I'm in the military and am currently serving outside the United States. Is there a course of study available for an online, untraditional student that will challenge me to become a better writer?

The Internet has certainly made it easier to connect with like-minded individuals and writers have found specialized nooks all over the World Wide Web. A quick search for online creative writing workshops will bring up hundreds of thousands of links. So many, in fact, that the possibilities can seem daunting. Like any venture where you’re joining a community and shelling out hard earned money, it’s important to make sure you’re getting exactly what you want.

Look for programs that are affiliated with reputable institutions. Many universities, for example, have continuing education or extension programs that include online creative writing workshops. If you know the workshop is backed by an institution with credibility, you can have confidence that the program is staffed and taught with that level of quality in mind.

Some of the best classes and workshops can be found through organizations that specialize in creative writing. However, identifying which organizations are reputable can be tricky. How do you know who’s trustworthy if you’re just starting to dip your toe into the larger literary community? Look at an organization’s history. Has it been around long? Or did the website go up just last month? What sort of reputation does it seem to have among other writers? Have the classes received any accolades? Who’s teaching them? What are their credentials? What is the delivery system for the class like? Knowing these details will help you better assess how well the workshop will meet your needs.

Let’s look at Gotham Writers Workshop—where I teach online—as an example. They host the most comprehensive battery of creative writing classes online and have been rated as “best of the web” by Forbes. But you don’t have to take their word for it. Gotham’s website has a sample online class and teacher biographies so that you can judge for yourself before you commit to anything. There are also other resources—such as articles on the craft and their philosophy on teaching writing—that you can measure against your own thoughts on the process to see if it might be a good match. (You might also appreciate knowing that Gotham offers discounts to military personnel.)

They’re not the only game in town, of course, but look for that level of transparency. Educate yourself as much as you can to be sure you’re getting the kind of experience you want. When information isn’t readily available, contact the organization to ask questions. Vague answers or dodged questions are an indication that what you expect and what you get may be very different—and result in disappointment. Don’t hesitate to ask to talk with former students. If they’ve taught good classes, they’ll have plenty of satisfied students happy to share their great experience.

Nothing beats direct feedback from writers who have “been there.” Log onto writing forums and ask around about different programs. Hearing from several writers about their experiences can help you better make choices about what’s right for you.

Also, make sure you’re clear on the logistics of the online experience. Do you visit a specific site or is everything done through email? Do you need a fast connection for the site or the ability to download particular kinds of documents? What is the duration of the class? Will you be able to work at your own pace? Will you be expected to show up at a certain time each week or can you access the material and work during your own free time? When you’re dealing with different time zones and have access to only certain kinds of equipment, these questions become very important.