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Friday, November 09, 2007

Writers Bureau Taken to Task

I was interested to read on Linda Jones's excellent Freelance Writing Tips blog about a complaint made to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) against UK correspondence college The Writers Bureau by blogger Rob Spence.

The main substance of Rob's complaint concerned the testimonials used in The Writers Bureau's ads in newspapers and magazines. Rob believed that these exaggerated how successful the books and authors in question had actually been, and for the most part his complaints were upheld. You can read the full story in Rob's blog post, and also in the full ASA judgement, which was posted online earlier this week.

As a former Writers Bureau tutor, author of some of their course material, and creator of one of their regular ads (though not the testimonials!), I must admit to a particular interest in this matter.

In my long experience The Writers Bureau is a reputable organisation which in general offers a good service to its students, so I take no pleasure in seeing this judgement made against them by the ASA. However, I had been aware for some time that their newspaper ads always used the same testimonials, which I would have thought counter-productive anyway.

It seems to me that The Writers Bureau has been lazy in not updating its advertising. The testimonials also seem to have been misleading in other ways, for which I suppose the charitable explanation is that somebody at their advertising agency got a bit carried away. I know from my own experience as a WB tutor that many of their students did indeed go on to achieve publishing success, so I'm sure they could have found plenty of genuine, non-misleading testimonials if they had bothered to look. As I say, it looks like laziness to me, rather than anything more sinister in the organisation as a whole.

When this topic was discussed on my forum, one member commented that every company invents testimonials to try to make their product sound better. I absolutely disagree with this, however. I've worked for a wide range of mail-order and web-based publishers and, while they may indulge in some creative copywriting at times, testimonials are one thing they will never make up. With a good product, anyway, you don't need to. In the case of my writing courses such as Quick Cash Writing and Write Any Book in Under 28 Days, my publishers and I have received hundreds of unsolicited testimonials, and the only difficult thing is knowing which to feature in our advertising.

So my view is that The Writers Bureau have shot themselves in the foot on this issue. Rather than complaining about the ASA judgement, I think they should take a long, hard look at their advertising strategy, and in particular the testimonials they use. They should ensure that these are genuine and regularly updated. Even if they may not always sound quite as impressive as the discredited quotes described in the ASA judgement, they will be more realistic and believable, and may actually be more effective in persuading people to sign up with them. And, of course, The Writers Bureau will not risk having its reputation tarnished any further if someone such as Rob Spence decides to look into them in more detail!

PLEASE NOTE: This archived post is still attracting a lot of search engine traffic, so I'd ask readers to bear in mind that the ASA judgement is old news now. I suggest reading my more recent post, An Interview With Diana Nadin of The Writers Bureau, for a more up-to-date perspective on The Writers Bureau and its courses. Thank You!

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Blogger John of Celtic Ways said...

I have not seen Writer's Bureau ads for a long time. I did take their course, also a long time ago, might have been way back in the 70s, but I still value it today. My personal coach throughout was incredible and cost of the course was very affordable. The amazing thing was my coach showed my that I was more talented in an area of writing I was ignoring and he did steer me into successfully selling that work.

I could write endless praises about this course, based on when I took it, and hope it is just as valuable today. Of course then cannot spin all of the magic. It is always down to the writer to write and sell his or her work. I do not think any course can do that, but Writer's Bureau ruthlessly coach personal drafts into saleable items which is quite a shock at first, but such a thrill when you discover their coaching provided what was needed to learn how to create personal writing that sells.

I sold a short story to Reader's Digest while on the course.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I fully support your comments, John. This incident is embarrassing for The Writers Bureau - and I hope they ARE embarrassed by it - but it does not invalidate their course or the generally excellent service provided by their tutors.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Pawlie Kokonuts said...

I enjoy your blog. I linked one of your posts on the vocative comma at my blog.

2:23 AM  
Anonymous mavis said...

