7 Ways to Vet a Writing Course

Today is going to be busy. I have plenty of interviews to go over for a white paper, and some research to finish up. Plus, writers group is here tonight. Not only do I need to clean — I need to write something to present.

Behind the scenes here at the blog, I’m busy putting together a list of resources — this one focusing on webinars and training courses. It’s going to be a little different from the 33 Places to Learn New Writing Skills list I made a while back in that I’m focusing on webinars and workshops given by writers, and some of them will have a price tag involved.

That’s when it gets interesting, for the second you put money into the equation, the stakes go up. How do you know that what you’re paying for is something that’s going to give you real value? If you’ve ever paid big bucks (or even small bucks) for a course or workshop that was nothing more than a weak interpretation of the same old stuff you can find online, you know how important it is to vet your options before plunking down cash.

And there is a way to vet your options. Start here:

Get an outline. Your presenter should be giving you an outline of what you can expect. And my rule is the more they charge, the more information they should provide on what you’ll be learning. If your presenter isn’t interested in giving you an outline, spend your money elsewhere.

Get feedback. Don’t rely on testimonials that accompany the sales content — those can be coerced out of attendees too easily. Instead, find a neutral forum or email group and ask. Ask if the content matched the outline, if the presenter was involved, if their questions were answered, and if they had any concerns. Did they feel it was a good way to spend their money?

Look for experience. There are way too many pseudo-experts out there who are intent on selling you something. Yet how much do they really know? Look at their bios. If they’ve been in business a year or less, why are you trusting them with your money? That’s not to say newbies can’t have something valuable to teach — I’ve known one or two I’d learned plenty from. But you have to question how someone with say a year and a half or two years of background can teach you how to market successfully or drive sales through referrals.

Also, look at their resumes. Too many times I’ve come across people selling courses on topics that aren’t even in their area of expertise. If your writer is about to show you how to break in to celebrity magazines, they damn well better have a background in that concentration. Otherwise, the information is coming from where? Answer: probably the Internet. In that case, save yourself some money and do your own research.

Measure responsiveness. So this presenter is promising hands-on, personalized attention. Why not try it out before you commit? Send them a quick note asking something relevant to what the course would include. If you get a response within 24 hours, you have a winner. If you’re sitting there three days later without an answer, let’s hope you’ve found a better alternative already. If not, look for one. That’s not to say the presenter will neglect you based on one email– people can get busy for any number of reasons. If your quick reminder gets no response, move on –there’s a good chance the presenter won’t have time later, either.

Consider the price-to-content ratio. My own exercise includes looking at how many minutes/hours are being offered, how detailed the content is, and how much I’m being asked to pay. Price is a very personal decision, so I can’t tell you if it’s worth it, but if I’m expected to pay hundreds for a 2-hour webinar, it had better be jammed with information.

Look for unique content. Is this presenter proposing to give you something you’ve not heard before or something you’d otherwise have to study in a college setting? If so, it could well be worth it, if the outline and content depth is there. If the topic sounds identical to other offerings, might be best to skip it.

Check content for availability elsewhere. Too many presentations (way too many) are giving you information that’s already free somewhere else. I like to take the outline and search each section head online. What you’ll find is that most content is available — that’s normal. What makes it a presentation worth buying is how much isn’t available, or what this presenter’s particular spin is. That should already be spelled out in the course title or outline, but an in-depth search of the course’s offerings could reveal that your presenter has something unique. Or not.

Writers, how do you determine if a course or presentation is right for you?
What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a course/training/webinar?
Did you get what you paid for? 
What advice do you have for other writers looking for the right skills training?

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  • Jennifer Mattern September 17, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Great tips Lori. I'm so fed up with newbies coming in, offering courses they aren't qualified to teach, and screwing around with other new writers' futures in the process.

    It seems to be the "in thing" these days. Makes me wonder if they're all getting the same advice from some course they all took — one of those "you don't have to be a real expert; just act like one and sell information products and people will think you're an authority in no time" courses or private "tribe" oriented communities.

