Writing Coaches: What Are They and Do We Need One?

by Jami Gold on December 27, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Trainer visiting with a sea lion with text: Do We Need a Writing Coach?

A couple of weeks ago, I guest posted at Writers Helping Writers for my first outing as one of their Resident Writing Coaches. In the comments of that post, Donovan Quesenberry asked what a writing coach was and how to get one, but I figured my blog was a better place than the comment section of WHW to dig into that question. *smile*

Donovan’s question is a really good one because there’s no definitive answer for the definition of a writing coach. On some level, a coach is anyone who gives advice, so even my blog could be considered a coaching site for writers.

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi at WHW use the term in a similar way. They want their Resident Writing Coaches to share advanced writing craft advice so visitors can push their craft knowledge to the next level.

However, offering craft advice isn’t the only application of the term writing coach in the publishing world, nor is it the most common. So before asking ourselves if we need or want a writing coach, we’d first have to dig into what we mean by the term.

Types of Writing Coaches

A Google search for writing coach or author coach demonstrates the variety of ways people use the term. A writing/author coach can be someone who provides help with…:

  • the basics of how to write a book
  • writing craft—from grammar tips to story structure and character development
  • productivity and efficiency—write faster, eliminate distractions, etc.
  • overcoming writer’s block
  • dealing with impostor syndrome
  • how to query or write a proposal for traditional publishing
  • navigating traditional publishing
  • how to self-publish our book
  • motivation and inspiration
  • staying on track with projects and deadlines
  • setting and meeting goals
  • developing an idea into a book
  • identifying and overcoming what’s holding us back
  • creative and emotional support

Obviously, “coach” in the writing world is a vague term, as those coaching types—from just the first page of a Google search—cover everything from career planning, productivity, and how-to-write tips. There are probably coaches for social media use and marketing help as well.

Most commonly, the term seems to be geared toward not-yet-writers who need reassurance and hand-holding for writing the fiction book-of-their-heart or the non-fiction book about their passion. In contrast, only a few use the term in relation to writing craft, so if we’re looking for help with our craft, writing coach would be an ineffective term to use.

Would a Writing Coach Be Helpful for Our Needs?

Now that we know about the variety of writing coaches out there, we might understand why it’s hard to say whether or not we need a coach. We’d first have to fully identify our needs:

  • What are our gaps in knowledge or skills? Can we learn it on our own?
  • What can’t (or shouldn’t) we do ourselves?
  • Do we just need a critique partner or editor, or do we need hand-holding?
  • Do we just need an accountability partner among our writing friends, or do we need professional help?
  • What do we have more of: time or money? Etc., Etc.

Depending on our needs, we might be better off with a specialist expert, such as an editor. Some editors even focus on teaching newer writers, walking them through writing craft issues.

Other times, maybe we just need a writing friend to act as an accountability partner for getting things done. Or we might be friends with a writer further along the publishing path that we can use as a mentor.

In many cases, writing coaches are best for those who have more money than time and need or want hand-holding beyond what a writing friend could do. They might also be best for general situations, where the help needed is beyond a specialist’s expertise.

However, before we consider hiring anyone, we should remember that there are far more people charging writers for services than can justify their value. There’s no licensing requirement for editors, much less coaches. Anyone can call themselves an editor or a coach, so before we spend money on any help, we want to make sure we’ve found the right person for our needs.

Case Study: Analyzing Our Needs

For example, let’s go back to Donovan’s original question. He’s struggled with revising his draft into a better story. He’s gotten feedback on a few chapters from a critique group, but the revision process can be overwhelming and leave us uncertain about where to start, so he asked:

“I think I need more than just comments to “fix this sentence here, change that paragraph there” type of thing. How does one get a coach, exactly?”

In Donovan’s case, looking for a coach would probably be the wrong way to go. As we discovered above, the term is too vague to help him find the type of writing craft assistance he’s looking for. Instead, it sounds like he needs big-picture story help.

Some critique groups are able to provide that type of feedback, but most groups are set up to give feedback on a chapter at a time so everyone gets a turn. Because of that structure, critique groups are often better with writing craft issues on a smaller scale (clarifying sentences or paragraphs, scene goals, immediate motivations, dialogue passages, etc.) than on a story-sized scale (character development, plot flow, story goals and motivations, themes, emotional arcs, etc.).

