Writers [sic] Bureau
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
I posted a version of this on Open Salon on January 4 2010.
Over many decades I have made desultory attempts to do writing courses by distance learning. I think the first time I tried this was when I was still at school, when word processors and e-mails were not even a fantasy. I was using an antique and extremely heavy Remington which you wouldn’t want to drop on your foot. PCs hadn’t been invented and computers filled huge rooms.
The Director of Studies of the first organisation I tried seemed like a character out of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. His name was Athelstan Ridgway (which sounded fictional) and the brochures carried pictures of him carrying a cane and looking languid and bored wearing a large-brimmed hat, and flowing cape. (X Trapnel from Dance to the Music of Time springs to mind?!) I have recently done a Google search on the name and he did actually seem to have existed. His books (thrillers and historical novels) are advertised on antiquarian book websites. He also seemed to have served in some editorial capacity at the Everyman Library.
I did not persist long with the course. I tried another one in the 70s and again a few years ago. Over those many decades, the modus operandi of these courses has changed very little. One is set a number of assignments, which involve looking at publications which one might like to submit to and analysing their style and requirements. Generally speaking, the tutors say that one’s work shows great promise.
On my most recent foray I made enquiries of an organisation that advertised frequently in The Guardian, a newspaper I generally trust. Once I had contacted them, they bombarded me with promotional material. One of the things that persuaded me to give it a try was this claim: “Finally we come to what, in our view, is the most important point of all –YOUR PERSONAL TUITION. This is the individual advice, help, guidance and encouragement that you receive from your tutor … Many students come to know their tutor as a real friend. Through this firm but gentle approach your tutor will do everything possible to help you develop your writing skills…Within the overall context of the course, your study path can be flexible to your own requirements and circumstances.”
I was persuaded to sign up and made the full payment. The amount did not break the bank but I could have got a book published by x libris for less. Nevertheless, it would have been a bargain had the promises made in the brochure not proved to be hollow.
Four months after making the full payment, I had still not received the course material. Snail mail usually takes less than a week to get to me in Sri Lanka from the UK. Every time I mentioned non-receipt of the course material, the Director of Studies told me to be patient. I had received and completed the first assignment by e-mail and was anxious to get on, but could not do so without the course material. I asked the Director of Studies to scan and e-mail the relevant pages. She was not willing to do this and made the excuse that I lived in a remote place. Eventually, I received a replacement pack and a disk with the two relevant pages arrived on the same day. Later she boasted about the trouble they had taken delivering the material to Sri Lanka.
I noted that nearly all the testimonials that came with the promotional literature came from outposts of the old British Empire. There used to be a show on the BBC Light Programme in my childhood hosted by a dance band leader called Victor Sylvester (“slow, slow, quick, quick, slow”). The suave, silver-haired and silver-tongued Victor would read out requests for music that was very different from Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. The natives of the colonies and the colonial administrators desired less dangerous fare. The addresses he read out were very similar to the testimonials for this organisation. When one reads the testimonials more carefully one realises that these people in Malaysia, Zimbabwe and Burmuda (sic) are not boosting the success they achieved by doing the course. They are merely saying that they hope it will help them to writing success.
The late John Diamond (who was once married to the voluptuous vixen of the kitchen, Nigella Lawson) once wrote in The Spectator about a correspondence course run by The Writers [sic] Bureau:
“Mr E H Metcalfe has written from Manchester to tell me that if I send him £189 “The world can literally be your oyster.”
A test then:
- Does E H Metcalfe know what the word “Literally” means?
- Does E H Metcalfe know what an oyster looks like?
- What do you think are the chances of my becoming a well-paid and successful writer under Metcalfe’s tutelage
Mr Metcalfe is principal of The Writers Bureau (no, I don’t know what’s happened to the possessive apostrophe either) of Dale Street, Manchester…. [P]ersevere (‘The most important quality you require is not brilliance, but perseverence’ (sic) confides Mr Metcalfe) and eventually the literal thing with the oysters will start to happen.”
I will now reveal that it is of the Writers (sic) Bureau that I write. This will not be the last time you see the word “sic” in this essay. I foolishly signed up and paid more than £189 – I got most of it back after a struggle.
As my first assignment, I was asked to write a brief descriptive piece and also set out what I wanted from writing and from the course. This is what I wrote: “I was greatly encouraged by teachers and family and friends who thought I could write, but I let them down and drifted. Apart from contributions to the school magazine that were forced out of me by supportive teachers, I did not complete much. Now I have the time and the material, I have no excuse for avoiding writing. Signing up for this course will, I hope, provide an incentive and a discipline.”
