Friday, January 20, 2012

Cues from the Coach: Why a Coach?

You’re sitting at your computer, hands poised on the keyboard. You’ve planned your story, done your character sketches and outline, and know exactly what will happen and how it will end. But where does it start? You look at the row of question marks on the first line of your outline. You didn’t know where to begin when you created it, and you don’t know now.

Or, for the fifth time, you’ve rewritten a tense scene that’s pivotal to the story, but it still lies flat on the page. All the elements are there, but it doesn’t sing. And it won’t hook a reader. Now what?

The ability to write is a talent. The ability to write well is an acquired skill. How do you move from one to the other?

Taking a writing class offers possibilities, particularly when it comes to grammar skills. The downside, however, might be a one-size-fits-all approach that can inhibit rather than foster creativity.

A writing group offers a forum for brainstorming and inspiration. The critiquing process, if handled with objectivity and diplomacy, can define areas that need development or other intervention. The efficacy of any group, however, depends on the ability/experience/expertise of its members, the manner in which the critique is delivered, and the validity and thoroughness of the suggestions.

Family and friends can be enthusiastic and encouraging—or the opposite. What they won’t be is objective. Those who know us and love us are not the best stepping stones on the path from writing talent to writing well. (Yes, exceptions exist, but emotional ties often taint “constructive criticism.”)

A competent editor should always be part of the team that takes a book from concept to completion. Editors, however, can be expensive, and they generally come into the picture after a book is written unless their specialty is developmental editing. Taking another step prior to the editing process will help assure that your manuscript is well written, grammatically correct, and ready to grip your audience—and it will likely save you big bucks over the course of your writing career.

Working one-on-one with a writing coach, book shepherd, or mentor can make the difference between an expensive content edit and a quick copy edit/proofread. The tricks of the trade and lessons learned will apply to future works, hence the money-saving factor. Remember, though, that a writing coach does not replace an editor. Here’s what she/he does do:

• Teaches you to use words more effectively
• Shows you how to develop characters
• Helps you to grab and hold your audience
• Teaches you the effectiveness of show vs. tell
• Helps you to avoid writer intrusion
• Highlights the value of active verbs
• Makes your work memorable
• Makes your readers eager for your next book
• Shows you where to begin and end
• Teaches you to maintain rhythm and flow
• Helps you eliminate unnecessary material

Have you ever worked with a writing coach? What qualities in a coach are most important to you? Do you believe a coach could improve your work?
After working as an editor for more than two decades, Linda Lane now mentors writers who want to take their work to the next level. To learn more about her mentoring, visit her at

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  1. The creative writing diploma I did way-back-when was one-on-one with a tutor. For part of the course we worked through the first few chapters of my novel together and then she critiqued my completed first draft. It was a great way to learn.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  2. Thanks for telling us more about writing coaches, Linda, a concept pretty new to me. A writing coach, I guess, enters the timeline before the developmental editing I would do--once the writer has explored his idea and struggled to convey it on paper, I help realign the project to allow their concept to shine.

    I guess you help design the project advantageously from the beginning? Do you somehow come up with a project fee for that, or charge by the hour? I would imagine the coaching input needed varies considerably from project to project, as it does with developmental editing, but I stick to a per-page cost anyway so the client has some sense of how much they're spending. How does that work with coaching, which seems more open-ended?

  3. Also: do you find that after coaching someone, it is best to leave the editing to someone else, after investing so heavily in it?

    Thanks for putting up with my questions!

  4. Kathryn, your questions are well founded. The idea of becoming a writing coach evolved from years of editing many manuscripts that contained the same types of errors. I've spent literally hundreds of hours with editing clients, teaching them how to writer better.

    A writing coach - or mentor - bears some similarities to a developmental editor, but the emphasis is more on presentation than on content - although content does play a part, especially if it's too sparse or doesn't move the story forward. Mentoring is intended to teach the writer to use words more effectively to hook the reader. Not all writers need coaching, but those who struggle with imparting power to their stories/characters will benefit from it. I envision a scenario where coach and developmental editor could even work together in some cases to help the author produce an incredible book and, in the process, become a much better writer.

