Reference Desk #14 — MasterClass

MasterClass is an online learning platform. They split their courses into about ten different high-level topics, and one of these topics is writing. If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last couple years, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen a few ads for MasterClass. I’ve certainly been seeing these ads for ages, and while they sometimes caught my interest, I always balked at the price. However, I also noticed that the roster of instructors they were advertising was getting more impressive over time.

As you’ve probably guessed by the title of this post, they finally got me. I decided to subscribe and see whether it’s worth the money or not.

Big Names and High Production Values

MasterClass wears its business strategy on its sleeve. They get extremely well-known celebrities in a given field to make a series of instructional videos, and then they charge an all-access subscription fee for the platform. All of their marketing banks on these big names drawing people in. Of course, it’s perfectly fair to note that these celebrity creators may be great at what they do, without actually being very good teachers. On the other hand, this is a risk you run with almost any class. At least if you’re familiar with what they’ve made, you have some idea whether you’ll appreciate what they can do.

In the “Writing” category, MasterClass currently has twenty courses. The instructors span a broad range of genres and formats, including fantasy and sci-fi (Neil Gaiman, N. K. Jemisin); kid lit and YA (R. L. Stine, Judy Blume); thrillers (James Patterson and Dan Brown); screenwriting and TV (Aaron Sorkin); and nonfiction (Malcom Gladwell).

Along with the high-profile instructors, MasterClass really leans into the production values. Each instructor appears to have one or two custom-built sets that they teach from, to set the mood. The sections of each class are split up with little musical interludes and graphics or video snippets that lead into the title card. The overall effect is something like a well-produced documentary.

If your main goal is to mainline great writing advice directly into your brain as quickly as possible, you may not care about these little flourishes. Personally, I found it immensely soothing to get to sit in a cozy little private study, shelves packed with books, while grandpa Gaiman gave me advice about writing.

My Experience So Far

At the time of writing, I’ve watched the Neil Gaiman course, and I’m about halfway through the N. K. Jemisin course. My experience is based on that. Other courses maybe structured differently.

What I’ve found thus far is that these courses are very conversational. They’re a bit like getting to have an extended talk with a great author. They are not focused on exercises or activities. As far as I can recall, Gaiman suggested only one or two exercises throughout his series. Jemisin suggested several in a section on world-building, but these pretty quickly fell off in favor of general advice. If you’re looking for very hands-on, workshoppy courses, you may find the videos to be less interactive than you’d like.

However, alongside the video instruction, each course also includes a downloadable workbook. From what I’ve seen so far, these workbooks aren’t really referenced in the videos at all. In fact, it was only as I was digging around the website to write this post that I found them. The workbooks are supplementary material that follows what was talked about in the videos, and may be better for those that want a workshop feel. Now that I know the workbooks exist, I’m inclined to go through them as I watch the videos. You could just as easily watch the videos first, then dig into the workbooks.

The length of the video series vary from course to course, but a typical length seems to be 2-5 hours. For example, Jemisin’s course is a little under four hours, and Gaiman’s course clocks in just under five hours.

In addition to the web app, MasterClass provides mobile apps. I’ve spent more time watching (or listening) to the videos on my phone than I have while sitting at the computer. The app does its job well enough, although I find it a little annoying that it always seems eager to show me new videos, when I usually want to go to my bookmarked list or pick up where I left off on my current course.

The Downsides

The biggest hurdle for some people is going to be the price. I realize that it’s a privilege these days to have a comfortable, steady income. MasterClass advertises $15 per month, but that’s a little misleading, as they only have annual subscription plans. The most basic plan will make the most sense for most people, at $180 per year. There are more expensive plans, but the only additional features you get are offline viewing on mobile, and the ability to watch on more than one device simultaneously. These don’t strike me as worth the additional money unless you’re looking for some kind of corporate team subscription.

The other thing that may turn people off the platform is the amount of content. Although MasterClass has a lot of big, recognizable names, they do not have a broad selection. Other platforms, like Udemy, boast tens or hundreds of thousands of courses while providing far less curation — pretty much anyone can create a course, and user have to rely on user ratings to sort the good from the garbage. Those platforms necessarily use a pay-per-course purchase system.

If you’re only interested in a single genre or format of writing, you will probably only have a couple of classes on MasterClass that match your interests. The all-access subscription is an inherently better deal if you’re paying that price for ten or twenty classes that you’re interested in. If you’re only interested in one or two classes, that subscription fee starts to seem significantly worse.

Is It Worth It?

This is a question that you’re going to have to answer for yourself by browsing the site (and depending on your finances, possibly checking your bank account). Look at the instructors and see how many classes interest you. Look into the other categories and see if there’s anything good there. The big advantage of the Netflix-style subscription is that you can watch as much as you want for the same flat rate.

Personally, I’m excited to watch the courses that pertain to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense. After that, I plan to branch out into other genres and styles. While I may not be writing a screenplay any time soon, I’m interested in hearing what an expert like Aaron Sorkin has to say about the topic.

So far, I’m pretty happy with the courses I’ve watched. Having tried some other learning sites through my day job, MasterClass has some nice quality-of-life features and general polish that is lacking on other platforms. However, if you don’t care much about aesthetics, you might be miffed that some percentage of your fee goes toward these shiny bits instead of more content.

At the very least, I think it was worth the initial fee to try the platform for a year. The real test will be when my subscription comes due. I may post a little follow-up at that time, when I decide whether to keep it going.