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 Car: We 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 …
- A cheerleader to speed you to the goalpost.
- A best friend for delivering truth gently.
- A concierge on whose efficiency you can depend.
- A masseuse with whom your creative muscles relax.
- A drill sergeant by whose orders your story gets stronger.
- A trail guide to lead you past the brink of madness.
- 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.
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