How Long Does It Take to Plan, Write, and Produce an Online Course?

Whether you're a painter or a paleontologist, an engineer or an English teacher, a physiotherapist or a financial advisor, it probably took you many years to learn and master the skills necessary to succeed in your field.

According to nonfiction writer Malcolm Gladwell, it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill.

Gladwell's theory has been debated many times over the years, but regardless of whether you subscribe to Gladwell's view or not, it does raise questions about practice and its role in mastering new skills.

But how long would it take you to teach someone how to do what you do?

In this post, we'll be covering how to plan, write, and produce an online course so you can share your skills with the world. We'll be covering each of these three stages in detail. By the time you're done reading this post, you'll have a much better idea of how much work you should expect to put into planning and producing your online course.

We've got a lot to cover, so let's get started!

Planning Your Online Course

Before you can effectively plan your online course, you need to identify its scope.

Let's say you're a fiction writer. As you can probably imagine, teaching someone how to write fiction would be far too broad a topic for an online course. Not only would such a vast topic require a superhuman amount of work on your part as a course creator, it would also probably be more than a little intimidating to most beginners—and that's before you even take into account your course's commercial appeal and the likelihood of it selling.

This is why it's vital to identify the scope of your course first, then validate that idea. Rather than embarking on an impossibly ambitious plan like “teach an absolute beginner how to write fiction,” it makes much more sense to launch an online course that's a little narrower in scope. You don't want to waste precious time creating a course that nobody will buy!

For example, Podia content creator Dave Hickman's Plan & Write a Novel in 30 Days (Or Less) course covers a lot of material, but still manages to keep the focus of the course pretty tight. Rather than bringing complete novices up to speed on the fundamentals of writing fiction, Dave's course is about the technical aspects of long-form fiction. It targets aspiring writers with at least some familiarity of the craft who need help structuring and planning a longer work of fiction.

Identifying the Scope of Your Online Course

So how do you identify the scope of your course? There are three main factors you'll need to bear in mind when planning your course:

  1. How much material you can realistically teach
  2. How much material your students can realistically learn
  3. How logically your chosen topic can be broken into distinct subtopics

In the case of our fiction-writing course example, it would be wildly unrealistic to try and teach a complete beginner even the fundamentals of writing fiction in a single course. There's just too much for you to teach and your students to learn. You could, however, realistically teach a course on certain aspects of writing fiction. For example:

Any of the three examples above would be an ideal topic for an online fiction writing course. Not only are all three subtopics much more approachable than “how to write fiction,” they're also highly specific to particular aspects of writing fiction. This means you can target your prospective audience much more effectively. Rather than trying to cast as wide a net as possible, you're actually increasing the chances that people will buy your course by focusing on helping your audience learn a specific technique, such as writing more convincing dialogue.

Obviously there are a lot of variables that go into determining the scope of your course, and your mileage may vary depending on your topic, your background, and your goals. That said, by thinking about planning your course in this way, you're well on your way toward actually putting your online course together and validating your idea.

Next, we're going to give you some homework for your very first weekend course. The idea is to create enough content to validate your idea. Think of it as working toward a “minimum viable product” that you can use to see if people will want to buy your course. This will save you hours (or even days) of work.

Your First Weekend Course

Now that we've identified the scope of our course, it's time to get to work!

This section will give you a solid, actionable plan for executing on the work you did to identify the scope of your course that you can realistically complete over the course of a weekend. By the time you're finished, you'll have enough material to actually validate the commercial appeal of your idea.

For the sake of example, we'll continue with our fiction-writing course from the first section.

Outlining the Structure of Your Online Course

The first thing you should do when planning your course is create an outline of its structure.

One way to start structuring your outline is to start at the end and work backwards. This means visualizing what you want your students to accomplish by the end of your course, then reverse-engineering that outcome to actually create your lesson plan.

For example, let's say we're planning an online course about writing better character dialogue. One potential outcome of this course would be to give students the tools and knowledge they need to write more natural, convincing character dialogue in their short stories.

To write better character dialogue, we need to think about what makes good character dialogue so convincing, and why so many authors get it wrong. Now that we've identified our desired outcome, we can work backwards and break down this goal into smaller steps. Based on the desired outcome above, your outline might look a little like this:

Even though this course is fictitious, we can already see the beginnings of an actual online course starting to take shape!

For the sake of simplicity, the outline above is pretty minimal. Many online courses are structured in this way, but most content creators split up each individual module into further individual lessons. For example, Dave's Plan & Write a Novel in 30 Days (Or Less) course is broken down into logical subtopics like so:

Producing Your Course Modules

Now that we've broken down our main topic—writing better character dialogue—into several distinct modules and have the skeleton of an outline, we can start to think about each individual module and what we need to do to actually produce our online course.

Figuring out how much material you need for each individual module might seem difficult, but it's actually pretty easy. To do this, we're going to rely on a convention that professional screenwriters use when writing movie scripts, TV shows, commercials, and pretty much every other type of video project, which is that one page of script equals roughly one minute of video footage. This isn't a definitive “rule,” but more of a general guideline that works well for our purposes.

Using this rough rule of thumb, we can calculate pretty accurately how much we'll need to write to produce our content modules.

Let's say that we're using the example outline above, and that we need to produce six individual modules of instructional content. Each module will be roughly three minutes in duration. This means that, for our actual instructional videos, we need around 18 pages of script—six modules at three minutes apiece. For the sake of example, let's say our introduction and summary videos will each be two minutes long. This means we're looking at a total duration of around 22 minutes. This, in turn, means we need to write around 22 pages of content:

Screenshot 2018-10-17 08.10.52.png

If you want to be even more precise in your planning, you can use this rough calculation to figure out roughly how long it'll take to write your course.

