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Online courses – the six things freelancers need to look for

By March 20, 2018 December 7th, 2020 4 Comments

I received an email a couple of weeks ago from a reader asking about investing in online courses. She wrote, “I’ve subscribed to a few newsletters and get invitations to do courses. The most recent is for for people earning under $2,000 a month and wanting to grow clients. I’m tempted, but I don’t want to spend all my money on courses!”

The 6 things freelance writers should look for in an online course

I love online courses. They’re convenient, often very good value for money and you get to tap into an individual’s expertise who may live on the other side of the world from you.

I also love that feeling of anticipation you get when you’re going to learn something new, put it into practice and see enormous gains from your hard work.

I haven’t totalled up how much I’ve spent on online courses since I started as a freelance writer, but let me tell you, it’s a fair bit.

I have done four or five writing courses, as well as Kate Toon’s Recipe for SEO Success course, a course on content marketing, one on building a better blog, as well as numerous paid travel writing webinars with Gabi Logan, who runs the amazing Dream of Travel Writing (affiliate link) blog.

The courses I have bought have ranged from cheap ($29) to not quite so cheap (nearly $2K).

E-learning is undoubtedly becoming more and more popular and I really believe that 2018 is the year of the edupreneuer. For the most part, what I love about online courses is that we are able to access so much practical information directly from people who have lived experience of being a freelancer.

But not everyone is a natural teacher and can offer you tools you need to get the results you want.

I haven’t always been systematic in deciding if an online course is good for me (those ticking clocks that so many people are using really work!), so this reader’s question really made me stop and think. Her question made me realise that there are certain things to look for when deciding if an online course is a worthwhile investment.

I initially did a feature writing course because I wanted to write and see if I could get an article published. Simple as that. I had no idea that I would become a freelance writer as a result.

Sometimes, you just want to do a course because it appeals to you and you don’t have any big future plans and of course that’s totally ok.

But if you do want results, here are the 6 things I believe you need to look for in an online course.

1. What are their credentials?

Times are changing, and these days, online learning is as much about the person delivering the content as it is the content itself.

I feel like almost everyone is jumping on the online course bandwagon to earn a passive income and it’s becoming a crowded space.

Step back and have a look at their credentials. Are they established in the field? How deep does their ‘success’ go? I recently saw a freelance writing course offered by a writer who didn’t have any big publication bylines to her name – that may not matter if you want to break into content writing, but if you want to write for glossy newsstand magazines, you want to make sure your teacher is going to be able to teach to your goals.

When you Google their name, can you see examples of their work? How far back does their work date?  Are they well known and well regarded within the industry?

 2. Testimonials

I’m not just talking about the glossy compliments of happy customers.

Search out people who have done the course, but who may not necessarily be providing testimonials.

How do you do that? Ask around – ask in Facebook groups you are in whether people have done the course and their thoughts about it. Ask about the results they have achieved, the kind of work they put in and whether they would recommend it.

3. Know why you want to do the course

This is a big one.

Ask yourself why this course appeals to you.

Is it a form of procrastination? Do you really need to learn particular skills before you can achieve your next goal? Is it that you are being e-bombed every day or so with reminders to join the course? What is this course offering you that you don’t have? Is it strategies? Tools? Know-how? Connections? Support? Structure?

Be very clear about what you hope to gain from doing the course that you don’t already have.

4. What will you learn?

This seems obvious, but make sure you know what you will be learning.

Is there a course outline you can download?

Are there clear learning goals set? Are there worksheets or activities so you can implement what you are learning?

Think about how you learn best – are you a self-starter who loves a self-paced course and doesn’t need someone cracking the whip or do you thrive in a course that is released week-by-week?

5. Can you afford it?

I don’t believe that this question is just about money, but also asking yourself how much is this course worth to you.

I’m a big believer in investing in yourself.  You can grow your business but also your knowledge via online courses and that can be a wonderful thing.

Financially, if you do a $300 course and you get a job worth $300 that you wouldn’t have otherwise got, then the course pays for itself.

