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Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer


Queries, Pitches and Proposals

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Teaching Writing Online

by Moira Allen

One way for writers to turn their experience into cash is by teaching online classes. A number of sites sponsor electronic writing courses, and these sites are always in search of instructors. Since such classes are typically handled through e-mail, no real-world "classroom" experience is required; instead, your best credential is your ability to communicate effectively in writing.

Online courses offer a flexibility unmatched in real-world programs. Generally, the only formal schedule is the requirement to provide lectures on a specific day. Otherwise, you can prepare lectures, review homework, and discuss student questions on your own time -- just as students can take the course on their time. And since there is no scheduled meeting time or place, your students can come from around the country and from around the world.

Rates for online classes range from as low as $25 to several hundred dollars, but typically hover between $50 and $150, depending on the number of sessions. The host site usually takes a commission of anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. Thus, if your class costs $100 and attracts ten students, and the host takes a 25 percent commission, you'd receive $750.

Of course, you don't have to go through a host. If you are a well-known writer or have a popular website, you can offer a course independently. If, however, you have to advertise your courses on other sites or through writing newsletters to attract customers, you may soon find that the cost of advertising exceeds the cost of a host site's commission.

Pitching a Course

The first step in developing an electronic class is determining the type of class you'd like to offer. Are you a fiction writer, or a nonfiction writer? Do you specialize in a particular genre or subject? Are you experienced in screenwriting, technical writing, or poetry? Would you prefer to offer a general "getting started" course (e.g., "plotting your first mystery novel"), or a more specialized course (e.g., "creating the police procedural")?

Next, you need to find an appropriate host. Check Writing-World.com for a list of sites that host classes, or just run a Google search on "online writing classes". Visit the site and check its course list and its policies. Is your course at the same "expertise level" as the site's offerings, or is it too basic or too advanced? Don't despair if the site already offers several courses in your topic area; instead, try to tailor a class to an area of the topic that isn't being covered. (However, if there are no courses on your topic area, don't assume that this means they have a niche begging to be filled; it may mean that this particular site doesn't have a large audience for the topic.)

Some sites post information on how to become an instructor. If you can't find this information on the site, contact the site host by e-mail and ask how to apply. You will usually be asked to provide the following information:

  1. Credentials. Most class sites want instructors with published credentials in the subject area that they wish to teach. For example, don't try to pitch a mystery novel course unless you've published at least one mystery novel! Don't try to sell a course on writing travel articles unless you've sold several such articles. (Keep in mind, as well, that print publication still counts for more than electronic publication.) Experience as a book or magazine editor is also a good credential.

  2. A proposal. Generally, this is a one-page e-mail describing your course. The proposal should include an overview of what the course will cover, and how long it will run (usually from two to eight weeks). The proposal should give an idea of the expected "outcomes" of the class -- e.g., "by the end of the course, students will have a working outline of a mystery novel." If the site allows instructors to set their own fees, state your preferred fee. You may also be asked to provide minimum and maximum enrollment numbers. Finally, include your credentials in a one-paragraph bio.

  3. A syllabus. If your proposal is accepted, you may be asked for a week-by-week syllabus that outlines the topics to be covered in each section. You may also have to list each week's homework assignments.

Teaching the Course

Once you've been accepted into a "program," your next step is to develop the class! A word of warning: Before you start writing lectures, make sure that your class is actually going to run. If it doesn't reach its minimum quota, it may be canceled (often this choice is left to you), so it's often wise to write only the first lecture in advance.

Lectures are your primary mode of instruction, and students expect them to be "meaty." Consider each lecture to be the equivalent of a full-length feature article. Such lectures do take time to write -- one of the most common mistakes new instructors make is underestimating how much time an online class actually involves. (The good news, however, is that you can use those lectures again and again, which makes subsequent classes much more "profitable.")

Some sites will set up an e-mail list for you; others expect you to handle this. If you don't want to give students your direct e-mail, consider setting up a separate Yahoo! list or Hotmail account for class purposes. You must also decide whether this list should be a discussion-style list that enables students to talk to one another (and possibly critique each other's work), or a "private" list where students interact only with you. If your list is private, be sure protect your students' privacy by keeping their e-mails in the "blind copy" [bcc] section.

Typically, discussion-style "workshops" work best for more advanced fiction courses, and less well for beginning courses where students may be reluctant to share their work with others. Some courses also involve a "chat" component (which may also be set up by the host site); however, keep in mind that this requires students to "meet" at a specified time, which can be awkward for some.

Students also expect meaningful homework assignments that give them an opportunity for direct, "expert" feedback from you. Most instructors give weekly assignments that build toward a final project, such as a finished article or story. For example, a short story class might begin with an assignment to brainstorm ideas, followed by one on character building, followed by a plot outline, and so on. Finally, students expect instructors to be available to answer questions.

One of the joys of teaching an online class is watching a student blossom, and realizing that you have had a vital role in launching a new talent into the writing world. Teaching others how to write effectively is a rewarding way to share your passion and to give back some of the lessons and insights you've gathered along the way. It can also bring in a decent paycheck!

For More Information:

Tips on Conducting a Successful Workshop, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/workshop.shtml
Tips on Teaching Creative Writing, by Shirley Kawa-Jump
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/teaching.shtml

Copyright © 2004 Moira Allen
Originally published in The Writer

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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