Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers

First thing in the morning write down "The." Then follow with another word, then another.... Such advice and more goes out to the would-be author from the Stratford-on-Avon of correspondence schools. A successful author, self-taught, here tells about the fun and profit, or profit at least, in teaching writing for fun and profit.
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Both Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Carroll were unhappy about the case of the seventy-twoyear-old widow when I told them about it—it had not previously come to their attention. It was an unfortunate and unusual occurrence, they assured me, one of those slipups that may happen from time to time in any large corporation.

On the whole, they said, FWS salesmen are very carefully screened; only one applicant in ten is accepted. They receive a rigorous training in ethical salesmanship, every effort is made to see that they do not "oversell" the course or stray from the truth in their home presentation.

Eventually I had the opportunity to observe a presentation in the home of a neighbor who conjured up a salesman for me by sending in the aptitude test. A few days later she got a printed form letter (undated) saying that a field representative of the school would be in the area next week for a very short while and asking her to specify a convenient time when he might telephone for an appointment. There was something a little fuzzy around the edges here—for she had not yet heard from the school about the results of her test—but she let that pass.

The "field representative" (like the cemetery industry, the Famous Writers avoid the term "salesman") when he arrived had a ready explanation: The school had telephoned to notify him that my neighbor had passed the test, and to tell him that luckily for her there were "a few openings still left in this enrollment period"-it might, be months before this opportunity would come again!

The fantasy he spun for us, which far outstripped anything in the advertising, would have done credit to the school's fiction course.

Pressed for facts and figures, he told us that two or three of the Famous Fifteen are in Westport at all times working with a staff of forty or fifty experts in their specialty, evaluating and correcting student manuscripts . . . . Your Guiding Faculty member, could be Bennett Cerf, could be Rod Serling depending on your subject, will review at least one of your manuscripts and may suggest a publisher for it...there are 300 instructors for 3000 students ["You mean, one teacher for every ten students?" I asked. "That's correct, it's a ratio unexcelled by any college in the country," said the field representative without batting an eye]...hundreds of university professors are currently enrolled...75 percent of the students publish in their first year, and the majority more than pay for the course through their sales...there are very few dropouts because only serious, qualified applicants (like my neighbor) are permitted to enroll...

During his two-hour discourse he casually mentioned three books recently published by students he personally enrolled; one is already being made into a movie! "Do tell us the names, so we can order them?" But he couldn't remember, offhand: "I get so darn many announcements of books published by our students."

The course itself is packaged for maximum eye appeal in four hefty "two-toned, buckram bound" volumes with matching loose-leaf binders for the lessons. The textbooks contain all sorts of curious and disconnected matter: examples of advertisements that "pull," right and wrong ways of ending business letters, paragraphs from the Saturday Evening Post, This Week, Reader's Digest, quotations from successful writers like William Shakespeare, Faith Baldwin, Mark Twain, Mark Wiseman, Winston Churchill, Red Smith, an elementary grammar lesson ("Verbs are action words. A noun is the name of a person, place or thing"), a glossary of commonly misspelled words, a standard list of printer's proof-marking symbols.

There is many a homespun suggestion for the would-be Famous Writer on what to write about, how to start writing: "Writing ideas-ready-made aids for the writer-are available everywhere. In every waking hour you hear and see and feel ...." "How do you get started on a piece of writing? One successful author writes down the word 'The' the moment he gets to the typewriter in the morning. He follows 'The' with another word, then another.  (But the text writer, ignoring his own good advice, starts a sentence with "As," and tangles himself in an unparsable sentence: "As with so many professional writers, Marjorie Holmes keeps a notebook handy...”)

Throughout the course the illusion is fostered that the student is, or soon will be, writing for publication: "Suppose you're sitting in the office of a magazine editor discussing an assignment for next month's issue." The set of books includes a volume entitled How to Turn Your Writing into Dollars, which winds up on a triumphal note with a sample publisher's contract and a sample agreement with a Hollywood agent.

In short, there is really nothing useful in these books that could not be found in any number of writing and style manuals, grammar texts, marketing guides, free for the asking in the public library. (Or, for under $20 a writer can assemble his own textbook library. Everyone has his preferences; among my own favorites, sources of endless pleasure and instruction, are Fowler's Modern English Usage; The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr, and E. B. White; Roget's Thesaurus; Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.)

