Posts Tagged ‘writing coaching tips’

What Is a Writing Coach? … and What Makes a GREAT Writing Coach?

WHAT IS A WRITING COACH? Someone who helps writers get their books done! Part editor, part cheerleader, part story confidante, a coach is always, always on a writer’s side—and she is also someone who has the chops, knowledge, and experience to make her support effective.

Your writing coach is your smart, effective writing friend. Whether you’re trying to figure out which writing project to tackle next, how to plot your story, or how to even handle such a big commitment with so many other demands on your time, she will guide you forward confidently.

She’s traveled this road before, and knows how to get you where you’re going.

While I’ve been coaching writers for well over a decade, and have developed solid strategies along the way, I was curious: what makes a great writing coach? I asked this question of a dozen writers, including several well-published colleagues, a few clients, a former writing coach, an editor, the head of a college writing program, and the creative director of a small publishing house.

If you’re in the market for a writing coach, you might keep their responses in mind.

So, what does make a great writing coach?

Tom Wallace, editor and ghostwriter: Contrary to what many new writers believe, the craft of writing—narrative writing, creative writing—is less an inborn talent than a collection of skills that can be learned. In my observation, the best coaches—great coaches—can not only hold multiple story and character ideas in their minds, but guide writers in applying the skills they need to make those ideas work. A great coach offers both their knowledge and their generous attention to a writer’s creative needs. Working with a coach is an investment in time and energy that can transform a writer’s creative journey and pay off for years to come.

Joyce Sweeney, award-winning author, former writing coach, literary agent with The Seymour Agency: I think, moving past the obvious skill of knowing the rules of good writing and how to apply them, the real talent a great writing coach brings to the table is to be able to read the client’s work and feel the intent. We have to know what this person is doing, why they are doing it, and what is important to them beyond what they have written. What do they uniquely have to say? What undeveloped gifts can we see traces of? We have to somehow see the finished project they are dreaming of, and work backwards from that to what they have put on the page so far.

Tam Cillo, Communications at Club CarWe all have our writing strengths and weaknesses. A good writing coach celebrates the former and helps improve the latter—and she creates an atmosphere of acceptance. When she reviews my writing, she is listening for my voice, my personality. This means she sees what’s possible in even the roughest pieces. Like my favorite scuffed sneakers, my work doesn’t need to be pristine, like out-of-the-box white Keds for her to see the potential. 

A great writing coach does more than encourage, though. She helps me set goals—and stick to them. She knows that the art of writing takes more than creativity, that I must continue to develop my skills. And when I get stuck, she’s a motivator who helps me move the roadblocks and continue on the way toward my success. 

Elizabeth Sims, award-winning author, contributing editor at WRITER’S DIGEST magazine: A great writing coach is first a listener. Tell me your troubles! Then, a permission-giver. It’s OK for you to feel anxious when you do new things. It’s OK for you to screw up! In fact, it’s required! Then, a combination wrecking ball and new puppy. Let’s blast through obstacles without much thought! Let’s make friends out of troubles we can’t break apart! Love the storm and sunshine equally! What a journey!

Reverend Rebecca M. Bryan, minister at First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist: A great writing coach is someone whom you trust implicitly to guide you on the right path. She always tells the truth and holds the success of your work as paramount importance. She’s a consummate professional, who has a way of being kind to your spirit and entirely honest at the same time. Her critique and redirection always resonate and nudge you to the next right step in your writing, while her encouragement is ever-present. You trust her with your craft, which is to say you trust her with your heart and your professional path.

Peg Loves, writer: I had four developmental editors before I realized what I needed was a writing coach. Through my many sessions I’ve found these attributes to be what makes, for me, a great writing coach:

  • She’s an incubator for ideas. I have brought twigs of ideas into a meeting and left with the frame for a tree house.
  • She’s an advocate—a champion of the work and ally to my goals. When she pushes back on an idea, but changes her opinion after being led through my thought process, I know I have an advocate. When she doesn’t let me avoid something hard that I’m fully capable of doing, I know I have an advocate.
  • She has the breadth of a developmental editor and the depth of an investigator, willingly jumping in to help me untangle weak points and suggest strong threads to braid into the story.

I believe, though, part of what makes a writing coach great is the writer. Are you open-minded? Are you clear on your goals? Are you ready to deep dive into the work? Finding the right writing coach is much like dating, trying out personalities, finding which one fits best to foster your productive and fruitful work.

