I’ve been teaching creative writing at colleges and universities for nearly 20 years, and I’ve been a writing coach for nearly as long. But here’s something you likely don’t expect: I use a writing coach, too. In fact, I recently invested in my own writing career by getting five one-hour sessions with Florida writing guru Jamie Morris. In that short but focused time, I had two breakthroughs on a semi-comatose project that’s been languishing away for a year. I also felt energized, clear-headed and excited about writing again. Her fresh eyes on my work and my career was exactly what I needed.
Morris explains that hiring a writing coach is like hiring a guide, a Sherpa. “Your writing coach knows the terrain you want to travel; she knows how long the road is, how steep the climb and where obstacles are likely to lie.” And she’s got enough distance from you and your work to see things as they truly are. If she’s talented like Morris is, she’ll shorten the learning curve on your writing career.
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Let’s put it plainly – if you’re interested in breaking through the ceiling of your writing career, moving past baggage that’s getting in the way of your success, or transforming the entire process into something more enjoyable and effective, then bringing in a writing coach can be a great choice. Yet there are some crucial considerations to make to ensure you get the most for your writing coach buck. Let’s face it: You’re paying for a high level of expertise and skill, and that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – come cheaply.
1. One of these things is not like the others. (And that’s a good thing.)
Not all writing coaches are the same. Some are like your grandmother. Some are all business. Some allow you to forge your own path. Some will insist you follow their routine and route to success. Some only do phoners. Some do phone, Skype, face-to-face and anything in between. Make certain that the coaches you’re considering are open to your preferred coaching style and communication method.
Bonus Tip – Ask them if they think they’re the right coach for you or not. You might be surprised at how many have the integrity to say, “Perhaps not.” Some might even steer you directly to another coach who’s a great fit. I do that often.
2. Get all matchy-matchy.
It’s reasonable to seek out a writing coach who’s got deep experience in your specific arena, such as food writing, travel writing, memoir writing, etc. Each of these areas has special conventions and nuances, and, realistically, few writing coaches can appropriately cover every single type of writing. Hold out for the real literary love connection unless you feel that an outsider’s perspective on your work might have ample value.
3. Trust but verify.
Do check out a potential writing coach’s credentials to ensure she’s in a position to give you what you need. Don’t just assume what’s listed on her website is correct. Do a bit of sleuthing – a few have been known to say they’ve written for The New Yorker or some other large-scale publication, and it’s simply not true. Don’t be tricked by someone looking to make a fast buck by “teaching.”
Bonus Tip – Feel free to reach out to people whose names appear on the coach’s testimonial page. Asking them a quick question or two by email is completely appropriate.
4. Dare I sample the goods?
Most coaches have some kind of let’s-see-how-we-work-together option to start things off. Hey, when I’m in Sam’s Club, I always accept the samples regardless of whether I just scarfed down some McDonald’s or not. Sometimes I am horrified Sam’s Club is giving this stuff out. Sometimes I’m delightfully surprised. For exactly this reason, I give prospective clients a free taste of what my coaching is like for 15 minutes.
Bonus Tip – Even if they don’t advertise a free session, ask for one. Most will be open to a reduced rate or even a short free trial run if you’re truly serious about engaging their services.
5. What’s a fair rate?
A fair rate is whatever you’re willing to pay for coaching that you believe is helpful. But $75 to $125/hour seems like a reasonable range to start with, though factors such as geography and levels of expertise might affect that range.
Bonus Tip – Consider asking for a bulk rate, such as getting six one-hour sessions for the price of five if you pay in advance. It never hurts to ask!
6. To contract or not to contract?
It’s best to have something in writing that outlines your agreement, even if it’s just a clear email that details rates, terms of service and expectations for how you’ll communicate and work together. This doesn’t need to be written in heavy-duty legal language, though with some coaches, it will be.
7. Be realistic.
Morris offers this advice: “If she tells you she can help transform your rough-draft novel-in-progress into a best-seller – or even a good fit for a big publishing house – in less time than it takes to, say, renovate your kitchen, be sure to ask exactly how she is going to help you accomplish that.” Remember that writing coaches can work magic, but this type of magic does take time.
Whether you’re new to the game or you’ve got a big list of writing credits, a writing coach can be an invaluable career partner. She can give you extra accountability, create action steps toward specific goals, help you get unstuck and offer a fresh perspective on your work. She can also guide you to find clarity on why you feel the need to write, who you intend to reach and what impact you wish to have on that audience. Who wouldn’t benefit from all this?
The best coaches, too, don’t just offer a temporary fix. They teach the clients how to coach themselves through difficult times. Those are the true success stories. That’s the right way to supplement what you learn in critique groups, in writing classes and in the pages of magazines like this one to get your career into high gear.
Ryan G. Van Cleave is a Florida-based writing teacher and author of 20 books, including most recently Memoir Writing for Dummies and The Weekend Book Proposal.
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