Thrown in as part of the $785-$900 course is a "free" subscription to Famous Writers magazine, a quarterly in which stories written by students appear under this hyperbolic caption: "Writers Worth Watching: In this section, magazine editors and book publishers can appraise the quality of work being done by FWS students." According to the school's literature, "each issue of the magazine is received and read by some 2,000 editors, publishers and other key figures in the writing world." However, Messrs. Carroll and Lawrence were unable to enlighten me about these key figures—who they are, how it is known that they read each issue, whether they have ever bought manuscripts from students after appraising the quality of their work.

The student sales department of the magazine is also worth watching. Presumably the school puts its best foot forward here, yet the total of all success stories recorded therein each year is only about thirty-five, heavily weighted in the direction of small denominational magazines, local newspapers, pet-lovers' journals, and the like. Once in a while a student strikes it rich with a sale to Reader's Digest, Redbook, McCall's, generally in "discovery" departments of these magazines that specifically solicit first-person anecdotes from their readers as distinct from professional writers: Most Unforgettable Character, Turning Point, Suddenly it Happens to You.

The school gets enormous mileage out of these few student sales. The same old successful students turn up time and again in the promotional literature. Thus an ad in the January 4, 1970, issue of the New York Times Magazine features seven testimonials: "I've just received a big, beautiful check from the Reader's Digest..." “I've just received good news and a check from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine . . ." "Recently, I've sold three more articles . . ." -How recently? Checking back through old copies of Famous Writers magazine, I found the latest of these success stories had appeared in the student sales department of a 1968 issue; the rest had been lifted from issues of 1964 and 1965.

As for the quality of individual instruction, the reactions of several former FWS students with whom I spoke were varied. Only one, a "success story" lady featured in FWS advertising who has published four juvenile books, expressed unqualified enthusiasm. Two other successes of yesteryear, featured in the school's 1970 ad, said they had never finished the course and had published nothing since 1965.

An FWS graduate who had completed the entire course (and has not, to date, sold any of her stories) echoed the views of many: "It's tremendously overblown, there's a lot of busy work, unnecessary padding to make you think you're getting your money's worth. One peculiar thing is you get a different instructor for each assignment, so there's not much of the 'personal attention' promised in the brochures." However, she added, "I have to be fair. It did get me started, and it did make me keep writing."

The staggering dropout rate cannot, I was soon convinced, be laid entirely at the door of rapacious salesmen who sign up semiliterates and other incompetents. Many of those who told me of their experience with the school are articulate, intelligent people, manifestly capable of disciplined self-study that could help them to improve their prose style. Why should adults of sound mind and resolute purpose first enroll in FWS and then throw away their substantial investment? One letter goes far to explain:

"My husband and I bought the course for two main reasons. The first was that we were in the boondocks of Arkansas and we truly felt that the Famous Writers School under the sponsorship of Bennett Cerf etc. was new in concept and would have more to offer than other courses we had seen advertised. The second was the fact that we had a definite project in mind: a fictionalized account of our experiences in the American labor movement.

"I guess the worst part of our experience was .the realization that the school could not live up to its advertised promise. It is in the area of the assignments and criticism that the course falls down. Because you get a different instructor each time, there is no continuity. This results in the student failing to get any understanding of story and structure from the very beginning.

"My husband completed about eight assignments, but felt so intensely frustrated with the course that he could not go on. He couldn't get any satisfaction from the criticism.

"While the school is careful to advise that 'no one can teach writing talent, they constantly encourage their students toward a belief in a market that doesn't exist for beginning writers. For us, it was an expensive and disappointing experience."

Another frequently voiced criticism: "The school attempts to indoctrinate its students with a universally palatable style geared strictly to the closest farm and garden market. They don't expect, or accept, experimental work. Forty years ago the sort of bland writing they encourage might have found a home in the mass circulation family magazines—I doubt if it would today."

I showed to an English professor some corrected lessons that fell into my hands. One assignment: "to inject new life and color and dimension into a simple declarative sentence." From the sentence "The cat washed its paws," the student had fashioned this: "With fastidious fussiness, the cat flicked his pink tongue over his paws, laying the fur down neatly and symmetrically." The instructor had crossed out "cat" and substituted "the burly gray tomcat." With fastidious fussiness, the lanky tweed-suited English professor clutched at his balding, pink pate and emitted a low, agonized groan of bleak and undisguised despair: "Exactly the sort of wordy stuff we try to get students to avoid."

