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Are Writing Correspondence Courses Worthwhile?

The ups and downs of distance learning, and why I reckon you can’t beat a classroom

By Susie KearleyPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
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(c) Susie Kearley

I was asked a few years ago whether I thought the courses run by a certain writing school offered good value for money. The question led to a discovery that they’ve been using me in their marketing brochure to recruit new students, for possibly as long as four years. It came as something of a surprise!

I did sign up for the school’s correspondence course in the 1990s, at the age of 19, and followed their advice to the letter. I wasn’t very good and achieved very little at the time, getting one article published in The Lady (a British magazine) three years later. I got halfway through the course, collected hundreds of rejection slips, and gave up. I did a degree in psychology and then pursued a career in marketing instead.

I resumed my writing interests when I made the leap into full-time freelance writing in 2011. I got back in touch with the school, to try to resume the course. Back in the 1990s, there was no time limit on completion.

Dodgy advice

However, when I start writing for a living in 2011, I abandoned most of what the writing school taught about writing non-fiction, because their advice was impractical, and some elements seemed amateurish and outdated (even after I’d purchased the updated course materials for £25 — the world’s most expensive PDF).

Anyway, I digress — why was the advice impractical? Well, after I quit my job, I needed to earn a living. I couldn’t afford to be waiting weeks for magazine and newspaper editors to reply, before approaching others. Simultaneous pitching or submissions were considered to be bad practice, but it was necessary to pitch simultaneously because I needed to get work fast. Also, in the real world, most editors don’t reply. They simply ignore you.

The course told students to offer first British serial rights. But writers telling editors what rights they’re offering is nonsense. The publishers will tell you what rights they need, and give you a contract to that effect, if it’s copyright. Trying to tell them what rights they can have, struck me as amateurish, and I was trying to put myself across as a professional.

One recommendation I did adopt, however, was putting my contact details on every page as instructed by the course. Wrong! A publisher told me it was messing up their design and asked me to stop!

Making up my own rules

So, I abandoned most of the rules in the end, and the result was that I was far more successful. I pitched relentlessly, simultaneously (they would have been horrified!), and was published in hundreds of magazines and newspapers.

When in 2013, the writing school announced their Top Writer Award, I saw an opportunity to win back the £250 I’d spent on the course. I felt I had a good chance of winning. I filled out the form, explaining what I’d achieved, and came runner up. It wasn’t the win I’d hoped for, but £50 is better than nothing.

A condition of entering the competition, however, was that they could use what I’d written in my competition entry on their marketing materials.

It was four years later when I found out they’d been using me as a case study for all that time. It felt a bit off, as none of the pieces published were actually written as part of the course, nor were they helped by the course in any way.

I asked them to remove me from the marketing materials when I found out, as I didn’t feel comfortable recommending the course, given my mixed experiences.

Onto fiction

I continued with the fiction part of the course but felt totally uninspired. To me, a course should enthuse, excite and inspire students. It should not be a chore.

On reflection, I wish I’d insisted on doing fiction when I first started, but they advised against it. At the age of 19, I was only interested in fiction. By the time I got onto the fiction modules almost 20 years later, my vivid imagination had passed away, along with my youth. It was a struggle. I was devoid of inspiration and the course didn’t help.

Going back through old assignments was an eye-opener. My first tutor marked an assignment with the comments, “That’s just not how it’s done”. He gave me no constructive feedback, no comment on how it might be improved, and didn’t even bother to explain what was wrong. That was it! Years later, I thought, it’s no wonder I gave up!

My next tutor refused to answer questions. She marked the assignments, but her feedback ended there. If you didn’t understand, it was tough shit.

Recent years have seen improvements

I’m pleased to report that the teaching has since improved, and my final years on the course were definitely more productive, but some funny ideas remain. My fiction tutor told me that when writing in the third person, you cannot say what your characters are thinking. Because only characters written in the first person can have thoughts, apparently.

This seemed bizarre! Many successful novelists write third-person characters with thoughts. It didn’t do my favorite novelist of all time, James Herbert, any harm!

So how do I feel about correspondence courses now?

Honestly, I’m not that keen. I think there’s something to be gained from having real access to a physical teacher in a classroom. It means you can have feedback and debate — discuss whether characters should think, for example!

These discussions are an essential part of the learning experience, because if the answer seems odd, at least you’ll get some kind of explanation and understanding. It also means you can get answers to questions on the spot. The teacher can’t ‘forget’ to respond, be lazy, or have a policy of ‘no further feedback or discussion’.

If you’re in two minds about whether a classroom course or a correspondence course is best for you, I’d look to see if your local adult learning center or college has anything that might fit the bill.

Join a writers’ group and ask other people about their experiences on courses, because we all have different experiences, and respond differently to course materials and to tutors. What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another.

Finally, Futurelearn offers some free writing courses to get you started. These can give you a feel for whether you have the discipline and drive to complete a course remotely, or whether a classroom environment might suit you better.

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