By Alexandra O’Connell, writer, editor, and writing coach.
A smart writer works with an editor. A smart writer who is looking for assistance during the process of writing considers working with a writing coach.
I see a lot of manuscripts that could have benefited from coaching. Unfortunately, many of these are from first-time authors, who don’t always realize the stumbling blocks they’ll hit, or they’re determined to plow through on their own anyway, certain that their “editor will take care of it.”
Let’s be blunt for a minute: your editor will help improve your manuscript, sure. But you’re the one who has to make the revisions. And if we need to start from zero, your chances of reaching Level 10 are much less than if we started from six or seven.
The number one problem I see with manuscripts such as these is structure and organization. There’s no clear through-thread, the transitional elements are a mess, the story doesn’t have focus, or the manuscript has obviously fallen prey to a polished first chapter at the expense of everything that comes after it. This makes for much more work in editing, as you might imagine, and unfortunately often a hefty revision or rewrite for the author. You can avoid this pain (not to mention loss of time and additional financial cost). Save yourself writing chapters you’ll never use and time and money you’ll never get back—work with a writing coach.
What Writing Coaches Do
The work of a writing coach is several parts craft and several more emotional support. A writing coach can give you:
- Help with your book’s structure and ways to organize your material, so you know where you’re going and have a plan to get there
- Insight into your book as you write, saving you the frustration of wondering what in the Sam hill you’re actually doing
- Feedback on your writing, what works and what doesn’t, so you “level up” your writing craft more quickly
- Answers to questions you have about your manuscript, so you’re not wondering what your best friend means when s/he says, “I dunno, it didn’t really grab me.”
- Emotional support as you go through the ups and downs of writing a book draft (they can be wild)
- Accountability, so that you actually get this project done, instead of talking about it for the next 5+ years
- Suggestions for changes in one chapter you can apply to the full manuscript, saving yourself headaches in editing
- Guidance to help you craft a better beginning, a killer conclusion, and reasons for your readers to turn pages through the so-called “muddy middle”
At root, a writing coach acts as a guide, cheerleader, and objective sounding board so you can make your book the best it can possibly be.
Alternatives to a Writing Coach
Now, you may say, there are alternatives to hiring a coach. Yes. These include taking writing workshops to improve your craft, working with a critique group to get feedback from a group of writers, and using beta readers so you can hear what potential readers (and purchasers) of your book think before you publish it. Let’s take a look at these, and their pros and cons.
Pros: These are awesome for helping you with craft questions, especially if you have a skilled instructor. They’re also usually less expensive than coaching.
Cons: Anyone who has taken a writing workshop has encountered the folks who are there mainly for socializing, or those who don’t give useful feedback. Beware the workshop vultures. Also, you don’t get a deep dive on your work, usually, since the time only allows for you to submit one or two chapters for the duration of the course, max.
Pros: Support from a group of writers who are (presumably) invested in improving their work and contributing to the literary community. Feedback on your work in progress. Usually fee-free.
Cons: Potentially, a rotating cast of characters. Also, your readers are only looking at a portion of your manuscript, rather than the work as a whole. Unfortunately, workshop vultures may also visit this group. You may need to do some work (or start your own group) in order to find an excellent set of critique partners—though this may well be worth it.
Pros: You are getting feedback from potential readers of your book’s genre, who provide you with commentary you might not have thought about as you sink into the rabbit hole of our own mind while writing. Outside commentary from your market is hugely helpful.
Cons: Usually best when you have a mostly final draft of your book, which you’ve revised several times. Not useful for an early draft, trust me: nine times out of ten, they’ll get distracted by your messy revision artifacts and neglect to comment on the story.
Despite what look like a lot of negatives for workshops, critique groups, and beta readers, I truly believe in their value for writers. I encourage you to make use of them yourself, so that you can assess their benefits as part of your own experience. They are budget-friendly and—this I believe is their most important role—can lead you to your own community, who provide you with support, both writing and emotional, and leads to other resources.
Like Editing, Coaching is an Investment
While workshops and critique groups typically only work with a portion of your manuscript, and beta readers come into play when you have a more refined draft, a writing coach gets the overview on your whole book project and can be there from the first word you write.
Coaching is a highly flexible arrangement. You can work with a coach in the way that best suits you: perhaps you wish to have phone or personal contact, or you prefer email-only; perhaps you want to have an ongoing, tight schedule to keep you accountable, or you prefer to touch base wth your coach on a more “loose” basis, to answer questions as needed. Your needs and preferences might change as you write your book, and coaching accommodates these changes as well.
Writing coaching is an investment in your writing, just as editing is. There are costs associated with working with a coach, just as there may be (delayed) costs of choosing not to work with one. Investing in a coach will save you a lot of work (and money!) on a developmental edit. Your editor will be able to give you higher-level and more nuanced feedback, rather than wading through the weeds on basic questions with which your manuscript is entangled. And you’ll have a resource to turn to when you want to bang your head against the wall, saving you time and emotional anguish.
Ultimately, the decision is yours, as you consider your goals, your ability to invest, and what support you want and need for your book. Remember, while you write alone, you don’t have to be alone with your writing.
Alexandra O’Connell is an award-winning editor, writer, and writing coach, and Immediate Past President and former Marketing Chair of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. Find her at www.alexoconnell.com.
Kerry Roepke is a genre fiction writer and a publishing consultant at My Word Publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Metropolitan State University of Denver and has a background in editorial journalism.