    New writers need real help, and sadly there are far too many rip-off artists out there who either teach things they don't understand themselves or regurgitate advice they've gotten from real experts as if it's their own.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall September 17, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    "If they've been in business a year or less, why are you trusting them with your money?" THIS! I've seen a lot of that around lately. It's a bit much to grab the "expert" label with so little experience.

  • Cathy Miller September 17, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    I agree with Jenn – great tips, Lori. The typical writer is an information hog. We simply love researching and discovering new stuff. That trait also makes us vulnerable to webinars, courses, books, etc.

    When I started, there wasn't a book, webinar, course I didn't love. Okay, slight exaggeration but Lord knows I shelled out more than I should have. I actually set a budget for education to force myself to be more strategic.

    For me, I am drawn to information that provides me with structure in an area I know I'm weak in. And that's what so many of the courses are lacking. They may have the frame but I want some walls and siding, too, before I plunk down big $.

    Vetting is the first challenge. The other is a commitment to see it through. You can plunk down the money for a credible course (say on making videos) that is provided by someone who really knows his stuff. However, if your reason is because you know it's something you should do, rather than want to do, you probably just threw your money away.

  • Lori Widmer September 17, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    I've seen that same pattern too, Jenn. It's frustrating because I doubt there's anything new being presented. There are cases in which the presenter may indeed have something new to share, but that is probably the exception rather than the rule.

    If it is the "in thing" I hope it dies off quickly. Too many writers new to this profession are getting reworked advice or worse, bad advice. It's smarter to do your own research, but if questions remain, vet your presenter.

    I remember taking a course on the recommendation of someone else. While the presenter did have a ton of information and ideas, she also had a ton of requirements and expectations. From what I remember, attendees were expected to read 14-20 pages of text every day, post exercises every day, and comment on nearly every participant's exercises. Every day. As someone who works, I couldn't possibly keep up. The price was certainly right– $29.95 — and the content was there, though the presenter was long-winded and frankly, for someone teaching how to write, she could have used an editor.

    Maybe that was the lesson — edit your work before charging customers for it. 😉

  • Lori Widmer September 17, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Sharon, it's maddening, isn't it? I don't know about you, but it leaves me with a bad taste that all these "experts" are targeting their own kind. It's like animals that eat their young. Why not put that energy into creating something that faces a corporate client or a magazine?

    Cathy, your advice is golden. Don't buy in to every course. I love that you're strategic with your money — makes for smarter decisions. 🙂 And showing up is exactly half the battle! I love this: "However, if your reason is because you know it's something you should do, rather than want to do, you probably just threw your money away."

    Amen, sister.

  • Paula Hendrickson September 17, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Is it bad that I've never paid for a course or seminar?

    I've bought plenty of books, and have attended several free seminars (some were actually good, others….well, I knew as much if not more than the "experts," so you could say I got what I didn't pay for.)

    Like Cathy said, writers like to research. Answers are easy to find. What I think a lot of people – newbies, especially – are looking for is sage advice to help put all of that information in context.

    I've been doing this forever and still wouldn't have the audacity to position myself as the all-knowing expert I've seen others with a fraction of my experience do. They might even have some solid advice, but that doesn't make it worth paying for.

  • Paula Hendrickson September 17, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    (Could my last two sentences be any more convoluted?)

  • Lori Widmer September 17, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    No, it's probably smart, Paula. And your last two sentences are fine. We get it. 🙂

    You're right — answers are often easy to find. The courses I've paid for are ones that offer a different perspective on methods or approach. The how-to info is plentiful, for sure.

    I've paid for just a handful of courses, one this year (and it was great). It takes a lot to make me part with my money. I guess it helps that I'm cheap!