I wrote a descriptive piece about Badulla market where I do my shopping. My tutor commented “excellent…I am sure we are going to get along.” He also wrote “Here is your first mared (sic) assignment.
My tutor was one David Kinchin. A great deal was made in the promotional material of the fact that I could expect personalised tuition from a tutor who was a successful and experienced freelance writer. A great deal was made of the concept of flexibility. I expected the tutor to use the biographical – or “bibliographical” (sic) as he put it- information I provided in order to tailor the tuition to my needs and desires.
He got my name wrong.
He had no fault to find with my writing in this first assignment but confused me by going on at great length about the mistakes I could have made (but hadn’t) and rewriting my piece the way he thought it shouldn’t be done. I spent many years as a staff trainer and this approach violated a fundamental principle: don’t confuse the student by doing it wrong.
I had described the fish stall and tried to make the point that the tuna was a big brute of an animal not like those dainty little chunks you get in a tin. He corrected me and helpfully pointed out that the tuna was a fish not an animal.
I hope the following does not sound arrogant because I do not mean it to be. I may not be infallible when it comes to English grammar and usage but I feel fairly comfortable about it and have lots of reference works and check with them when I am uncertain. I did not need the Writers (sic) Bureau to tell me about spelling and punctuation (especially when they seemed so ill at ease with it themselves).
I had spent decades writing official reports, letters to the public, briefing and speeches for government ministers. I have written decent university essays and had research reports published by HMSO. I am experienced in researching archive documents and the internet. I have had my poetry published alongside Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.
My main purpose in signing up was to learn how to approach publishers and to find out which publishers might be interested in what I could do. How to write a query letter would be the epitome of this. What does it tell me in the Writers (sic) Bureau material? See Module 6. Book 2, page 50. There is a letter concerning a trite idea about dogs biting postmen (postmen biting dogs would have been more interesting) followed by the remark “That may not be the best query letter ever written…”
In a short article in an old edition of Writer’s Market, there are just a few pages giving much more helpful guidance from real editors on how to write a query letter. There are examples of good and bad practice. The article refers the reader to a book on the subject. The book is available from Amazon for less than ten GBP. Moreover, advice on query letters from the book can be called up on the screen and saved for future reference free of charge.
For my second assignment I wrote about cholesterol, discussing doubts that some people have about whether it is a myth conjured up to make profits for Big Pharma. I posted a version of this on OS and it got a huge response including favourable comments from both Dr Amy and Dr Jeff. My tutor was not impressed by my effort. He said he was very disappointed in me and I felt like a chastened infant. I started the article in what I hoped to be an amusing way by describing the hypochondria of Sri Lankans and my own experience of participating in a famous study carried out by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. My tutor at first said he liked the opening. Later on he said: “This is all about you. You keep using the word ‘I’” I only used it in the first two paragraphs which he said he liked.
“You attempt a little subtle humour on one or two occasions but it doesn’t really work”. At one point he commented “You are now confusing me. I actually think that is what you are trying to do here, but I am not sure that is a useful exercise”. “You need to aim you (sic) sights a little lower, maybe looking at weekly and daily publications which take fillers and feature length pieces.”
There was a consistent thread of trying to persuade me to aim low. I analysed Reader’s Digest as a market and did an article based on that. My tutor said: “you have picked a very awkward market in Reader’s Digest. RD only take (sic) fillers and fully commissioned articles. They commission their pieces by inviting experts and well known names to come and write for them. I don’t really see you getting onto their pages with a feature article such as this – they just don’t work like that.” I did get paid by RD for a filler many years ago.I acknowledge what he is saying but I did manage to establish a friendly first-name correspondence with the then editor- in-chief for RD Asia and he said: “Send whatever stories you have to me. I’ll have a look “. He also described one of my pieces as very well-written.
On another occasion, Kinchin advised me to remember that even jokes on snack packets are written by someone. Perhaps there is just as much of a chance of being rejected by the snack company as by Reader’s Digest, and the experience wouldn’t have been so worthwhile. He sent me something he had written called “The Perfect Article”. It was an article from a parish magazine. Oh, what a fate to aim that low and miss!
I accepted his point about my article not flowing well. I thought this was because I felt restricted by the format imposed by the assignment. I asked him if he would look at a longer version and advise me. He responded that looking at “extra” work is “something which us (sic) tutors are told by the Bureau not to do.”
For assignment three, I wrote about the mass slaughter of streets dogs in Sri Lanka and the campaign to find more humane ways of combating rabies. Again, I concede that the article did not flow too well and I took too long getting to the point. I accepted that my attempt to build up a little suspense at the beginning was misguided.
