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Writing Mentors: What they do and how to select one

27 November, 2007

Why hire a professional writing mentor or coach? Isn’t it enough to attend a class/workshop or a writing group? Or ask a friend or relative to comment? It depends what you want and need.

If you want  lots of opinions, stick with your group. But be prepared that the comments you receive will vary widely. Some will be helpful; others will be confusing or even demoralising. If you slavishly follow everyone’s  suggestions, you’ll end up with a dog’s breakfast. The experience has some pluses. It can build  your resilience for receiving criticism. It may also help you clarify what YOU want to do with your writing, where YOU want your story to head.

What about having a friend or relative informally comment on your work? Sometimes this arrangement works. But ask yourself if your chosen person has the experience and expertise to—

  • understand your work and provide helpful comments
  • nurture you and your writing
  • interact positively with you
  • let you retain control of your ideas and your writing

If you cannot answer these questions with a resounding ‘yes’, consider a professional mentor.

What good mentors do

Using a writing mentor is a big step up from the group or friend-mentor experience, both in terms of the kind of feedback received. The best writing mentors help writers learn to chip away at the block of marble that is their prose piece, revealing the beauty of the story it contains.

Good mentors—

  • provide  expert, specific advice about what is working and what isn’t
    They focus on major issues, such as how your story hangs together, what your characters are doing or could be doing,  what is hurting your story’s momentum, what story elements are not pulling their weight. They also explain why these are weaknesses and suggest  how to fix them. They point out your writing strengths, so you become confident about what not to change.
  • put aside their personal likes
    They help you with the style and content you have chosen rather than moulding your writing to meet their personal preferences.
  • let you control your work
    They give suggestions, but leave it up to you to accept or reject.
  • ignore nit-picky elements
    They concentrate on major issues and leave minor items—misspellings, grammatical errors—-for correction in a final draft.
  • help you work with writing goals
    They help you identify your strengths, select the types and styles of writing to pursue—and then set realistic goals.
  •  help you establish good processes
    They help you establish good writing habits and the steps to take to help achieve your goals.
  • suggest markets for your work.

Get a mentor early

A writer once sent in a huge, completed manuscript for analysis. The assessor later told me that its major weakness was due to having 15 major characters. ‘If she had asked for  feedback earlier,’ he said, ‘she would have saved herself a lot of major rewriting.’ If you think a mentor is a good idea, it may help to get professional help early in your writing project.

Be cautious about the long-term

When looking for a mentor, be careful about ones who require you to sign a long-term contract. It is better to sign up first for a short mentorship or have a pay-as-you-go arrangement, the same way you’d pay your music or yoga teacher. If the experience is positive, you can then consider a longer-term arrangement.

Choosing a writing mentor

A professional writing mentor, like a freelance editor or writer, is a gun for hire.  If you decide to use a mentor,  exercise as much care in choosing one as you would with any professional.

  • Identify your aims.
    Clarify what the issues that you want help with.
    Example:  I am writing a crime novel, set in the Outback. I have chosen my characters, the plot and have written a few chapters. But I’m running out of steam. My writing group says I need to develop the characters more but I’m not sure how. Also,  I find it hard to stay motivated.
  • Search the field.
    Collect names of possible mentors. Query writers you meet at writing conferences. Ask members of your writing group. Check out information available from writing centres or professional associations. Look at websites.When you hae a list of possibilities, check out their websites. Many give details about their professional background and their rates.  This research helps you understand what mentors provide and the costs involved. Decide if distance mentoring suits you. Do you want written responses only? Do you want some  face-t0-face interaction? If so, is Skype OK or do you want a mentor who sits at the table with you and goes over your work?Another option is to sign up for a short feedback session with an experienced writer. Some writing centres have writers who provide feedback on submitted work. This service is not free. Reflect on the comments received, and if you think the person seems a good fit for you, ask if they mentor.
  • Ask for details about services and costs.
    Cautionary tale: One writer paid a huge sum for a professional critique—and received a single-sentence comment that her material was not ‘publishable’. When selecting a mentor, learn what’s included in the price, and what isn’t. How often can you send material?  How much  feedback will you get—and what kind of feedback is provided? How soon will you get a response? How can you contact the mentor (e.g., face-to-face, email, telephone, Skype)? How often?
  • Check the mentor’s background and interests

    Ask for a resume to discover the mentor’s professional background, education, successes. How long have they been mentoring? What is the scope of their mentoring experience? What runs do they have on the board, e.g., have clients acknowledged them publicly for their help?

