Tips for Coaching New Writers

by LimebirdCat

As my health has slowly improved, I’ve got back into coaching.I have just the one protégé at the moment, a fantastically gifted young writer just finishing her 1st year at University.

I believe that the key to being a decent coach/editor/beta/tutor, is to offer helpful, insightful feedback and above all, encouragement. I’ve written on Limebirds in the past about the joy of encouraging new writers and how much that can mean to them. Just having a peer say ‘you’re doing fine, keep going’, can really make something of a difference.

If there are problems with a draft you’ve been sent, don’t hold back, you can’t be saccharin all the time. You have to be able to say, ‘here’s something to think about’ or ‘this needs to be looked at again, it goes a bit wobbly here’.

Honesty, but in a friendly, helpful tone is essential. Think about being in school in a way. Are your fond memories of your favourite teachers based more on them being abrupt, rude and discouraging? Or based on how warm, receptive and encouraging they were to you? That they recognised your weaknesses, as well as your achievements and encouraged you to strive for more.

I believe that it’s lending a fresh pair of eyes to a concept or piece that can really help inspire anyone, regardless of their level. In my travels, I can certainly vouch for meeting a lot of fellow writers who genuinely need to have another person read their work and offer editorial help and appraisal. It is seen by some writers as an essential part of the process, handing over a manuscript to a friend or fellow writer for some informal feedback or proofreading.

There are, of course, professional services that can do all this for you. Some publishers do indeed offer it too.

But it’s the personal touch of being a beta and volunteering to be people’s spare pair of eyes and an additional articulate mind to process the story in hand, which adds such a lot to the process. Knowing that someone, who isn’t getting paid to do it, is taking their time to help you and encourage you, gives the new writer perhaps, a greater sense of solid inspiration and reassurance.

There is, of course, the obvious benefit that you don’t have to pay for a beta coach like me when they are volunteers.

The pit falls are, I’m not trained specially in editorial or teaching services. I have a degree in English and Drama and ICT qualifications, however I do not have a pretty certificate saying I’ve been on some course for coaching. However, this is something the writer themselves know and have taken that on board when they requested your help in the first place. There’s no point feeling inadequate because you don’t feel up to scratch per se – being open about what you can and can’t do for a writer is always a good way forwards. Honestly being the best policy and all that.

There is also abrupt discontinuance of service. A volunteer tutor doesn’t have a contract with the tutee and can drop them without warning. This also goes both ways, the tutee can suddenly and without warning discontinue engaging with you. However, this is a risk you have to take if you are getting something for free, especially online.

Another tip really, is being up front about how much time you can give to your writer. I’ve fallen into the pit where, upon agreeing to take someone on, I hadn’t specified what I was willing to do for them and how much time I was going to be okay giving them. I’ve had copious amounts of work dumped on me, beyond all reasonable boundaries of what I was willing to do. I got through it, out of a sort of guilt from feeling as though I had to help this person, but it became too much. I was also ending up practically rewriting everything that was sent to me, making the work that was eventually published more or less my work.

It is good to be up front and honest about what you expect from them, as well as encouraging them to find out about what to expect from you. I don’t offer a ghost writing service for free or rewrite work for people. I’ll flag up spelling or grammar that’s gone wonky, but I won’t rewrite it for them. I’ll give an example of how to rethink a sentence or challenge a concept, but I’ve learnt my lesson. You have to let the new writer write for themselves. They have to learn. It’s a bit like being a parent  – you can’t do everything for your child. There comes a time when you have to let them try to do it alone and help them out if they get stuck.

It is a worthwhile thing to get into and I enjoy working with my tutees, past and present. I get to see some amazing writing that makes me seriously excited about the future of the written word.

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8 Comments to “Tips for Coaching New Writers”

  1. Cat, I really love this post. You sound like a great coach, I wish I’d have had someone like you to help me out when I was finding my writing feet. You’re right, encouragement and constructive criticism is invaluable to writers (old and new). I’ve been writing for a long time, but I still suffer from cold sweats at the thought of people reading my work. Loved reading this, and keep up the good work! B x

    PS – I took a few disparaging comments about your own writing prowess out of here… 😉

  2. Yes, exactly – great post, Cat. Encouragement, kindness and constructive candour are the key words for any writer, new or old. One’s beta isn’t just an editor but an arse-kicker, nanny and cheerleader, too. My approach as a beta is to tell young/new writers that as a professional editor, I’ll treat them the same as any professional writer and not patronise or disguise the truth, but as you say, there are ways and ways to do that. Kind and fair, with a 3:2 ratio of praise and criticism, is as easy as being negative and unpleasant. I’ve been very lucky, having a brilliant swapsie – I do hers, she does mine. And as she’s a forensic pathologist, she’s also golddust for crime research…

  3. Lots of very good advice! Thank you!

  4. Just make sure that when you ask someone to beta read your work, that you aren’t just looking for someone to say “this is incredible!” An honest critique is the only way to go, sometimes people want that criticism but then can’t take it when it’s offered. Those who are looking for validation need to give the ms to their mom. Those that want to improve need to listen and heed the advice given.
    That being said, Cat you sound like a wonderful coach. It is certainly possible and preferable, to have someone in your corner cheering and helping, not some old crone with a ruler standing over you while you work!

  5. I agree about good beta reader(s). You want to hear positive feedback, b-u-t it’s also satisfying hearing where the weaknesses are.

    You sound like a wonderful coach. I enjoyed this post.

  6. How did you get into that then? It’s something I’d love to do. 🙂 great post.

  7. Good points, Cat, especially about honesty. That’s key in an editor. Kindness is equally important, too; nice comparison to those favorite teachers of our pasts. Personally, I’m totally fine – even encouraged – seeing a page full of red mark-ups if the beta/editor is making thoughtful comments that will help me tell a better story, while criticism just to be a know-it-all I can do without.

  8. Cat, I think it’s amazing that you soldiered through all that extra work dumped on you and took away a lesson in the importance of defining the scope of work before you get started. 🙂 Betas are so important to the evolution of a manuscript. I love how you emphasize honesty but in a friendly and helpful way. Too many people use the word honesty to make excuses for tactless and mean spirited feedback.

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