I tried to describe the tea- growing country in which Bandarawela is set. I said, “if you look at the map” in the sense of “if you read a guide book”. He picked on this and went off into a personal fugue. “You mention a map or maps at the beginning. You need to known (sic) who owns the copyright of any such map and whether they will allow it to be reproduced in this publication. You may get lucky and find that you can reproduce it for free (sic) if you state where it comes from – but you still have to get that permission before it goes into print. The editor will, no doubt, be very hot on copyright law as his job may be on the line if things go wrong.” I had no plans to reproduce any copyright map!
His response to the piece I submitted as Assignment 4 was: “The trick with any short filler article, or any letter to the editor, is to reach the heart of your writing as quickly as possible.” I was not attempting to write a filler or letter to the editor. I thought I had the option of writing a piece suitable for Adoh! – the magazine I had analysed. Assignment 4 did give an option OR “Write one short article (between 500 – 750 words) on any subject of your choice for this magazine.”
By this stage, I had realized that the course was not working for me and I wrote to Diana Nadin, the Director of Studies. Initially, she agreed with me that the tutor had made a gaffe banging on about the copyright of maps when I had no intention of reproducing a map in my article. She later retreated from this position and said: “When I re-read assignment 3 I did not find his comment about the map either odd or irrelevant. Even if you had no intention of offering the editor a map as illustration for your work it was valuable information that any writer might find useful at a later date in his career. You might be surprised by the number of queries we receive from students about the vexed topic of copyright on illustrations that they wish to use with their work.”
She proceeded to rubbish all my work. Of assignment 4 she said it: “has nothing new to say and the points David made were valid – I would be rather surprised if you managed to sell this piece of work. David has been frank but encouraging and I don’t think anyone could have said anything better or provided a more personal and individual approach to your work.” Kinchin himself had said: “It has the feel of an editorial. That is the sort of style you have used, but you are not the editor of the magazine, you are just an (sic) noncommissioned (sic) writer trying to write a piece to sell. I don’t think you have quite got the right style or content here.”
Adoh! published and paid. The editor described it as “fantastic” and begged me to send her more articles.
When Assignment 5 came along and my task was to write something for a men’s magazine I lost the will to live and asked for a refund. Ms Nadin persistently misunderstood the nature of my gripe. ”I suspect that you wish to withdraw from the course because David has been more critical of your writing than you expected. He would not be doing his job properly if he did not give necessary and appropriate feedback.”
She also got my name wrong!
My wife jokes that I welcome “constructive criticism” by which I mean “unstinting praise”. My complaint against the Writers (sic) Bureau was not that they were finding fault with my work but that they were not providing what the brochure promised –“individual advice, help, guidance and encouragement that you receive from your tutor … Many students come to know their tutor as a real friend. Through this firm but gentle approach your tutor will do everything possible to help you develop your writing skills…Within the overall context of the course, your study path can be flexible to your own requirements and circumstances.”
Rather than going out of their way to meet my individual requirements they seemed more interested in telling me what they were NOT prepared to do. While I was waiting for several months for the course material to arrive, they were not prepared to scan a few pages from the booklets for me so that I could make a start. I expected that I would be able to give articles to my tutor in order to get an in-depth analysis and advice on potential markets for these articles. My tutor told me that the Bureau frowns upon this and that he can only consider specific assignments. When I asked for his advice on markets, he responded: “I am not your agent”. When I persisted, his response was along the lines of “I’ll give it some thought” followed by “I can’t think of an answer”.
I had strong doubts about the bona fides of the Writers (sic) Bureau personnel. All my life, I have been a voracious reader and still subscribe to countless print and online magazines. I had only heard of one of the tutors. My own tutor claimed that he “regularly submits material to editors in North America using e-mail.” As I was keen on exploring American markets myself, I asked him where his work had appeared. I could hear a loud gritting of teeth in his response: “It is good to see that you are checking us out and making sure we are who we say we are.”
When pressed further by me he responded: “I have written for Law & Order and for Corrections Technology Management and also for some other titles in that line. I have done casual pieces for Best of British and some health pieces for some jounrals (sic) whose names escape me for the moment. I did do a play for a theatre publishers, called Deadline but that hasn’t sold terribly well over there.”
Best of British was not a publication I knew so I checked it out. It was certainly not a North American magazine. The editor at the time, Linne Matthews, said “Sorry, but that name does not ring any bells with me. We have had many hundreds of contributors over the years, but I don’t have any record of that name.” I sent Linne an article about Skiffle, which she loved and published and paid me for. I later sent them an article on my father and the Royal Pioneer Corps. They published that as a three page centre spread illustrated by an oil painting and archive photographs. They paid me for it. I maintain a friendly e-mail correspondence with Linne.
