When is the best time to start working with a writing coach? The obvious answer is when you feel the need to, but “the need to” is not always obvious. Writers will put off the coaching process because they may conclude that it is polished material they need to submit to a coach. This is akin to putting off going to the doctor until when you are feeling well or putting off getting cleaning help until you have straightened out the house.
Writer’s also get confused and mix up working with a coach and working with an editor.
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What’s the difference between working with an editor and working with a writing coach?
People sometimes confuse the role of the coach with that of the editor. The two do not fill the same function in a writer’s life.
Working with a writing coach usually should occur early in the process. Once on your writing team, s/he tends to help the client to discover the subject of a memoir among all the possible topics—ironically, this is not always obvious to the writer, to help grow the story—what the writer knows is usually not be the same as what the reader needs to know, to detail the story and structure it so that it encompasses the topic.
The appropriate topic of a memoir is not necessarily when you did something flashy—although that flashy thing can fit into the memoir. The topic is generally about the hero’s journey the writer has undertaken. I have seen the hero’s journey slighted for vignettes the writer believes to be more interesting to the reader. Working with a writing coach can help you to distinguish between the two and make sure that your memoir is memorable and not only flashy.
There are several sorts of editors:
- a copy editor which is another word for a proofreader (we won’t get into that in this post)
- a content editor
- a developmental editor
A content editor tends to work with finished text, to do the clarification and the polishing to get the text ready to go out into the world. At this point, the subject and the treatment are fairly well established. Content editing occurs fairly late in the writing process. Every writer needs an editor but not every writer needs a coach.
A developmental editor works with a writer to create a better text. S/he is like a coach in many ways but tends to be more involved in the writing than a coach.
An example of working with a memoir coach
One client wanted to write a book—“I’ve always wanted to write a book and now I have the time. It’s only that I don’t know what to write about.” She had a sense that a memoir would be an entry into the world of authorship but did not know what of her life to write about. We worked together for a few months before one day she knew what her topic was going to be.
My work with her was to
1) help her write the best stories technically she was capable of (we are always in apprenticeship to our writing and the months we spend searching for our subject ought to be months of as good writing as we are capable of) and
2) to prod her consistently to question the importance, the centrality, of what she was writing in view of what she might want to write.
Every once in awhile as I work with someone, I will catch a paragraph or even a sentence that feels vital, central to something, and I will ask, ”Ought this to be the subject of your memoir? Is this what you really ought to be developing?” There ensues, of course, a conversation if the question “rings a bell.” Often, what prompts me is a tone of voice, a quiver, as the client talks about a scene or a relationship.
“But, is it important enough?” the writer asks.
The answer will come only after some exploration, some writing to flesh out the topic to see how big the theme can be.
So, working with a writing coach is a process that is best undertaken as soon as you feel overwhelmed, as soon as you feel that your yearning and your ambition, your skills and your emotional stamina may not be up to the task you are undertaking.
Sometimes this feeling is vague and manifests itself in such thoughts as “Is this worth my time to write?”
What sorts of people benefit from working with a coach?
You would do well to hire a coach if you have:
1. wanted to write a book for years but have gotten no inroads into the task.
2. written and rewritten the book many times and it still does not feel right or good to you.
3. started many books that all seem to “die” on you.
4. written a book and it seems to express nothing of what you wanted to say.
Working with a writing coach is a matter of working with a dream. A coach can likely help you to realize a goal in a shorter time than you can on your own. This is because the coach is familiar with the process you are now undertaking. A coach can help alleviate your worries and accelerate your learning new skills with just-in-time teaching. (Every coach is a teacher—it’s at the core of the process.) So…
When should you start?
I would say the best time is when you are ready to make progress on your memoir and realize that you will take too long to learn to write it on your own—if you ever do. Most people I have worked with are new at writing and have no ambition to become a writer. What they want is to write this one book. If you are new to writing, a coach may be your best bet for attaining success—quickly and at the best level possible.
There is a story of Winston Churchill, who was a devoted amateur painter, taking two years to learn perspective on his own. Subsequently, he realized that he could have learned to do perspective in painting in a matter of weeks within the context of a course with a skillful teacher.
“But, aren’t you glad you learned it on our own!” someone exclaimed.
“I would rather have been doing more interesting things in those two years than learning to reinvent how to do perspectives. The process had already been mapped out.”
Painters have, after all, been doing perspective for 500 years.
And you? How long do you want to spend learning something your coach could help you with quickly and with more expertise?
Remember: whatever you do today, write a bit on your memoir.