    I charge by the hour because much of the time is spent in discussion. Using the writer's own work, I may do a short edit; but then I will point out how do give a lifeless scene punch by creating a vivid word picture in the reader's mind. Ideally, then, we will continue to build the scene together as the writer learns ways to turn a written page into a work of mind art. This approach applies to non-fiction, as well, particularly when the "art" of persuasion needs to be employed or when the writer needs to connect with the reader on a personal level.

    I have just finished a project where I coached a writer through an entire book and then did the edit. Ideally, however, I would not work with the writer through the whole manuscript, but I would be available to answer occasional questions during the ongoing writing process after the coaching sessions were completed. My purpose is to help an author take that giant step from great storyteller to great writer. Then, because another set of eyes is always helpful, the editor should be someone else.

    A writing coach/shepherd/mentor does not replace an editor. Rather, he or she teaches the skills required to create a better-written, more powerful manuscript to present to the editor. And the skills learned are transferable to the next book - and the next, and the next.

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  6. Put me in, Coach ... I can plug the hole in that plot line!

  7. I guess I've been lucky with my critique groups -- we've managed to coach each other along through writing our books.


  8. Critique groups can be a valuable resource, Terry. When they work well for the writers involved, they're great. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.

    Certainly, not all writers need mentors. But virtually all writers do need a network of people who will help them in one way or another to maximize their writing skills and create a high-quality, marketable book.

  9. Very informative post, Linda! I can see a writer using the services of a coach like you, then a developmental editor like Kathryn, then a copyeditor/proofreader. Their story would be transformed, I'm sure, and come alive on the page!

    I've been doing copyediting for years, but have recently added developmental editing to my services. I find it very satisfying to help aspiring authors with developing their plot, strengthening their characters and generally honing their fiction-writing skills. Then, after they've done some (or a lot of) rewriting and revisions to ratchet up the storyline, add more tension and conflict, deepen their characters, etc., we start the actual copyediting, where I help them with style issues such as cutting down on wordiness and smoothing rough sentences, etc., then do a final check for grammar, punctuation, typos, etc.

  10. You hit the nail on the head, Jodie. (Pardon the cliché.) With rare exceptions, a great book results from great teamwork. So while the writing process can at times be lonely work, it blossoms under the tutelage of the capable hands (and minds) that guide the writer on the journey.

    Does this make the work any less the author's own? Not at all! The writer who values his/her work enough to make it the best it can be validates its worth and shows great respect for its readers, who want to read a powerful, well-written book.

  11. Another instance that shows doing it alone doesn't always work out well. We get a lot of what you mention in our critique group at Chicago-North RWA, but not everyone is fortunate enough to belong to such a great critique group of skilled authors.

    Morgan Mandel

  12. A coach and an editor? And if the book doesn't sell, how much was spent for nothing? The concept seems too expensive and is more condesending then helpful. In other words, if an 'author' uses a coach and an editor, it is no longer his/her story. I know of too many editors that insisted on using their own ideas which robbed the author of authenticity.
    Bah Humbug!

  13. You make an excellent point, Anonymous. Some editors - and coaches, too - might insist upon changes that rob a story of its style and voice, but GOOD editors and coaches would never do such a thing. An editor, like a coach, must remain invisible. His/her job is solely to help a writer polish a work, not change it with her own ideas.

    The reality is that the publishing scene has evolved into a very different "animal." Sales are never guaranteed, and even great books may not find a buyer. However, the reality is that a well-written, professionally edited book will likely be better received by a prospective agent, but that is by no means a sure road to a publishing contract.

    I find it very sad that you feel editors to be condescending. That should never be the case.

    Thank you for your post. It's a good reminder that we must always respect the uniqueness and creativity of the writers we work with.

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