I did find some small items contributed by David Kinchin to a US publication called Law and Order but they were about seven years old.
The biography of David Kinchin provided in the Writers (sic) Bureau pack is rather like the “testimonials”; it deals with aspiration rather than achievement. “David’s current ambitions are to finalize his novel Bluewater Two (but there is never enough time) and to write some situation comedy.” It seems odd to be telling us about what he has failed to achieve.
What are David Kinchin’s qualifications to advise beginners on how to publish non-fiction articles? His main field of expertise is clearly PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder); his work on that may well be admirable. His biography does not convince me that he is a successful freelance writer in other fields. According to his biography, “He is also keen to explore any new technology which might assist his writing and regularly submits material to editors in North America using e-mail. His philosophy is to try something new whenever the opportunity presents itself”.
“His philosophy is to try something new whenever the opportunity presents itself.” This could be translated as “can’t settle to anything and complete it successfully”. “In 1999, David was appointed as the editor of the quarterly counselling journal, Counselling at Work. However, he decided that editing was not for him, and stepped down from this post in 2001.”
At one point he said to me : “you are working through the assignments fairly swiftly… Sometimes the Directors of the Bureau check on the progress of students, particular if they think students are rushing ahead a bit quickly. Just a piece of advice not to go too quickly and to share your time between assignments and other work. Remember there is no time limit to this course.”
Soon after that, despite totally undermining my confidence, Kinchin wrote to me saying: “I think you may now be reaching the stage where work (sic) should be of a standard suitable for submission.”
I realise now that it was foolish of me to expect Ms Nadin to support the paying customer rather than a WB employee. I have since discovered that on Linkedin that both say they live in Oldham. She helps out on his PTSD courses. They seem close. This is how she defended him:
“Moving on to the work that David has had published. I think that David has been trying to reassure you that he earns his living from writing – not boasting. (I didn’t suggest he was boasting – he seemed to be LYING) Many colleges use tutors who earn their living from tutoring – not from writing. We don’t do this. (My main point was that I had doubts about his ability to earn a living from writing) I have known David since the 1990s when he was one of our students. He was the Association of British Correspondence Colleges’ Student of the Year for his success on the Writers (sic) Bureau course. He then joined us as a tutor. We like to employ ex-students as tutors because they are familiar with the course, they can empathise with the problems of distance learning students and their success usually provides motivation for others. Since that time David has been published regularly in a wide variety of magazines on topics that interest him (police and law enforcement – he was a policeman – PTSD, religion, transport etc (sic)).”
When the Writers (sic) Bureau was challenged over a claim that one of their students had received a 25,000 GBP advance for a novel, they produced as evidence a bank paying-slip which is, of course, no proof at all as anyone could have concocted it. Similarly, here they are making unsubstantiated assertions in response to my queries about the tutor’s qualifications. She is avoiding telling me, as Kinchin himself also did, about specific publications on which I can check.
“In addition he has taken breaks from tutoring to work on books which have been published (the books have indeed been published- I do not challenge that) and we were so impressed that we recently commissioned him to write a distance learning course for us. Most writers don’t get wealthy picking and choosing to write for magazines. They have to use their talents and experiences to write for a wide variety of media – if they want to earn a living – and I can assure you that David has a broad experience of article writing, non-fiction book writing and course writing (sic). He has also had plays broadcast in the past – though I suspect that this is not he (sic) favourite form of writing. As you are currently on the non-fiction part of the course I would like to suggest that his fiction credentials are not really relevant at this stage.”
Here she glancingly raises, but does not address, an issue I was complaining about. I signed up for the course specifically so that I could be helped to write and publish non-fiction articles. Why then, does the instruction pack and the assignments cover Religious and Inspirational Writing, Writing a Novel, Writing Specialist Fiction, Writing the Short Story, Short Stories for Radio, Writing Radio Drama, Writing for Television, Writing for the Stage?
It seemed very odd to me that Ms Nadin seemed to be gloating about the fact that she did not think my writing was publishable. I had only just started taking a course that her organisation claimed would help me to get published. I did not claim to be a professional – that is why I was paying them to help me.
I did not prove to be such a no-hoper. In December 2007, I had an article published in Sri Lanka’s leading business magazine, Lanka Monthly Digest. (The article was about truth and lies.) They selected that article to be included in a compilation of Best of LMD which was published to launch a new Sinhala- language business magazine. I have been writing a regular monthly column for LMD since December 2007. Yesterday I was asked to do a second monthly column. I also write a regular column for LMD’s sister magazine, Living.
