How to choose writing training for you and your business

Help! There are a million courses!2016-04-11 09.13.17

Now I have to declare an interest here: I’ve just set up a one-day course. I’ll be training people to write great words for their websites to get more sales, repeat visits and general love from their clients and customers. But I’ll tell you more about that later.

I’ve been wondering how people choose a writing course. Type ‘copywriting’ or ‘business writing’ into a site like Hot Courses and you’ll be overwhelmed with choice. How do you decide?

I can’t tell you which training is right for you: it depends on what you want to learn and why, your level of skill, and how you like to learn – and of course your budget.

But I can share what makes me choose a course, and I’ve been on some really good ones. I pay for my own training so I select carefully. Here are my top tips for picking training that will really make a difference to you.

Do a course because you need a particular skill

At our school careers fair we were told the first thing journalists learn is the ‘death knock’ – ringing the doorbell of some recently and tragically bereaved family and extracting their story through their tears. Nope. Not my thing. I turned my back on journalism, in my 16-year-old extreme reaction kind of way.

The thing is, after various twists and turns I became a writer and from time to time I was asked to write features. People liked them but I realised I could do better, so I booked a two-day feature-writing course. It was run by the NUJ, the UK’s union for journalists and they really know what they’re doing. I’ve never done a dud course with them, and that’s largely because you always learn from people who practise what they teach. I still use what I learnt on that course because it was so practical – no waffle, just hot tips, solid advice and lots of feature writing.

Do a course because the tutor knows their stuff

On that NUJ course the training was delivered by a tabloid journalist who was as awesome as she was ball-busting. She wasn’t a trainer – and the fact that she’d walked straight from the newspaper offices into our training room meant that when she shredded our pathetic pitches, we knew she was right. And when she told us what would sell a piece, we lapped it up. There’s a lot to be said for learning directly from someone who actually does the job. I’m a lot kinder to the people I train than she was, but that course was worth every penny.

It seems obvious that you should pick a tutor who knows their stuff, but how often do you see a course advertised – especially those identikit online writing skills courses – where you’ve no idea who the tutor is? I like to know something about my tutor. Otherwise they might as well be a robot, or someone who once sat next to a copywriter, or got A* in English at school and never got over it (I don’t care what you got in English – it’s no guide at all to how well you write in the real world). I demand to know more.

Look for evidence that they know their stuff

Once I took a creative writing course. One of the tutors was a star. She taught our course one evening a week, and the rest of the time she wrote. She wrote great stuff and got published often so we listened when she talked about writing. The other tutor had once written a book of local history. The less said the better about him.

Ah, but can they explain their stuff to you?

Knowing it isn’t enough. You want a tutor who knows how to write a report that no one can put down, and is able to explain exactly how you too can write an irresistable report.

To do this they need to be experienced and generous with their knowledge. They need to explain clearly to you a skill that may come to them naturally. To do that they need to take apart what they do and see what’s going to be useful to you. Otherwise they might just as well be reading aloud their own work – blah, blah, blah – or using a formula out of a training manual.

It’s not easy to find out from a course listing if a tutor is any good but all I’d say is that if there are reviews, check them out. Or if there’s a phone number or an email, have a quick chat with the tutor. Tell them what you’re after and see how they respond. At the very least you’ll know if they are listening to you and whether they can write like a human.

Do a course just because it interests you

I love writing stories, and so a few years ago I splashed out on a week of short-story writing with the Arvon Foundation. The tutors were fabulous and they were the main reason I chose that particular course (check out Adam Marek and Tania Hershman – two more gifted writers and tutors it would be hard to find). The week was an extravagance, maybe, but it paid its way when I returned to my desk.

We all get stuck sometimes when we’re writing copy and it was great to be reminded that there are fifty ways to write a story (or a chunk of copy). If you’re stuck one way, you can always try another. How about:
visualising it as if you were making a film – what was your reader doing in the moment before they searched for your product?
telling it to yourself aloud so you can hear the rhythms – if it doesn’t sound right it won’t read right either;
chopping all your paragraphs up and mixing them up – it can be easy to lose sight of your key message or line but it will jump out at you if it’s there.

These strategies work for copy as well as stories, because copywriting is all about stories (that’s obvious if you’re selling funerals because every family has a story about the person who died, but it’s true even if you’re selling crisps – think Walkers).

Do a course because it scares you

One of the best courses I’ve done in recent years was based on hostage negotiating. Richard Mullender terrified the life out of me when I heard him at a writing conference but he was amazing too. So I signed up for his course in listening skills, developed during his career as Scotland Yard’s lead trainer in hostage negotiating (and hush-hush stuff involving the Taliban in Afghanistan). What did I learn? And was it useful in any way? Well …

I’d be a truly terrible hostage negotiator – I was still shaking from the anxiety induced by the final role-play two hours later. I’m full of awe for the real negotiators.
If you want to really listen, don’t take notes. I know, I know – notes are vital, we love notes, how else do you remember what people said? But actually, if it’s a matter of life and death, don’t write notes – concentrate on the words.
Body language, pah! Lots of hostage negotiating takes place down a phoneline or through a door. The words tell you every thing you need to know.
Words tell you mood, emotion, what matters to a person, what they’re not telling you. Imagine on the other side of that door is a man yelling, “I’m going to kill her! I came home and found her with my mate! With the kids asleep upstairs! After all I’ve done!” Where do you start? How about, “Hi, I’m Sarah. It sounds like you really care about your family”? That’s probably what he really means, isn’t it? If he doesn’t care about them he’ll tell you what he does care about. If he does care, he’ll tell you that too – and then you’re talking and he’s not killing her. You’ve started a conversation from what, let’s face it, wasn’t a promising opening. You’ve found a way to dig beneath the surface, and that’s a skill all writers need.

Boy I learned a lot that day, and I use it too. Just don’t ask me to negotiate with a desperate man with a knife.

Do a course because it’ll make you take action

I took an excellent three-month online novel writing course last year, with the Unthank School of Writing. I blogged about it here. It was exactly what I needed: I had a project I’d been planning for years and the weekly deadlines of the course forced me to stop making excuses and get writing.

Unlike all the other courses I’ve mentioned, the novel course was online. Online was just right for me and this particular project because what I needed most was a structure to help me get where I was going. I didn’t really need training. I needed a conversation and a regular elbow in the side (from a really good tutor) to make me confront the things I’d been avoiding.

Do a course because it makes your life easier

Above all, if you’re busy running a business or sprinting from meeting to meeting, you don’t need to spend time learning stuff that isn’t relevant to the job you do.

It’s tempting to choose something online if you’re busy. I get that. But if you want to focus on the challenge you face, I suggest you choose training in a room (or on Skype) with a real person who can adapt their teaching to what you want to do, and the way you write now.

Here’s a one-day course on writing words for your website

I’ve set up a writing course. It’s one day long – who has time for more? And it’s aimed at all of you lovely people out there who’ve made yourselves a gorgeous website – or hired a designer to make one for you – and then found that it’s just not getting the results you hoped for.

Or maybe your web designer is pestering you for copy to fill your site, but you simply don’t know where to start?

Or you have a blog so Google will love you, but you just don’t have the time, ideas, or confidence to keep it up to date?

In one day we’ll make your life easier. I’ll share 30 years of working with words, and pass on some great tips from courses I’ve been on myself. You’ll learn what you need to do to get from a blank web page to content that sells, persuades and generally works. And I promise not make you do hostage negotiator role plays.

If you’d like to find out more about the next course, it’s over here.