I was just on the point of signing up for the Writers Bureau Course and am not sure now what to do. Does anyone have experience of the Oxford Writing School - or indeed any other course which they could recommend?
I have taken a Writers' News course
and was pleased with that. I also did an Open College of the Arts Poetry Course but was disappointed at the very sparse comments made by the tutors, although I made progress and have had a number of poems published.
My main interest is in Poetry but I now want to explore other genres.
I live in the Hebrides so can't attend writers groups and courses and I've been searching for an on-line group to get involved in.
Any suggestions would be welcome.

1:58 PM  
Blogger John of Celtic Ways said...

2321Mavis, as you will read I can only praise my time with Writer's Bureau a long time ago. Though Nick reveals and suggests they keep their house in order he has also left a comment here that suggests the current tutors still provide an excellent coaching service.

As far as finding an online community for writing, you have found an excellent one here. Nick's blog is superb and generous with advice, tips and links to all things useful in writing. It is worth going through the blog archives as it is a writer's treasure chest and free. You will enjoy Nick's honest approach.

However, though this abundant info from Nick is incredibly useful along with this support forum, it is worth also purchasing Nick's own writing courses.

His Writing In 30 Days book is a very easy read, very practical and extremely motivating. This course not only drove me back into writing but his advice kept me focused and prevented time wasting.

Using Nick's courses as a reference to what is available within his free blog and forum, you'll experience an incredible package to motivate you to do whatever you would like to do with writing.

Well done for finding us so far.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Mavis said...

Thanks for the very full response. I 'll give Writers Bureau a try and will post my impression of it when I get into it.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Nailbomb said...

Well done Mavis. You successfully evaded celtic John's shameless advertising plug. Get a grip man, you sound as cheesy as the WB marketing team!

Oh and Mavis, if you're still looking for a good place to share your writing for critique, a good place to chat, or just somewhere to find help. You could always visit - they're a freindly bunch.

5:32 PM  
Blogger tapestry of musings said...

Hi Nick,
I had signed up for WB course 2 years ago, and never went beyond the 1st assignment.
I find your blog encouraging.

9:25 PM  
Blogger chrisxjs said...

Hi Nick,saw the WB ad in a magazine and sent off for the details which arrived today. Very impressed by the claims and thought I'd give in a go, but before I filled in a direct debit, thought I'd check them out online. I came across your blog and saw the ASA comments. Slighty uneasy I checked out the ASA website for the full adjudication and noted the actions that WB had been instructed to take.
Well, the Jon Eagle and Christina Jones claims are still exactly the same in the WB brochure as before the judgement, making the same misleading impressions. I won't be filling in the direct debit form after all!!

8:13 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Yes, I've seen they are still using these testimonials in their press advertising too. It surprises me in view of the ASA judgment. I would only comment that it doesn't invalidate the course, which I still believe is a good one (then again, I did help write it!). It does give a poor impression, though.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Andrew Stevenson said...

Hi Nick,

Like Mavis, I am torn between signing up for the Writers Bureau and The Writing School (Oxford Open Learning). I too would be interested to know if anybody has any experience of the latter or any recommendations. I don't think Mavis's question was ever answered.

Best wishes

Andy Stevenson

2:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, Andy. Sorry I have no knowledge of Oxford Open Learning myself. Your best bet really might be to join my (free) forum at and post your question there. The forum has nearly 8000 members, and there's a good chance someone will know about it.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Lanx said...

I signed up for the course some 15 years ago and never used it. I still have it and it was not cheap back then as I remember so think carefully before signing up. It is a commercial organisation venture after all and aims to produce commercial writers. if you write from the heart for enjoyment only it may be too demanding of time and too structured to complete. As soon as I knew writing for me was not about the money I began to enjoy it without a course.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Fair comment. Part of the course fee covers your tutor's comments on the assignments, so if you don't complete these, you are wasting this money.

The Writer's Bureau course is primarily for people who want to make money from writing. As they offer a money-back guarantee if you don't earn back the cost of the course, it's not unreasonable that they push students quite hard to write commercially.

I would never say that The Writers Bureau Course is right for everyone. I would only sign up for it if (a) you want to make money from writing, (b) you have the self-discipline to complete all the assignments, (c) you feel you would benefit from a tutor's feedback, and (d) you don't mind doing some assignments that aren't of any particular interest to you.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Rob Innis said...