My work has appeared in all the English-language Sri Lankan newspapers. I have had articles in five consecutive issues of Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan Airlines. They come to me to ask me for articles. They pay me in dollars.
I also blogged regularly on Le Monde diplomatique. The editor described my work as “wonderful”. (Yesterday the former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN gave me a plug in a Sunday newspaper.) My articles from that blog get picked up by newspapers and websites all over the world and have been reprinted in, among others, the New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and the Scotsman.
I currently write two articles every week for Ceylon Today and two articles every month for Echelon, a business magazine
This has not brought me fame and fortune but it does indicate that I can write.
The Writers (sic) Bureau brochure carried a puff for one Christina Jones: “My first three novels are best sellers! The Writers (sic) Bureau made this possible for me. Within six months of enrolling on my course I was having work commissioned by editors. Now I’m writing novels for Harper Collins and my life has changed completely. Most of all, I’m earning my living doing what I love best.”
Rob Spence, an English lecturer from Manchester, decided to investigate this claim. “Hmmm… Funny that her name doesn’t appear in any list of bestsellers I’ve seen. Anyway, she’s happy – writing has changed her life. Odd then, that on her website, she attributes her success to meeting an agent at a Romantic Novelists’ Association event. She says she did the Writers Bureau non-fiction course a year later – so here’s someone who was already a published writer of fiction before doing the course, which wasn’t about fiction anyway…She also reveals that she’s still working as a barmaid at weekends. You’d think a bestseller would be beyond that, wouldn’t you?”
In the interests of balance please look at Christina Jones’s website
where she gives a great deal of detail about her “award-winning bucolic frolic romantic comedy novels” (I fought hard to resist adding the punctuation she omitted) and how successful her writing has been (much more successful than me) and thanks the Writers (sic) Bureau for her success. She also mentions that she filmed a series of TV ads for WB.
According to the Writers (sic) Bureau promotional literature, Jon Eagle received £25,000 as an advance for his first novel and has sold the film rights. He tells us he’s working on the script. “The success of Red’ is thanks in no small part to The Writers (sic) Bureau who offered very valuable advice.” Rob decided to investigate. “Jon Eagle did publish a book called Red– but he published it in 1996, which makes you wonder why The Writers (sic) Bureau is using it as an example. Surely, they have more recent success stories? What’s more, according to the details on Amazon, it was published by Minerva. This notorious company was a shady vanity publishing outfit, and thus far more likely to charge the author than to fork out 25 grand as an advance. A BBC investigation led to their downfall…The IMDB doesn’t list the author as a scriptwriter, and none of the various films called Red seem to relate to his book.”
Rob took the case to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and they adjudicated on 7 November 2007.They judged that the Writers (sic) Bureau had breached codes on grounds of truthfulness, “We noted from the contract that Jon Eagle sold an exclusive option over the film rights to a production company for £1. We understood from the contract that he would co-write the script, but only in the event that the production company chose to exercise its option. We considered that the testimonial implied that a film based on the novel Red would definitely be made. Because we understood that, almost 11 years after Jon Eagle told WB he had sold the film rights and would be co-writing the script, no such film had been made, we concluded that the claim could mislead by exaggerating the extent of Jon Eagle’s success.”
They also upheld the complaint in the case concerning Christina Jones. “We considered that readers of the testimonial were likely to interpret the claim ‘My first three novels are all best sellers’ to mean that Christina Jones’ first three novels were near the top of the sales list in a widely recognized book chart. We considered that the top 80 was unlikely to be seen as near the top of the sales list. We understood that a best seller list was compiled by examining cumulative book sales up to a given date. We understood that a fast seller list, however, was an annual survey of the 100 top selling paperbacks published for the first time during a particular year by British publishers. We noted The Publishing News targeted the trade, not consumers. Because the evidence did not support the likely interpretation of the claim, we concluded that it could mislead.”
The London Daily Mirror covered the story: “Perhaps Writers Bureau boss Ernest Metcalfe needs a refresher course from the National School of Salesmanship. It shouldn’t be hard to get a place – he runs it.”
As Rob Spence says, it is difficult make a decent living from writing alone and one should not believe claims from purveyors of writing courses that it is easy. My advice would be to read what successful writers like Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell have to say about working in the real modern world of PCs and Facebook rather than the Dickensian world of stamped addressed envelopes. Study websites like Writer’s Market and Writer’s Digest (note the correct use of the apostrophe) and Freelance Success.
Above all WRITE!