Monday, July 30, 2007

Correspondence Courses for Writers, Post 1 of 2

So What About Correspondence Schools for Writers?

Is it true that Stephen King took a correspondence course in fiction writing? Seems to me I read that somewhere--or maybe heard it said, though not by King. Larry Niven says he took the Writer’s Digest School course, though he didn’t complete it. Anyway, I get asked about correspondence courses for writers now and then and I know there are a good number of people are curious about them—often because they’re thinking about signing up for one. Stick with me and I’ll tell you quite a bit about correspondence schools in general, the Famous Writers’ School scandal, who teaches writing courses by mail, what they cost, and exactly what the student goes through—in three parts.

I’m not going to argue the question of whether writing can be taught. Nor do I buy into the “Those who can ... /Those who can't ...” crap. I’ve written several dozen published books (fiction and nonfiction), three dozen short stories, and going on two thousand magazine and other nonfiction pieces. Plus some radio scripts. I’ve taught writing (by correspondence and at writers’ conferences and in universities--both credit and non-credit courses and seminars), and some of my students have been published. I know people who have taken courses from other instructors, and succeeded. So, it can work. Whether it does depends on the student.

I think I’ve done everything there is to do with correspondence courses for writers. About 30 years ago I took one—and it got the idea of plot into my skull. A few years later I taught the same course (kind of like piecework by mail). And sometime in the late 1980s I helped design a new course in short-story writing.

So, are these things worth taking? Yes, though they are overpriced. But those I know about are worthwhile. (I’ll get to which courses I know about in a bit.)

There was a time when Famous Writers’ School and the Famous Artists’ School gave the whole arts correspondence course business a bad reputation. It seems that each had some big-name people on their “staffs.” Rod Serling was listed as being with the Famous Writers’ School, for example. (And may have remained on the staff after he was dead, I’m not sure.) The truth was, none of these people taught the courses, nor had anything much to do with them; the story is that the Famous Company just rented their names. I heard that what staff there was, wasn’t of sterling quality, but I don’t know that for sure.

And, although you had to take a "test" before you were accepted, the school had a reputation for accepting anyone, no matter how poor their writing. Apparently the test was simply a gateway to more intensive marketing.

Government agencies eventually got on to the outfit, and that was that. Other writing correspondence schools seemed to fade away for a while, although more than one general school (like the National Radio Institute) offered writing courses by mail.

But that was a long time ago and, for some people, far away. The current offerings I find in the writers’ magazines, like Writer’s Digest School (WDS) and The Longridge Writers' Group, are legit. Again, they’re overpriced, and the instructors are underpaid (which, to me, is more the crime). But they’re taught by writers who are currently publishing in their fields. As noted, I taught a WDS short story writing course for a while, and at the time I was published science fiction and detective stories, and novels. (SF and fantasy fans will be intersted to know that Barry Malzberg and others in the SF field have also taught these courses.)

That's the overview. Again, "Those who can .../Those who can't ..." is crap. Stay tuned; I'll get back to this in a few days.
(Addendum: It's been a few days: Click here for the second part of this.)
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks


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