I too can only speak from my recent personal experience of the Writers Bureau, which was a good one, and I have nothing but praise for my tutor. It certainly helped me to develop my writing career so I think it is a shame that they have allowed themselves to become embroiled in this unfortunate episode.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, Rob. I tend to think the ASA business is old news now. As you say, it was unfortunate, but it needs to be kept in perspective. They may have been guilty of an error of judgement in their advertising, but that does not invalidate the generally good service they and their tutors offer.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Rob Innis said...

I was sent the link to your blog by a friend and to be honest I failed to read the date on it! Apologies for diving into a rather historical event!

2:17 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

No worries. I've done the same sort of thing myself in the past!

2:55 PM  
Blogger tina said...

Aarti, could you please tell me why you discontinued the WB course? I was planning to join their WB Creative Writing Diploma Course...but now am not so sure. I live in India and am in my early fifties! Their money-back policy is what is encouraging me....but it would help to know if its going to be an impossible task to complete the course....please help by responding (anyone else who had to discontine too!). Thanks, Tina.

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a present WB student. Right from the start I didn't believe the testimonials but thought the course looked good anyway. I have found them informative and I have much more knowledge and confidence now. The trouble is I've been so busy writing other stuff I've not got beyond assignment two!

3:10 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thank you, Anon. I'm glad to hear you have benefited from the course, albeit you haven't got very far with the assignments yet!

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi guys!
I am going to complete my writers bureau course by the end of this year. I must say that The Writers Bureau are doing a great job. I too enrolled to this course, after reading an advertisement that said you can earn upto 00000000 dollars with freelance writing. Though it might be true, but what is important is that atleast with such ads they are encouraging to take writing as a career - which i think so is not wrong! I earn more that i ever expected. And ofcourse if you really have something different to provide with your writing, you will be valued.

Great job The Writers Bureau. Keep it up!

thanks, Layla Haroon - Abu Dhabi

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Tina,

Comprehensive Creative Writing course is the best course as it teaches you about writing in all aspects -journalism, tv, radio, novel, story, review writing etc....

Go for it! I have am doing it and perhaps i am on my last assignment.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous L Imrie said...

I took the Writers Bureau course and have made only a few punds out of it but I don't regret it, I left school at fifteen and it has been a boost to my education. I had teachers who could not pronounce words such as malevolent and IL Duce so it was poor and I learned little, now my grammar and use of words has been boosted; besides mt tutor is the best.

7:46 PM  
Blogger john said...

As a sub-editor for an international magazine, I am going to reveal the genius of The Writers Bureau money back guarantee: Most publications do not send rejection letters or emails any more. If your submission meets with no interest, you will simply never hear anything back. Rejection letters are from a time when people did not work 25-hour days. These days nobody has time to write them and you would be lucky to even get one, let alone half a dozen.

As such, there is practically no chance of meeting the money back threshold that The Writers Bureau sets; its very clever really.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thank you for your comment, John. Although I have to say I think it's a bit cynical. As a freelance writer who has worked with The Writers Bureau on various projects for nearly 20 years now, my view is that - the odd slip-up over advertising aside - they are a reputable organisation. Indeed, they would not have survived in business for as long as they have if it were otherwise.

You are probably right that publishers are less likely to send rejection letters nowadays. However, I'm quite sure that The Writers Bureau would not use this as a get-out clause. All they want to see is some evidence that students have been trying to market their work before issuing a refund. I don't think this is unreasonable, really. If a student didn't have rejection letters, I'm sure they would accept other evidence, e.g. copies of query letters sent out. I have never heard of a WB student being denied a refund because they weren't able to provide satisfactory evidence.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Will said...

Nice post which The main substance of Rob's complaint concerned the testimonials used in The Writers Bureau's ads in newspapers and magazines. Rob believed that these exaggerated how successful the books and authors in question had actually been, and for the most part his complaints were upheld.Thanks a lot for posting this article.

9:39 AM  

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