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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 the comments you receive will vary—some helpful, and others confusing or 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 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 does your chosen person have 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, 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 and is not working
    They focus on major issues, such as how your story hangs together, what your characters are doing or could be doing,  what retards your story’s momentum, what story elements are not pulling their weight.
    They explain why these are weaknesses and suggest  how to fix them.
  • put aside their personal preferences 
    They accept 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, leaving it up to you to accept or reject them.
  • don’t nitpick
    They concentrate on major issues and leave minor items—misspellings, grammatical errors—-for  fixing your final draft.

  • help you set and work with writing goals
  •  help you establish good writing habits

  • suggest markets for your work.

Get a mentor early

A writer once sent in a huge, completed manuscript for a writing assessor to analyse. The assessor later told me that it would have been better for the writer to have asked for  feedback earlier. ‘She would have saved herself a lot of major rewriting.’ If you want a mentor, consider involving the mentor early in your writing project.

Be cautious about the long-term

Beware of mentor who want you to sign a long-term contract. You could start with a short period with your mentor, or have a pay-as-you-go arrangemen. If the experience is positive, you can 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 choose a mentor,  exercise care to ensure you get what you want.

  • Identify your aims
    What issues or problems do you seek help for?
    Example:  I am writing a crime novel, set in the Outback. I have chosen my characters and 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 by asking others for suggestions, and checking information from writing centres or professional associations. Develop a list of possibilities, and then check out their websites to find what the kinds of services they provide and the costs involved.

    Do you want written responses only? Do some  face-to-face interaction?

  • 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:  ‘Your material is not publishable’.
    When selecting a mentor, learn what is and is not included in the price.
    How often can you send material?
    How much  feedback will you get, when will you receive it, and what kind of feedback is provided?
    How can you contact the mentor ? E.g.:  face-to-face, email, telephone, Skype? How often?
  • Check background and interests
     Ask for the mentor’s resume to discover if the professional background, education, successes suits your needs. How long have the person mentored? What is the scope of their mentoring? What successes have they had with their clients?

    Background. Why do they mentor? What is their area of expertise? What is their style in providing feedback?.Writing and publishing experience—or not? Some mentors are published writers, but others are not. Mentors who do not write themselves may have a strong background in editing, publishing, or teaching.

  • Test the chemistry
    The quality of  being mentored depends greatly on the chemistry between you, the writer, and your mentor. Does the menotor seem informal or formal? Humorous or serious? Fussy or forgiving? Rule-oriented or organic?

    What suits you? Can you test-drive the mentoring experience. by accepting a free initial consultation or analysis of your material? Can you ask potential mentors to provide a short trial evaluation of one of your pieces?

    Evaluate the feedback received. Are the person’s 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!

    Like

  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, http://www.susanhughes.ca, 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!

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

  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.

    Like

  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’.

    Like

  5. 2 October, 2011 12:38 pm

    Great advice and tips for choosing a mentor!

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

Trackbacks

  1. Featured Writer - Michele Harvey - BecomingAWriterBlog.com : BecomingAWriterBlog.com
  2. Finding a writing mentor | Raidah The Writer

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