The phenomenal success of FWS in attracting students (if not in holding them) does point to an undeniable yearning on the part of large numbers of people not only to see their work published, but also for the sort of self-improvement the school purports to offer. As Robert Byrne points out, what can be learned about writing from a writing course can be of great value in many areas of life "from love letters to suicide notes." For shut-ins, people living in remote rural areas, and others unable to get classroom instruction, correspondence courses may provide the only opportunity for supervised study.

Recognizing the need, some fifteen state universi­ties offer correspondence courses that seem to me superior to the Famous Writers course for a fraction of the cost. True, the universities neither package nor push their courses, they provide no handsome buckram-bound two-tone loose-leaf binders, no matching textbooks, no sample Hollywood contract.

Unobtrusively tucked away in the Lifelong Learning bulletin of the University of California Extension at Berkeley are two such offerings: magazine-article writing, 18 assignments, fee $55, and short-story theory and practice, 15 assignments, fee $35, ($5 more for out-of­-state enrollees). There are no academic requirements for these courses; anybody can enroll. No danger here of the Oakland widow or Louella Mae Burns getting sucked in, for those who in the instructor's opinion prove to be unqualified are advised to switch to an elementary course in grammar and composition.

Cecilia Bartholomew, who has taught the short­ story course by correspondence for the past twelve years, is herself the author of two novels and numerous short stories. She cringes at the thought of drumming up business for the course: "I'd be a terrible double-dealer to try to sell people on it," she said. Like the Famous Writers instructors, Mrs. Bartholomew sends her students a lengthy criticism of each assignment, but unlike them she does not cast herself in the role of editor revising stories for publication: "It's the improvement in their writing technique that's important. The aim of my course is to develop in each student a professional standard of writing. I'll tell him when a piece is good enough to submit to an editor, but I'll never tell him it will sell." Have any of her students sold their pieces? "Yes, quite a few. Some have published in volumes of juvenile stories, some in Hitchcock Mysteries. But we don't stress this at all."

In contrast, Louise Boggess, who teaches magazine-article writing by correspondence in addition to her classes in "professional writing" at the College of San Mateo, exudes go-ahead salesmanship: she believes that most of her students will eventually find a market for their work. The author of several how-to-do-it books (among them Writing Articles that Sell, which she uses as the text for her course), she points her students straight toward the mass writing market. In her streamlined, practical lessons the emphasis is unabashedly on formula writing that will sell. Her very first assignment is how to write a "hook," meaning an arresting opening sentence. What does she think of the word "The" for an opener? It doesn't exactly grab her, she admitted.

During the eighteen months she has been teaching the correspondence course, several of her 102 students have already sold pieces to such magazines as Pageant, Parents', Lady's Circle, Family Weekly; she has had about six drop-outs, an enviable record by FWS standards.

My brief excursion into correspondence-school­-land taught me little, after all, that the canny consumer does not already know about the difference between buying and being sold. As Faith Baldwin said, most advertising is sometimes misleading; as Bennett Cerf said, the crux of mail-order selling is a hard pitch to the gullible. We know that the commission salesman will, if we let him into our homes, dazzle and bemuse us with the beauty, durability, unexcelled value of his product, whatever it is.

As for the tens of thousands who sign up with FWS when they could get a better and cheaper correspondence course through the universities (or, if they live in a city, adult-education extension courses), we know from reading Vance Packard that people tend to prefer things that come in fancy packages and cost more.

There is probably nothing illegal in the FWS operation, although the consumer watchdogs have their eye on it.

Robert Hughes, counsel for the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Deceptive Practices, told me he has received a number of complaints about the school, mostly relating to the high­pressure and misleading sales pitch. "The real evil is in the solicitation and enrollment procedures," he said. "There's a basic contradiction involved when you have profit-making organizations in the field of education. There's pressure to maximize the number of enrollments to make more profit. Surgery is needed in the enrollment procedure."

There is also something askew with the cast of characters in the foregoing drama which would no doubt be quickly spotted by FWS instructors in television-script writing ("where the greatest market lies for the beginning writer," as the school tells us).

I can visualize the helpful comment on my paper: "Good work, Miss Mitford. The Oakland widow's problem was well thought through. But characterization is weak. You could have made your script more believable had you chosen a group of shiftyeyed hucksters out to make a buck, one step ahead of the sheriff, instead of these fifteen eminently successful and solidly respectable writers, who are well liked and admired by the American viewing public. For pointers on how to make your characters come to life in a way we can all identify with, I suggest you study Rod Serling's script The Twilight Zone in the kit you received from us. Your grade is D-. It has been a pleasure working with you. Good luck!"

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