Of course, it’s not always that easy. Sometimes the payoff is playing the long game. For example, I haven’t seen any direct revenue from doing Kate Toon’s SEO course, but I’m glad I did it as it’s given me confidence to understand SEO and to use it for this blog and for corporate clients.

How long will it take you to pay off the investment?

While the teacher will present the material, it’s going to be up to you to implement it so you need to ensure you have time to complete the course and implement what you’ve learnt.

And it’s important to know that there’s not going to be a single magic solution that the presenter delivers  – more likely it’ll be their experience rolled into one neat package.

This means that often you could find the information by yourself, but by doing the course you’re paying for the convenience of having all the information in one place at one time.

But is there an alternative? Could you squirrel away the money and go on a writing retreat or treat yourself to a café breakfast every morning where for one hour you will work on a content strategy? Could you pay a coach for an hour of their time?

I’ve had coaching sessions where writers have told me they’ve learnt more than they would have if they did an online course, because they’ve been able to ask questions that are specific to their particular situation.

6. The how is just as important as the what

I know this sounds obtuse, but once you know what is being offered in the course, you also need to know how it is delivered.

Some online courses will say that you will “Learn what makes a successful pitch to a magazine” but it’s important to ask about how you will learn this. Will you get materials? A clear, step by step pathway that you can follow to achieve similar success?

Make sure you ask questions – the presenter/teacher should be open to you asking questions and welcome your interest in the course.

A couple of other things to consider:

You’ll pay more if you have one-on-one or group time with the teacher, but sometimes this can be invaluable. Make sure if you are going to pay extra that this is something you want and need.

It’s also worth considering timezones – some of the courses I have done have their group sessions via Zoom at 2am Australian time – not exactly when I’m at my best!

I am someone who loves activities and practical exercises to help me really understand and implement the skills I’m learning. So I personally have been disappointed by courses run by big name writers who seem to be churning out content that talks about their experience without offering any real practical way for students to implement those lessons.

These days, I’m much more discerning now about what professional development I do – but there’s nothing quite as exciting as a course that promises you something that you want but don’t currently have.

Have you done many online courses? What tips do you have?


  • Hi Lindy, interesting post. When I wanted to become a freelance travel writer I did a two day course when in London with a travel writer, Peter Carty, and it completely set me off on the right path for me. I was surprised about this because it was such a short course but so useful, made me wonder about my 3 year BA (I guess that was all good foundation work). Now I’ve recently done your coaching. It was incredibly useful to hone my freelance path by talking one on one. Leah

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Hi Leah, thanks so much for your comment.
      I think the beauty of short courses or online courses is that they often distil very practical and helpful takeaways so that you can use them immediately. I think degree courses still have their place, but my experience is that they are much more focused on theory and history rather than offering pragmatic examples of how to actually do a particular job.
      I’m so glad you found our coaching session useful – I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of it for you!

  • Claire says:

    I started with a non-fiction writing course with The Writer’s Bureau and also did Gina Horkey’s 30 Days Or Less To Freelance Writing Success, which was great and paid for itself many times over when I landed an ongoing job from the accompanying Facebook page. The Writer’s Bureau course was quite good, but expensive, mainly because there were tutors marking assignments. I’ve learned just as much from online sources, many of them free. There really is a huge amount of information out there. I’ve just signed up for Kate Toon’s free mini SEO course which looks excellent. There are loads of tempting courses, but I try to be discerning and as you say, work out exactly what I’ll get from a course before I sign up. Sometimes, working through a really good book can be just as helpful, but at a fraction of the price. Facebook groups for courses are helpful though, somewhere to ask questions and a supporting community.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      You’re so right Claire, there’s heaps of information out there – and I think the beauty of online courses in particular is that they can curate that information, lessen the noise and really help you get where you want to be.
      I’ll be interested to hear what you think about Kate’s course – she is an excellent teacher and really knows her SEO stuff.
      And yes, I agree that Facebook groups can be really helpful – I’m very grateful for the connections I’ve made through the FB groups I’m part of.

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