    Philosophy. Why do they mentor? What is their style in providing feedback?Area of expertise. Many mentors tend to be generalists, probably because much writing help is applicable across the writing spectrum. Some writers want help that is specific to the genre or form they work in. It’s your call. If you write poetry, do you particularly want or need a mentor who is a poet?  If you’re writing erotic short stories, are you looking for an erotica expert? Or someone whose expertise is the short fiction format? At different stages in your writing career, you may change in terms of the kind of mentor you want.

    Writing and publishing experience—or not? Some mentors are published writers; others are not. It’s not a simple choice. Many mentors who do not write themselves have a strong background in a relevant field:  editing, publishing, teaching. Or they may be excellent, discerning readers.
    If you want a mentor to be a  successful writer, find out more about their success. Get details about their publications, e.g., kinds of material, where, when. If the mentor describes herself an internationally published, find out what this means.

  • Test the chemistry
    The quality of  the mentoring experience depends greatly on the chemistry between writer and mentor.You can get some idea about mentors’ personalities by visiting their website. Consider how they communicate. Do they seem informal or formal? Humorous or serious? Fussy or forgiving? Rule-oriented or organic? What suits you?You can test-drive the mentoring experience. Some mentors offer a free initial consultation, or a free analysis of your writing. You could suggest this to the mentors on your shortlist, asking for a short, trial evaluation of one of your pieces. When you get the feedback, evaluate. Are the comments helpful? Clear?  Important or picky? Do they help you see things in a new light? Do they address any issues you asked about? 
18 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 October, 2013 8:16 pm

    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button!
    I’d most certainly donate to this brilliant blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.
    I look forward to fresh updates and will share this website with mmy Facebook
    group. Talk soon!


  2. 5 May, 2013 5:24 am

    I’m Susan Hughes, a writing coach and manuscript evaluator, and I’m primarily focussed on helping guide writers to completing their children’s books, from picture book manuscripts to middle grade manuscripts to YA manuscripts to nonfiction manuscripts!

    I’m also an author of over 25 children’s books, both fiction (for example, WILD PAWS series pub by Scholastic) and nonfiction (for example, OFF TO CLASS by Owl Kids), and am an editor of educational materials.

    Like Cherie, who commented above, it is difficult to spread the word about my services. I’ve just become a “tweeter” and am hoping to gain a little more exposure that way. My website,, does include mention of my coaching and manuscript evaluation services, but I do like your idea of having a separate website dedicated to mentorship/evaluating. Thanks for the tip!


    • 5 May, 2013 10:58 am

      Hi Susan, children’s lit is so popular now that I imagine you’ll find your audience.
      Best-selling ‘Happiness Project’ author, Gretchen Rubin, is showcasing a children’s lit book each month on her site.


  3. 9 January, 2012 3:19 am

    I thought I could get by with my two critique groups, but reading this has given me food for thought. Thank you.


  4. 3 October, 2011 4:35 pm

    Quote from pjscatchall: “Once the idea hits me I have to sit down and bang it out until I’m done. Then I go back and revise and edit. I’ve tried to do it as I go but it just seems to make me lose my momentum!”

    Im exactly the same: I just love ‘banging’ it all out and I enjoy the self-indulgent luxury of letting myself write exactly what comes into my head. The Nanowrimo challenges really helped in this and I’ve now got the outline of what could be a great story (if only I continually had the stamina and motivation to actually get it sorted!)

    My ideal mentor would be someone who knows of the Isaac Asimov robot novels, has a good sense of humour and could tolerate my love of parody – as well as my often erratic output. They would need to accept just WHY I write as I do – as it’s often not strictly ‘canon’.


  5. 2 October, 2011 12:38 pm

    Great advice and tips for choosing a mentor!


    • 2 October, 2011 8:57 pm

      Thanks. I suppose in your case, you’d need to find someone who knows the horror genre or is willing to engage with the genre in terms of knowing what’s acceptable and interesting.



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