it immediately more professional and complete:

6. Your name, title ("Instructor" is fine if applicable!), and, again for "live courses especially, a note about your office hours, if you plan to hold them ("by appointment" or "to be determined"). Place this information in the top left-hand corner.

7. The course title. Be sure it accurately reflects the course content. One of my early course was titled "The Historical Novel: A Writing Workshop." I like poets and essayists and playwrights just fine, but this course wasn't for them!

8. The course description. Catalog copy generally runs tight. Try to describe your course in no more than 75-100 words; be prepared to cut this description even further. View samples from previous catalogs or listings to get a sense of the institution or program's editorial style. Be direct about the purpose/goal of the course.

For example, here's a description for the historical novel workshop mentioned above:

"This workshop is for writers of historical novels. Through tailored writing exercises and discussion of selected texts, the course will address issues of particular challenge to historical novelists: use of "real characters, setting, and tensions between "fact and "fiction." Primary focus, however, will be on critiques of students work."

9. Prerequisites (if applicable). A line such as: "Students must submit a one-page synopsis and five pages of their work-in-progress" signals from the start that only writers particularly committed to their work should enroll.

10. Schedule of meetings and reading/writing assignments. This doesn't necessarily have to be set in stone, but you'll acquire--and convey--a better sense of your own course if you think ahead to the class meetings and to how you will be making use of each. One writing program director once advised me that prospective students tended to respond favorably to having some mention of the authors they"d be reading for a course within the description, so it can make sense to provide the same information, in even greater detail, for the "authorities, too.

Once you are preparing the actual syllabus for a course, you'll want to delineate additional policies. Depending on the class/institution, you may need to think about grading policies. And a writing workshop benefits from a set of critique guidelines everyone understands from the start.

But don't worry too much about that. Yet. Start with the proposal, and add that to your writing practice.

Copyright 2004 Erika Dreifus. All rights reserved. Please send a courtesy copy of the reprint to

About the Author

Dr. Erika Dreifus is a writer and writing instructor in Massachusetts. She edits the free monthly newsletter, "The Practicing Writer," and is the author of "The Practicing Writer's Primer on Low-Residency MFA Programs."

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