8 Ways to Defend Yourself from Writing Coach Scams

Industry experts and legitimate writing coaches provide advice on how to spot writing coach scams and shield yourself accordingly.
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The profession of “writing coach” has come under recent scrutiny. The outcry follows a July 2018 article in the Los Angeles Times outing Anna March (also known as Nancy Kruse, Delaney Anderson and Nancy Lott) as a grifter, with financial judgments of more than $380,000 against her. March allegedly preyed on the dreams of unpublished writers by touting her services as a writing/editing coach, offering expensive writing retreats while promising access to agents and editors. According to the Times, she did not always deliver on her editorial promises, and often cancelled retreats after receiving payment.

(Publishing FAQs for Writers.)

As a legitimate writing coach, instructor and former magazine editor-in-chief of five national consumer publications, I want to prevent alleged bad actors like March from sullying the name of writing coaches across the board. And I believe the first step toward doing so is teaching writers how to protect themselves. Shield yourself from a con with the following know-how.

1) KNOW THE DEFINITION OF “WRITING COACH.”

Imagine a writing coach as a guide through the often-rocky terrain of publishing. Writing coaches can help develop story structure, teach craft , polish prose, off er accountability and goal setting, and share editor and/or agent information. Many, like myself, also offer editing help. The best coaches come with bonafide credentials, have deep experience in the area of writing you are interested in, and shorten the learning curve.

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2) DON’T PAY EXORBITANT FEES UP FRONT.

“If you hire a writing coach, it would be best to pay them per session with a chance to cancel their services if you’re unhappy,” says Mary Rasenberger, executive director of The Authors Guild. “When it comes to manuscript editing, it’s always best to avoid large, upfront payments, and obligations should be spelled out.”

I personally offer an initial two-hour time window when working with new students. They pay me up front for each session, at my hourly rate, and then we both can evaluate how the process is working. Some of my students have been with me for years as they’ve seen their publishing portfolio expand; others just want to work on one essay.

3) PROTECT YOUR FINANCIAL DATA.

It’s always best to pay through a check (so you have a record through your bank) or via a trusted source such as PayPal or Venmo, so that if you have a dispute you can lodge a complaint. Don’t give out your credit card information on the phone, and never pay cash. If you signed up for a pricey retreat, before you pay in full (always with a credit card), confirm with the hotel that there was an actual room booking made for the dates of the retreat.

4) REQUEST TESTIMONIALS.

Before signing up with a coach, ask to speak with current or former students. Beware if the writing coach tells you that information is confidential. You should also look at any testimonials pages on their website. For instance, my page provides testimonials using students’ and editors’ full names to provide credibility.

“There are a lot of imposters in this business,” says Sherry Paprocki, former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Branding Yourself.

To find a coach with integrity, Paprocki recommends reaching out to at least three past or current clients to hear about their experiences. “Don’t get thrown off the mark just because someone has had one big success in their career. Look for someone who has had consistency in publishing over a 10- to 20-year period with multiple bylines and/or books to their name.”

5) CONFIRM THAT THEY VET STUDENTS.

According to publishing guru Jane Friedman (author of The Business of Being a Writer), most quality coaches don’t work with every writer who approaches them. If you’re not being vetted in some way to ascertain whether you’re a good fit, Friedman says, that’s a warning. That’s been the case in my experience as well. Many writers come to me based on my track record publishing essays and articles in the parenting and midlife market, but I still vet writers, reviewing samples of their work and having them fill out a questionnaire about their goals and expectations.

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6) ASSESS THEIR ASSOCIATIONS.

“Look for long-standing involvement in the writing and publishing community,” Friedman says, “such as people with strong connections to influencers or organizations who can vouch for the integrity of the coach.”

Beyond one-on-one coaching, I teach online personal essay writing, pitching and freelance writing for Writer’s Digest University, and often suggest potential students take a class first. I am an adjunct instructor for NYU; often speak at writer’s conferences like ASJA, WD and HippoCamp; and am a longtime member of both ASJA and the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). These associations are more than just bullets on my résumé—they demonstrate integrity.

7) INSIST ON A CONTRACT.

“Authors should make sure they have a contract of sorts, even a signed or emailed letter that spells out exactly what the coach will do, so that there is no misunderstanding and the writer can point to the [document] if the coach is not performing,” Rasenberger says. “Payment terms should be clear and require payment only after particular services are rendered. A written contract also makes it easier to go to small claims court and get your money back if the coach clearly failed to perform.”

(How to Tell Good Publishing Contracts From Bad.)

Although I mainly work with students on articles, essays and platform building; (rather than on books), I always detail rates and expectations, as well as custom-tailored advice on how we will communicate and work together. I also confirm the collaborative coaching style we will use, and whether I will coach using phone, email, Skype or a mix, depending on the client’s needs.

8) DO A PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION.

Before signing with a coach, post a notice asking for information on Facebook groups for writers, or Google the words “lawsuit,” “scam” and “complaint” along with the coach’s name. Consult Writer Beware, a publishing resource from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America that documents scams and official complaints against publishing professionals. And if you’re a member of The Authors Guild, their legal department can help you vet contracts and alert you to red flags, as well as assist you if you’ve been scammed. Ultimately, it’s up to you to caveat emptor. But know that if you arm yourself with awareness, chances are you’ll be OK.

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