For Every Need We Have, Options Exist

Let’s continue to use Donovan’s situation as an example of how we’d decide whether or not our needs are a good fit for a writing coach…

Option #1: Get a Specialist’s Help

In some cases, the type of help we need might match up with the special services of a writing coach. For example, if we want a professional motivator, a coach could be our best option. Or maybe we need help with identifying the distractions we use to procrastinate, which could call for a certain kind of coach as well.

For other situations, the specialist we need might not match up with typical coaching skills. For example, editing is a special skill that’s further broken down into different types of editors.

In the terms we use to describe editors, it sounds like Donovan is looking for development or content editing feedback rather than line or copy editing feedback. So one option would be to search for a development/content editor, as they specialize in story-level feedback.

Option #2: Reach Out to Writing Friends

In other cases, our writing friends might be able to meet our needs for motivation, acting as an accountability partner, talking us through a sticky story issue, etc. In Donovan’s case, an option along these lines would be to use beta readers rather than a critique group.

Unlike critique groups, beta readers usually read the whole story at once, so they might be better at seeing the big picture—if they’re skilled. As I’ve mentioned before, if our beta readers provide feedback on the Option #1 bullet items listed in this post, they’re probably thorough enough.

Option #3: Use a Professional, But Opt for a Cheaper Service

Even if we decide we want professional help, we might not need the full scope of their services. Some coaches offer a few more-limited services, which might be closer in line with our specific needs.

In Donovan’s case, an option along these lines would be to find a developmental editor who offers a story analysis. This service isn’t as common as I’d like, and when offered, uses several different names (which makes it even harder to discover where it’s available).

Regardless of the name for this service, the editor analyzes a story/plot outline, synopsis, beat sheet, chapter-by-chapter outline, or all of the above to give big-picture feedback on the story structure, such as plot flow, increasing stakes, clear goals and motivations, arc development, theme potential, etc. While not nearly as insightful as a full developmental edit, it’s also much cheaper but can still provide feedback on story-sized issues and direction.

Option #4: Learn Everything We Can from Free Sources

A second look at that list of writing coach types above shows that I (and other writing blogs) cover most (if not all) of those topics in my posts here on my blog. So as with many things in the writing world, we can find a lot of information for free if we’re short on money.

We could search for blog posts about setting goals, being organized, sticking to deadlines, how to be our own book doctor, and so on. We can learn just about anything by digging through the internet. Most workshops and writing books are more about gathering the information we want into one convenient location than about teaching us secrets we can’t learn anywhere else.

On the other hand, if we’re short on time, we might decide it’s easier to hire someone to hold our hand and live on speed-dial for all our questions. A writing coach could be a more efficient way of learning what we need to know…if they’re truly an expert in the areas we need help. Only our needs and our situation can determine that for sure. *smile*

Have you heard of writing coaches before? What types of coaching have you seen offered? Have you ever hired a writing coach? If so, what services did you need? Were they helpful enough to be worth the money? If not, why not?

 

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9 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

tom December 27, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Found this to have some useful distinctions about progressing one’s craft and avoiding fruitless traps.

Reply

Jami Gold December 28, 2016 at 11:45 am

Hi Tom,

Yes, for many of us, writing coaches would be a waste of money and energy. We can usually advance our craft in ways that won’t cost us too much. 🙂

Reply

Donovan Quesenberry December 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm

Greetings,
As always, Jami, excellent post. This is a prime example why your blog is my consistent go to for writer continuing education. Thanks for answering. I appreciate it. 🙂
I don’t want anyone holding my hand (I am a dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude … Brahhhh! Love that movie.). Self-image is better than that. But I do need what you called development feedback. And … I need it sooner rather than later.
2017 personal goals are such that there isn’t time to research and self-teach myself what I need to learn. I still intend to study your blog, and other aspects of writer continuing education. But most of that time and focus needs to point toward putting words on the page (and revisions). If I want to final draft book 1 and complete a final draft book 2 this year, “investing” some money in a content editing “mentor” may very well be worth it, intermediate term, for this year.
Interesting. You pegged the critique group scenario 100%. They are invaluable, but more geared toward short stories or a short chapter. Am getting tired of “why didn’t you give a physical description of her …” and I am thinking, “I did that eight chapters ago, dumbass.”
Sorry. Type A personality and all that coming through. Possibly a little male ego. Maybe. 
Have leveraged mentors all my life. Without exception, I reached goals faster, made more money, invested less time. I want to do duplicate that environment with writing. I can’t control if no one wants to read it. I can control if I write and finish it.
Stay Well,
Donovan