Let's say you can type around 50 words per minute. Since there are roughly 500 words per single-spaced, word-processed page, it would take you around 10 minutes to type a single page of content. Multiply this by the total number of pages we need—22 pages—and we're looking at around 220 minutes (or just shy of four uninterrupted hours) to write our entire script.

The above technique uses video scripts as an example, but this approach can work just as well even if you're not using video to deliver your course. Whether you're working with a script for your next podcast, a written guide for distribution via email, or any other format type, the above technique can help you plan for and anticipate how much content you'll actually need to produce your course. If you're still a little nervous about actually planning out your course content, try using this completely free outlining template as a starting point!

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Writing Your Online Course

Actually writing your course may be intimidating, but it's easier than it might seem. Remember—you're the expert. People want you to teach them. If anything, the hardest part of writing your course may be knowing which parts of your course to cut!

Let's assume that you've successfully validated your idea, and that people are signing up for your newsletter, eagerly awaiting your full course. Let's take a look at some important elements that you may want to consider before putting pen to paper.

Scripting vs. Improvisation

After producing your introductory content to validate your course idea, you might be wondering whether you need to script your entire course.

Generally speaking, scripting is a safer bet than trying to ad-lib a whole instructional video. Yes, scripting your videos means you'll have to either memorize your entire script or use visual cues to keep yourself on track. It also means you can pace your videos properly and figure out approximately how long each video will be (as we did above), and you won't have to worry about presenting an entire video on the fly.

For example, try to imagine teaching Module 1 of our fiction dialogue course, “Why So Much Dialogue in Fiction is Absolutely Terrible,” without a script. How would you include real examples? How would you draw attention to mistakes many authors make with their character dialogue? How would you make your case that most character dialogue in contemporary fiction is terrible?

Improvisation can be useful in some situations, however. For example, if you're recording your computer screen as you work for demonstration purposes, it might be easier and simpler to just narrate what you're doing as you work. Improvisation can also work well in your intro and outro videos. Done well, it can make your presenting seem more spontaneous and conversational, and can eliminate some of the “stiffness” that inexperienced presenters sometimes struggle with when trying to read from a script.

Only you can decide whether a script or ad-libbing is right for you and your course. That said, it may be worth experimenting with both approaches if you have the time and see which produces better results.

Write the Way You Speak

One mistake that many content creators make initially is writing too formally.

Writing and speaking conversationally makes you more relatable as a teacher. This, in turn, can help your students feel more at ease with you and the material, particularly if you're covering a difficult or complex topic. As a general rule, use simple, conversational language whenever possible, and keep technical terminology to a minimum to avoid confusing your audience.

One technique that writers often use to get a sense for how their material flows is to read it aloud. It doesn't matter whether you're writing a video script or a PDF guide—reading your course material out loud will give you a great idea of which parts flow naturally, and which parts sound stunted or awkward. If a sentence trips you up as you read it, it'll probably trip up your audience as they read it!

Always Think About the Reader

If you're producing a course focused on a difficult or complex topic, it's vital that you think about your audience constantly as you write. This is important because it's all too easy to forget that your audience has a limited attention span as you work, particularly when you're really into the material.

Even the most diligent students only have so much attention. The longer you ask your audience to pay attention to your material, the greater the risk that you'll end up losing or overwhelming your readers. When writing your course, always keep the reader in the back of your mind. Try to pace your content so that it's challenging enough to be engaging, but structured in such a way that it appeals to a variety of different learning styles. Some people will happily hit the books and read an entire PDF guide in one sitting—but most people will probably need the topic broken down into more manageable sections.

How to Develop a Connection with Your Audience in Your Writing

One of the best ways you can make your course relatable, accessible, and approachable is to draw upon your own experiences as a creative professional and how you learned to do what you love. Put another way, you've already experienced the difficulties of learning to do what you do firsthand, which puts you in a unique position to empathize and bond with your audience.

Take our fiction-writing course example. Writing good fiction is hard. Sharing your work with a workshop full of strangers is even harder, especially as a beginner. Sharing and inviting critique of your work can be nerve-racking—but it's also an experience that can serve as the foundation of a real connection between you and your audience.

The same can be said for virtually any topic. Writing good fiction is hard, but so is writing software. Learning how to paint the exterior of a house can be just as intimidating as learning how to paint a landscape in watercolors. Growing your own food can be as challenging as growing a new business. The point is that the difficulties you've already experienced and overcome can form the basis of a real bond between you and your students, regardless of what you teach.

When you're writing your online course, try to remember how it felt to be a beginner. As you structure your course's modules, think about what you wish you'd known when you were still learning, then incorporate this into your lessons. To strengthen that bond further, use connecting language such as “we” and “us” to reinforce the sense of belonging among your students. If you're thinking of launching a membership site, there are even more opportunities to create not just a course, but a thriving community of motivated, engaged learners who share your passion!

Earn Income as a Content Creator with Podia

Planning and producing an online course can be a lot of work, but selling it doesn't have to be.

Podia was created by and for content creators. Our intuitive, user-friendly tools make managing and selling your instructional content effortless. Podia offers content creators email marketing tools, video hosting, e-commerce management functionality, and affiliate marketing capabilities, all within a single, centralized dashboard.

To see how easy creating and selling online courses can be with Podia, sign up for a completely free, no-obligation trial of Podia today and start earning an income by teaching people how to do what you love to do.

Written by

Len Markidan