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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Some Thoughts About Writing Courses

A regular topic arising on my forum concerns writing courses. Indeed, here's a (slightly edited) post made by a new member a few days ago:

" concern I do have is the writers' courses offered on the site. Have these courses been checked for quality of content and has the money back offer for non-satisfaction ever been confirmed? I would welcome any feedback, albeit good, or BAD. Are these people just affiliates? Are they genuine? I am looking for a good quality writing course."
I replied on the forum, but as this seems to be a topic of considerable general interest, I thought I would expand a bit on my comments here.

I guess I should start by saying that writing courses are a subject that (modesty aside) I feel pretty well qualified to write about. In my younger days I took three correspondence courses, two with the London School of Journalism and one with a short-lived outfit called Successful Writers. More recently (in geological terms) I was a tutor for three different writing correspondence schools. The best known of these was The Writers Bureau, based in Manchester, England. I also wrote some sections of their comprehensive creative writing course.

And finally, of course, I have written a range of writing courses myself, including most recently Write Any Book in Under 28 Days and Quick Cash Writing, both published by WCCL.

I'm assuming that the new member whose post I reproduced above was talking about The Writers Bureau. Not only is this a very well-known organisation (in the UK at least), they also offer a money-back guarantee if you haven't earned back your fees from writing by the end of the course.

And yes, as a former WB tutor, I confirm that their guarantee is genuine, but they do - not unreasonably - request that you make some effort to get your work published before claiming your money back. My colleague Suzie Harris - who is a current Writers Bureau tutor - says on my forum that "all you have to do is give them 10 rejection slips to prove you have been trying to get published."

In fact, though, The Writers Bureau are obliged to make relatively few refunds. There are two main reasons for this. One is that (again in my experience) only a minority of students complete the whole course, and many drop out after only completing one or two assignments. And, of course, unless you finish the whole course, you are not eligible to apply for a refund. And secondly, those students who DO complete the whole course recognise that they have actually had good value for money and may not be inclined to claim their money back even if they are eligible.

As a fairly neutral observer these days, I think The Writers Bureau (and similar distance learning operations, which I'll refer to as writing schools from now on) offer a worthwhile option for people who want the discipline of a series of exercises and feedback from a tutor. However, if you just do one or two exercises and then give up, you will have wasted at least part of your money. In effect, such individuals are subsidising those students who go on to complete the whole course.

There are two other points to consider before enrolling with a writing school. First of all, it WILL be hard work and quite time consuming. And the assignments you have to complete will not always result in anything you can offer to a publisher. Some may do, but others are just exercises, designed to develop skills such as description or characterization. So you must be prepared to complete some tasks that you may not enjoy especially and have no realistic prospect of selling.

My second caveat is that an awful lot depends on your tutor and how you get on with him/her. You have to be realistic here: writing schools can't afford to pay their tutors a fortune, so you're not going to get Martin Amis or Tom Clancy assessing your work. The tutors are generally moderately successful part-time or full-time writers who do this to supplement their income. Most genuinely enjoy the work and do their best to help students, but some are undoubtedly better than others. One very important point I would make: If you're not happy with the tutor you've been allocated by your writing school, never be afraid to ask for a change.

In my time as a Writers Bureau tutor, I had a few writers who really did seem to benefit considerably from their studies. I always felt that the students who benefited most were those who had some basic aptitude for writing and a willingness to learn. As a tutor I was then able to assist them by providing constructive feedback, correcting little points of grammar and punctuation, and suggesting possible markets for their work. It was very exciting and satisfying to observe as the writing careers of some of these students took off.

On the other hand, some students who enrolled on the course lacked basic skills in grammar, spelling and punctuation, and would really have been better off taking a course in English first. There were also some students who had all the skills they needed to succeed, and really just needed to apply themselves to writing and submitting their work. I did sometimes feel that these people would have been better just getting on with writing rather than completing a long series of set assignments!

Finally, what about my own writing courses? Write Any Book in Under 28 Days is for anyone who wants to write a book in the shortest possible time, whilst Quick Cash Writing is for people whose priority is to start earning money from writing at the earliest opportunity. My courses do include exercises, but they are self-study. You don't therefore get feedback from a tutor, though as a consequence of this (and the electronic delivery) the prices of the courses are much lower.

In addition, because my courses are written entirely by me and delivered electronically, I can update them quickly and easily, so the information in them is always bang up to date. Inevitably this may not always be the case with large writing schools, who can only update their course material at irregular intervals.

I suppose my courses are really designed for people who want to "get on with it" with the least delay. The writing school courses I have been talking about here may be more suited to students who want to take a more leisurely approach, perhaps trying their hand at various different fields of writing to see which they enjoy best. Of course, there is nothing to stop you enrolling with a writing school AND buying one (or more) of my courses if you want to!

So there you are. I've run on a bit longer than I expected in this post, but it's obviously a topic I have a particular interest in. If you have been thinking of signing up for a writing course, whether one of mine or with a writing school, I hope these comments may help you decide how best to proceed. Good luck, and happy writing!

NEW! See my latest post here about The Writer's Bureau's new, free-to-enter article-writing contest for current and former students. Closing date 31 December 2008.

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Blogger *Goddess* said...

I took a writing course from a well known writer's magazine, and I was very disappointed to discover the woman who was my teacher hadn't been published in the field I was trying to get into (romance fiction) in several YEARS. I kept wondering how she was going to help me if she wasn't even being published?

7:19 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

This doesn't surprise me too much, I'm afraid. Tutors on these courses are only paid a small sum per assignment marked, so the job seldom attracts successful, well-known writers. Indeed, that's why I gave it up. Once I started to achieve some modest success with my writing, I found that being a tutor was taking up too much time that could be more profitably used in other ways.

Still, if you are on a romance writing course, I think it is reasonable to assume that your tutor should currently be active in the field. This is one of those situations where I would be inclined to complain and ask for another tutor, failing which I think you could reasonably ask for your money back.

11:16 AM  

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