What Makes a Good Book Coach?
If book coaches do their job well, you eventually won't need them anymore.
I once had the appalling experience of seeing the comments of a “book coach” that looked more like those of a fourth-grade teacher scolding a child.
Countless famous authors have recounted the anecdote of their high-school or middle-grade teacher who told them never to write for a living because their prose was so bad. I guess those teachers were wrong.
I have a few rules of thumb I work off when I am coaching someone to write. My primary aim when coaching is to increase confidence and get the student writing, not to get them to emulate my own writing style.
Rule No. 1: There is no one-size-fits-all rule-book for writing
I had to read a lot of books and articles on writing to get to where I am today. I make my living as a writer, but I struggled for many years before I could achieve that. I struggled for two reasons:
- I didn’t know how to write well enough.
- I didn’t understand the market I was writing for.
Some of the tips I studied were invaluable. Others were awful. If I had acted on the awful ones, I would’ve never made it as a writer.
One of the things to learn as a writer is which rules to ignore and which to accept. But discovering that is an individual thing. What works for one writer doesn’t always work for another.
Stephen King likes to plot as he goes along. But Brandon Sanderson plots everything out before he sets one word to paper. These are both successful writers. Both have great tips on how to write. But their tips are diametrically opposed to each other. So, which do you follow?
A good coach must realize that he or she is, at best, a guide. A book coach must have a wide understanding of the various writing styles and approaches and try to discern which tips to offer a student and which to skip.
Rule No. 2: Get coached by a successful writer
How can you learn to play football if your coach never played it well? How can you learn to drive if the person teaching you can’t get behind the wheel of a car without crashing it?
A great book coach needs to be a successful writer. By “successful” I mean that he or she should either be earning a living with it or at least have accolades for what he or she has written.
Rule No. 3: Take up only one thing at a time
A great coach will not try and handle everything at once. Beginners’ writing can be pretty scary. But any pro knows that he or she only became a pro only after years of working at it. To expect a new writer to become excellent at writing in only a few days is unrealistic.
Writing doesn’t take “time” to learn, it takes wordage. My theory is that to become a magnificent writer, someone should aim to write at least a million words. But a few hundred thousand will definitely get you up there with the best.
And, while you’re writing writing writing, getting help to improve one thing at a time by a good coach will speed up your route to writing proficiency tremendously.
Rule No. 4: Always increase confidence
The only real way to learn writing is to write until your fingers are blue, and then write some more. Anyone who has done this knows that it is a grueling task.
Orson Scott Card once said that if you have a better way of making money other than writing, do it. Because writing is simply too tough. I can vouch for that. Those of us who make a living as writers either had no choice or we needed the written word like we needed air. I was a bit of both. I wouldn’t wish the route of becoming a writer on anyone I loved.
A coach that works diligently to increase confidence is a boon.
The toughest part of writing a million words is to stick with it.
You shouldn’t just be writing a million words for the sake of a million words. You should aim to write better and better each time. That usually takes a few years, and if you don’t think seriously about giving up at least once every few months, you’re probably not trying hard enough.
Someone who helps you maintain your confidence will get you through those tough points.
Rule No. 5: Realize that the coach’s way is not necessarily the right way
All writers have different styles, and one of the roles of a coach is to help a writer discover his or her voice. I often coach scenes where I know I would personally write that scene differently. But I don’t change the scene if I feel it is written well.
“Writing well” should not translate to “writing the same as everyone else.” The coach’s job is to get the author to write as the author would write.
Helping an author discover his or her voice is one of the most rewarding victories that a book coach can have. It means the coaching time is nearly over, and the Padawan will soon become the Jedi.
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