Ryan G. Van Cleave, author, Head of Creative Writing, Ringling College of Art and Design: Why do you need a writing coach?

  • To stop floundering
  • To save years of heartbreak
  • To shorten the learning curve
  • To help develop an appropriate, effective platform
  • To create a clear direction for your writing efforts and career

The best writing coaches aren’t just editors—they’re guides to the wider world of reading, writing, and publishing. A great writing coach will help identify what’s holding you back, troubleshoot specific writing projects, and offer insider-industry advice to create a pathway to the future you want in the world of writing.

MK Swanson, writer: A great writing coach is …

  1. A cheerleader to speed you to the goalpost.
  2. A best friend for delivering truth gently.
  3. A concierge on whose efficiency you can depend.
  4. A masseuse with whom your creative muscles relax.
  5. A drill sergeant by whose orders your story gets stronger.
  6. A trail guide to lead you past the brink of madness.
  7. A magic hat from which to pull rabbits.

Teri Saveliff, author of SIGNATURES: If you ask a friend, even a well-qualified friend, to judge the quality of your work, you will likely get a supportive but not necessarily accurate response. A good writing coach will tell you the truth. A great coach will tell you the truth in a way that encourages you to jump in and make the changes that will benefit your story—even, or especially, if these are big changes.

If you’re like me, you love words and have an easy time putting them on paper. But maybe the overall arc of your story is weak. A writing coach can tease out the story lines you may have buried in pretty language and give your work some true substance. She can also work her magic on unlikable protagonists and improbable plot lines. Ready to take it to the next level? Consult a writing coach.

Hanna Kjeldbjerg, creative director at Beaver’s Pond Press: When I’m looking to connect authors with a writing coach, the number one thing I look for is heart. Writing is so personal, and manuscripts are oftentimes an extension of ourselves. It’s true that authors need writing coaches for accountability, organization, and an objective eye to help with structural elements like narrative arc. But more than that, writers need a partner who understands their vision for their book, who feels like a friend.

My favorite editing quote is “Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love” (Stephanie Roberts). A relationship with a great writing coach should feel like that.

Megan Cooke, writer, animator, graduate Ringling College of Art and Design Creative Writing Program:

  • Great writing coaches don’t just tell you to fix something, they explain how to reach your solution.
  • Prioritization and organization are huge—a great coach will help you focus on what matters most.
  • A great coach should have your future readers in mind. They’ll catch things that will be confusing or unsatisfying to your audience.
  • Your coach should know what hard decisions need to be made. A coach can help you make tough decisions—sometimes even suggesting “killing your darlings”—that will benefit your entire story.
  • A good relationship between you and your coach makes all the difference. Our stories can be very personal, and a great coach will understand what matters most to you. They will encourage you and push you to produce your best work.

Scott Dobbins, aspiring futurist; founder/CEO, Hybridge: Any writing coach must have the experience and knowledge to provide perspective and insight to their writers. But that is just a part of it. A great writing coach must have the ability to engage with their writers on many levels—personally, intellectually, and spiritually. This forms an authentic bond, one rooted in mutual trust and respect.

With this foundation, a great coach may be empathetic and supportive in one session and no-nonsense and directive in another—whatever the project and writer require at the time. A great writing coach knows when to push you and how to pull it out of you. They are both your cheerleader and your challenger, your accountability partner, and your friend.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Image of “The Coach,” from BASEBALL TAROT, by Mark Lerner and Laura Philips, illustrations by Dan Gardiner.

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Giving the Wrong Character the Benefit of a Doubt: A Novel Writing Tip

IN REAL LIFE, IT’S GREAT TO GIVE SOMEONE THE BENEFIT OF A DOUBT. (For instance, while you know Janice might be hiding your pearl necklace somewhere in her room, because she’s your best friend, you’re willing to give her the benefit of a doubt and accept her claim that she hasn’t seen it since you wore it to Sarah’s wedding.) Giving people the benefit of a doubt allows them the chance for a do-over or to make amends. (You know, like sneak your pearl necklace back into your jewelry box while you’re not looking.) But unless they actually change their (bad) behavior, the amends are pretty much null, right?

I think we’ve all met that person. Heck, we may have all been that person! Sometimes, a habitual way of being—however detrimental to self or others—simply overrides the impulse to change. In that case, no matter how many benefits of a doubt they receive, some folks aren’t going to head down a better path anytime soon.

This is tough when it applies to someone close to us—in real life. But what if the recalcitrant person is a character in your novel? Well, then! You either have an excellent, if weasel-y, antagonist. Or you might have a deeply flawed protagonist. In either case, you’re in possession of literary trouble of the most excellent kind!