Reply

Jami Gold December 28, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Hi Donovan,

LOL! Thanks for the great question and for always making me laugh. 🙂

Hopefully the fact that we were able to put a finger on the critique group issue means that we’re on the right track for getting you the help you need. I’m realizing that I haven’t written a post with advice for how to track down a developmental editor, so that’s another blog idea you’ve given me. 🙂 Look for that tomorrow!

Reply

Face4Audio December 28, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Great blog, Jami!

I agree with getting all the free info you can from blogs & such, but of course there’s no substitute for having someone else read your work with a fresh eye. You may think “well, DUH, I know to show-don’t-tell; I would never make that mistake,” but you have to have it pointed out in your own work, same as a misplaced comma or a stale metaphor.

I think a writing coach is someone who follows your career and learns your strengths and weaknesses over time, not just over the course of reviewing one chapter or book. As an editor, I feel I’ve developed that relationship with several authors for whom I’ve edited multiple books each, where I’ve pointed out the same pitfalls so many times, now I just write in the margin, “you’re doing it again, that thing we’ve discussed.” 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold December 28, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Hi Face,

Yes, that’s very true about the value of fresh eyes. I know I greatly appreciate my beta buddies (beta readers). 🙂

Hmm, interesting point about how a coach learns about our strengths and weaknesses and how that could apply to editors. I use the same editors for my stories time after time, so I know what you mean about how you can develop special relationships with them. In that case, if they continue to push us to do better–because they know we can, as they know our work so well–that could be considered a coaching situation. It’d be hard for an editor to push that way without knowledge of our work, however, so that’s certainly one benefit of creating editing relationships. Thanks for sharing that insight! 😀

Reply

Donovan Quesenberry December 30, 2016 at 9:40 am

Yo Face (like, you were part of the A Team, or what),
Kewl.
dq

Reply

Steph Burnham December 28, 2016 at 3:18 pm

This year I took advantage of the Association of Writing Program’s Writer-too-Writer mentorship. I’ve been so taken by how much my writing improved with having a mentor that I know it’s best to keep a mentor as long as I intend to write. I would recommend that any aspiring writer take advantage of AWP’s Writer to Writer program. I have included the link that features the Fall 2016 selections where I’m included.

Joining AWP gave me a shot at this program and I was lucky to receive a good mentor. Click on the link below to learn more:
https://www.awpwriter.org/community_calendar/mentorship_program_menteebios

Reply

Sieran December 29, 2016 at 9:56 am

This may not be very related to this post, but I’ve been thinking about the type of beta reading I want for my Chinese story. I ideally want in-depth beta reading, where I get in-line comments for e.g. confusing sentences, out-of-character moments, lack of emotional transitions, poor pacing, etc. But realistically, it may be…a bit hard to find someone who can both read Chinese that well and be willing to do that much for me, even if I offer to do the same for them for as many of their stories as they want, haha. My Chinese story would be at least six books long even after I cut it down, so…

Instead, one option would be to ask someone to finish reading my whole story, and then give me overall feedback on character development, tension, any major plot holes or weird moments, overall pacing, plot stakes, themes, emotional arcs, etc. So it’s like when you ask a fellow writer friend to read your book and then give you general comments on your work. This feedback may not be as in-depth as a detailed manuscript commenting, but from experience, even general feedback on the whole story can be quite helpful.

This is definitely not ideal, but I really don’t have several thousand dollars to hire someone to do such detailed developmental edits for me (it’s a super long manuscript); and realistically, it would be very hard to ask someone to beta read that much for me (especially in Chinese), even if I offered to do the same in return. So giving overall feedback instead MAY be a reasonable (though not ideal) alternative.

What do you think of my situation?

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What do you think?

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