  • Melanie Kissell September 17, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    THIS!: " … for someone teaching how to write, she could have used an editor." Oy, Lori. I hear THAT! 🙁

    I recently connected with a lovely young woman online who's been writing for about a year. So, of course, she's now started teaching "how to" get paid to write online. I guess she figures she's seasoned after twelve whole months of writing (yes, I'm being cynical.) I'm finding grammatical errors in almost every one of her emails and blog posts and I'm betting others are finding them, too.

    Although I applaud her courage, passion, motivation, and spunk, she needs to go back to the drawing board and learn to proofread her work before she expects people to pay her.

  • Emily Fowler September 18, 2015 at 8:27 am

    "If they've been in business a year or less, why are you trusting them with your money?" Wowser, are people really doing this? I've been getting paid to write for over three years, but there's absolutely no way I'd consider 'teaching' – I still feel far too new in the game for that. I'm happy to share my experiences with other writers, saying 'this is how X worked for me, or how I handled Y, but see what other writers think, don't just rely on my experience!', but for me that's all part and parcel of helping fellow writers, I still have plenty of questions so happy to share my experiences.

    I'm a learning junkie, though like Paula haven't taken any courses that are specifically about making money writing (though I have bought plenty of books ad eBooks!). What I study tends to be roughly linked to what I do though – I finished my degree this year (literature with creative writing), am studying feline behaviour and psychology (I write about cats) and about to start Spanish classes at a local college. OK, that one's just because my brother has recently moved to Spain and his Spanish is better than mine already ;o)

  • Jennifer Mattern September 18, 2015 at 10:20 am

    It's sad but true Emily. There are new writers out there currently offering classes and coaching that they have no business offering. I wouldn't care if it didn't put every single one of their students at risk. But the fact that it does, and they think that's ok, is pretty disgusting to me.

    In the U.S. (based on SBA stats), around 30% of small businesses fail within their first two years. If you haven't made it at least that long, you sure as hell don't have a successful history under your belt to be teaching others from. By the time we get to the 5-year mark, around half of small businesses have shut down. Only around 30% make it to the 10 year mark. If you want to build a sustainable business, those are the people qualified to help you. When you've hit that 5-year mark you probably have some worthwhile stories to share. So start a blog. Write an e-book. But that's still a far cry from real "expert" status in my book — and anything less, you shouldn't be offering one-on-one coaching as if you know what's going to make someone else's business succeed when you haven't proven the staying power of your own yet.

  • Emily Fowler September 18, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    Definitely Jenn – it's scary that it's happening.

    I'm going to start checking people out when I see them touting their 'expert' services, just to see how long they've actually been 'experts' for.

  • Lori Widmer September 21, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Melanie, that's sad. I'm like you — I encourage people to challenge themselves in their careers, and I think everyone has something to teach, but there has to be a high level of quality attached to the attempt. Misspellings would turn me off, also.

    I think your presenter would be smart to show how she's done all she's proposing to teach. A solid track record — even a short one — would negate any doubts. But if there isn't one, then it's overpriced lip service.

    Emily, from what I've seen, yes. People are doing this. It's becoming a minefield of inexperienced people who are somehow pulling together the content and selling it as their own information (because I doubt anyone with so little experience could have a wealth of knowledge in a new career). Hey, I've been doing this full time for 12+ years and I'm no less hesitant than you when it comes to teaching! When I present something, it has to be something I've actually done, and my approach has to be unique. Otherwise, why bother?

    Jenn, you've touched on exactly what bugs me about this whole "instant expert" scenario. These people want instant growth, and they're not afraid to stretch facts or lift content to do it. There's no thought to the ethical aspects of it, and there's certainly no thought to what value they're giving for the money people are paying.

    These are the same people who shout the loudest and stretch their credentials the thinnest. No thanks. Give me someone with a solid background and a focus that isn't on how much money they can earn.

  • Anne Wayman September 24, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    So many courses seem to promise the moon, and I think they are bought by folks who are looking for an easier way… which doesn't exist imo.