Linda Formichelli has written for more than 120 magazines since 1997, including Health, USA Weekend, Writer’s Digest, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Inc., and Alternative Medicine. She’s also the co-author of eight books, including The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success and The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock.
Linda lives in New Hampshire with her writer husband and toddler son, and she teaches a popular e-course called Write for Magazines, which takes the student through the eight steps to writing and sending a winning query letter, from generating a salable idea to doing interviews to finding markets to send the query to. The next session starts July 19, 2010. I spoke with her about the steps she took to develop the course, some of the business decisions she’s had to make, and her experience actually teaching the course. —Lisa Gualtieri
Lisa Gualtieri: When and why did you decide to create an online course?
Linda Formichelli: I decided in 2005 to start my e-course Write for Magazines. I’m the co-author of The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success, and I was getting a lot of questions from readers on how to break into magazine writing. I told my life coach about it, and she encouraged me to write an e-course. I’m glad I did, because I love helping new writers get their big break, and through the course I’m able to really interact with writers through the process of generating an idea, writing a query letter (the sales letter that explains your article idea to an editor), and sending the query out.
LG: How did you create the course, and how did you decide how to offer it?
LF: I wrote up eight long lessons with assignments. My goal was to answer every question writers might have about the process, so I thought about the questions writers asked me often, and also brainstormed questions I predicted future students would have, and then made sure to answer them in the text. I also included sidebars with additional resources.
The lessons are on password-protected web pages I built myself using iWeb. Every Monday morning, I email my students the password and link to the next lesson. Students who opt for the Premium level of the course with email support can email me their assignments and questions. I check and answer emails on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
LG: How much time did it take to develop the course, and how much time do you spend on average every week?
LF: It took me a few weeks to develop the course, but it’s a work in progress. Whenever I learn something new or find a better way to do something, I add it to the course.
As for how long I spend every week, it depends on the week. The first week is the most time-intensive, as I have up to 10 students each sending me three ideas to critique, and I like to give thorough critiques. I probably spend half an hour on every assignment critique that week, but I like to read the assignments and then let them settle in my head for at least a few hours before replying, so the half hour doesn’t include the amount of time I spend thinking about the students’ assignments before I formulate a reply.
In later weeks, I spend less time. For example, in week five the assignment is to complete the interviews you lined up the week before, and not much critiquing is needed for that, just the occasional hand-holding and, “Atta boy/girl!”
LG: What has the response been in terms of the number of people who have looked at the course site or inquired about it, the number who have started, the number who have completed, and the number who have gone on to write magazine articles and get them published?
LF: About 350 students have taken the course so far. I’m not sure how many people have inquired or checked out the e-course page. Most of my students find out about the course through word of mouth. I once took a survey of past students to find out how they found out about the course, and found that my paid ads were pretty much worthless, but that word of mouth was invaluable.
I also don’t have an exact count of how many students have landed assignments. Some students write to me when they land assignments, and some don’t. However, students of mine have landed articles in magazines such as Cottage Living, Black Health, Woman’s Day, E: The Environmental Magazine,Writer’s Digest, SELF, NJ Family, Blue Water Sailing, Weight Watchers, Wines & Vines, Spirituality & Health, and Rhode Island Home, Living and Design.
You asked how many students complete the course. I’d say about half of them are very gung-ho and do all the assignments up to the end, including sending out their query letter to the markets they’ve identified during the course. Another one-quarter are not as motivated, but still most of them complete the assignments on their own time after the course ends. I often hear from these students well after the end of the course to let me know about their successes, and I’m surprised because they didn’t turn in all their assignments!
The final one-quarter tend to disappear for various reasons. They got busy at work, or they got sick, and so forth. One thing I do for these students: If they write to me to let me know they’re having difficulty keeping up, I put them into my next e-course session for free so they can get all the support they paid for.
I offer a two-week trial period. If the student wants to drop out for any reason during the first two weeks, I offer a full refund. Only two students of 350 have ever asked for the refund, and those students needed to drop out for personal reasons. I think offering the guarantee helps people feel more confident in signing up. They don’t have to worry about losing their money if they don’t like the course, if they feel overwhelmed, or if something comes up that keeps them from doing the work. And I’m happy to give a refund. I absolutely don’t want the students to waste their money! I think that attitude shows and helps writers feel more at ease enrolling.
LG: Do you update the course and, if so, how often?
LF: I probably do a thorough update of the e-course every six months or so, although I do smaller updates whenever I need to, which is easy because I created the course web pages in iWeb. I’m always learning new things, so I try to keep my students up-to-date.
LG: Are you creating, or thinking about creating, other courses?
LF: Through my web site The Renegade Writer, my co-author Diana Burrell and I actually offer several e-courses taught by different writers in topics ranging from food writing to essay writing to generating ideas. Right now we’re adding a course called Freelance Editing 101.
I also teach a second course, called Get Unstuck! for Freelancers, which tackles issues with motivation, organization, and time management.
We don’t have plans to start any more new e-courses on the site, but we’re always open to new courses from extremely successful writers.
LG: What advice do you have for someone who wants to offer their own course in terms of how to go about it and what the benefits are?
LF: The benefits are that you get to work one-on-one with students and feel inspired as you watch them learn and succeed. And of course, I can’t forget to mention that e-courses do bring in income!
As for how to get started: For my first session, I offered it for free to students who were willing to beta test the course and give me their feedback. That was very helpful in terms of tweaking the course to fit writers’ needs. So I think a beta test is a good idea, and you’ll find no shortage of people willing to test out your course for free!
Another tip is to not skimp. Don’t just write out one-sentence replies to your students’ questions and assignments. Really think and give your students a thorough answer or critique. Also, send your students occasional “checking in” messages, and write to students if you haven’t heard from them in a while to make sure they’re doing okay.
Finally, you need to set boundaries. When I started, I answered course emails anywhere, anytime. It was very distracting whenever I was working on a writing assignment and a student email popped into my inbox. I felt I needed to answer it right that second. On the advice of my life coach, I set up a separate email address for the e-course, and I check it only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting in the morning and up until at least 5 p.m.
LG: Have you received any new writing assignments through your students?
LF: Yes! I’ve had two students who went on to become editors and give me assignments. That was an unexpected perk!