So what could that benefit of a doubt look like?

  • allowing for the possibility that she didn’t really shove that boy from the monkey bars—maybe she was just reaching out to grab the kid when he fell
  • allowing for the possibility that his hitting her was a one-time occurrence
  • allowing for the possibility that the circumstantial evidence tying her to the murder is just that: purely circumstantial
  • allowing for the possibility that he really didn’t know the gun was loaded
  • that he really, truly, honestly didn’t know that the “gift” constituted a bribe

Pick one of these—or any of the myriad other benefit-of-a-doubt-eliciting situations that would give a character one more chance to “slip out the back, Jack”—and you’ll find yourself tumbling into a veritable rat’s-nest of plot development.

You see, giving the wrong character the benefit of a doubt can ratchet up your story to such a level that your beneficent protagonist will be forced take a stand. On the other hand, if it’s your flawed protagonist who has been handed one benefit-of-a-doubt too many—received yet another several-thousand-dollar loan from her parents; gotten a pass from his boss when yet another co-worker has filed a complaint about his sexist remarks; had the accusation about yet another nasty incident at the dog park waived—then it’s clear her story is going to back her into a stakes-filled corner and keep her there until she cries “uncle!” and makes a change.

What is simply unacceptable behavior in real life can prove invaluable in turning up the heat in your fictional world. So, go ahead. Give that questionable character the benefit of a doubt and let the good (story-telling) times roll.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Swords from the ANNA.K TAROT.

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Top Writing Coach Tip #1: Get the Writing Conference Delivered to YOU!

QUICK! WHAT DOES A WRITING CONFERENCE OFFER?

  • Big name authors discussing their genres and journeys.
  • Experts teaching literary craft.
  • Agents and editors sharing insider FAQs about the publishing industry.

Also, ballrooms filled with fellow writers, a chance to pitch your book or have your first pages critiqued, a bookstore to sell your latest work, networking opportunities galore … and, of course, too much mediocre hotel food.

All at a fairly steep cost, right? Even a local-to-you writing conference is likely to set you back $500. Add travel and lodging for an away-from-home weekend, and you’re looking at twice that, or more.

But if you believe the golden information gleaned from authors and industry experts forms the heart of a writing conference, I’ve got great news! You can get that delivered right to your door—every month, at the tiniest fraction of the cost!

All you need is a subscription to a top-notch writing magazine. Here are four excellent magazines for your consideration:

In each issue, these magazines provide a plethora of topics you’d expect to see presented at a writing conference—like agent spotlights, new-author features, craft articles, and industry guidelines. And these pieces are written by the same experts you’d expect to see on a discussion panel or speaking from a conference platform!

For instance, articles in the most recent issue of WRITER’S DIGEST (just arrived in my mailbox last week) include,

  • The Art of Breaking Character: when, why, and how to have your characters act, um, uncharacteristically.
  • Steering the Ship: twelve tips for researching a nonfiction project.
  • The Frugal Writer’s Guide to Everything: ways to save big money on literary expenses. (Hey! This blog post is right in line with my pal Elizabeth Sims’s article!)
  • The Power and Peril of Prologue: when, how, and why to use a prologue—and what risks you run with agents and editors by doing so. (This in-depth, super-helpful article is by another pal, Ryan Van Cleave!)
  • The WD Interview: with Pulitzer Prize-winning author of LESS, Andrew Sean Greer. (No, Andrew’s not a pal—but I did love LESS!)

And that’s only half the full-length articles this month. There are also ten columns, the Writer’s Workbook feature, and Inkwell, with its writers’ guide to editors.

It will take me most of the month to digest (ha!) every morsel of this month’s WRITER’S DIGEST—chewing on its contents in bite-sized pieces that are easier to process (for me, anyway) than the weekend binge of a writing conference.

Top Writing Coach Tip

Here’s what I suggest:

1) Subscribe to a great literary magazine. 2) Read all the articles in each issue (you never know what information will come in handy!). 3) Earmark pieces that are relevant to your current project(s). 4) Discuss what you learn with writer friends (over coffee, and you’ve got the makings of a mini-conference!). 5) Feel reassured you’re keeping your writer self current on what’s going on in the writing world.

Of course, attending writing conferences is great, too! There’s lots of interactive magic afoot in those ballrooms. Just don’t get your hopes up about the food.

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Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Want to know more about hiring a writing coach? Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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