Two more alumni from Professor Samuel Freedman's "Book Writing" class at the Graduate School of Journalism have been awarded book contracts this fall. The weekly seminar teaches students the finer points of reporting and writing extended narrative and explains how to write a formal book proposal. Since its inception in 1991, the total number of book contracts awarded to Book Writing class alumni has surged to 24.
When asked his secret for teaching students to get their books published, Freedman quips point-blank that he is willing to line-edit 30,000 words of student work per week.
"I think the way people learn how to write is being stringently edited," he said, "and if you're not willing to do that work as an editor, you can't really bring people along."
Students from the spring 2002 semester are the latest successes -- Thai Jones for "A Radical Line" and Holley Bishop for "Robbing the Bees," both to be published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. They join a distinguished group of alumni authors, including two who were finalists for PEN literary awards for nonfiction in 1999.
Each week, Freedman's Book Writing class meets on the eighth floor of the journalism building for an 8-hour stretch, minus a couple of coffee breaks to refuel. On top of weekly writing assignments students must complete a formal book proposal, at least 8,000 words long, for a literary nonfiction work of their own.
Students also read the works of well-known contemporary authors. During the semester, six full-length books and portions of three others are required reading. But Freedman says he will not teach any book whose author won't come to the class and speak about it.
"It's vital to have a really detailed conversation about the craft with the author," said Freedman, "and I won't teach a book if I can't get the author."
This may be one reason why the class has made a name for itself in publishing circles. Freedman knows a number of agents who are familiar with the class, and some have taken on his students as clients.
Freedman recalls that in the first semester about a dozen students were enrolled in what was an elective class called "Reading, Thinking and Writing," which evolved into "Book Writing." The class is now primarily open to journalism students and is among the 15 six-credit seminar courses of which students must choose one.
"I think if the first couple of years hadn't been so successful, I would have dropped the idea, because I didn't want it to be 'pretend play,'" he said.
Freedman said he can't promise every student will get published of course, especially since he cannot dictate what the marketplace will be. But in the last few years, he said, "the pace of being picked up has increased."
Even for those students whose books will not get published, each walks away knowing what it will take to do so.
Freedman said the most important messages he tries to convey to students is the importance of knowing narrative structure, how absolute control of the tone is essential to success, and that reporting drives writing.
"Writing well has a lot to do with reporting well," he said.