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Thoughts about mentoring other writers

A student helping other students

Over the last year or so, I’ve been informally coaching a few writers. With a couple of them, what I’m doing goes beyond coaching and into the realm of mentoring.

To be honest, when I started writing professionally I never imagined myself being in this position. I didn’t think I’d have anything to offer other writers, and I definitely didn’t foresee other writers approaching me for help.

Being a mentor, though, is both flattering and challenging. Flattering in that someone thinks that you have knowledge they can benefit from, in that they think you can help them improve as a writer. Challenging in that you’re not only teaching someone else your writing kung fu, but you’re also trying to help someone else grow without them becoming a carbon copy of you.

I’ve learned a lot about mentoring other writers in the last 12+ months. I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve gleaned.

It’s not about you

That seems obvious, doesn’t it? It’s a boost to the old ego when someone approaches you for help. And it can be easy to sit back and be that old relative telling tales from his or her rocking chair.

That’s not what mentoring is about. Mentoring is about helping the other person. To do that, you need focus on them. Use your knowledge and skills and experience to help them.

Someone once told me that the true goal of a mentor is to help guide someone on the path to becoming better than you. I think that’s a great goal, and one that every mentor should embrace. To do that …

You need to take the time to learn about the person you’re mentoring

And about their writing. Their style. Their strengths. Their weaknesses.

That will involve interviewing the person you’re mentoring — asking questions, listening, taking notes. It’ll involve reading samples of their work or having them read their work to you.

Once you know about the writer you’re mentoring, you can craft a plan that will help them improve.

Always include the other person

Mentoring isn’t a top-down process. It’s an exchange of ideas. It’s a two-way flow of opinions.

While you’re more experienced than the person you’re mentoring, that doesn’t mean their ideas and thoughts and insights aren’t valid too. Often, the person you’re mentoring will have ideas and opinions. You need to draw those out. How? By asking questions..

Ask them what they think of an idea or path you have in mind. Ask them if a writing exercise was helpful. Ask them what they think is working and what they think isn’t working.

The other person is key to helping you create the plan I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. They can tell you what they want to focus on first or next, and tell you about any areas they feel they need to improve upon.

Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something

I often joke that I only pretend to know everything. I realize that even though I’ve been writing professionally for around 26 years that there are still gaps in my knowledge. I definitely don’t know everything about writing.

When you’re mentoring another writer, there will be times when they ask a question you can’t answer. Don’t tap dance or try to fake it. You’ll be doing the writer that you’re mentoring a disservice.

Instead, admit that you don’t know the answer. Let them know that you’ll try to find the answer. That isn’t an admission that you’re ignorant. It’s not a sign you’re a fraud. It’s just reality. Deal with it. Embrace it.

I run into that situation every so often — usually when asked questions about types of writing I’ve never done or with which I have limited experience. Luckily, I know other writers who are willing to share their experiences and ideas which I can then pass on.

Assign homework


It’s easy to pontificate and tell another writer about various writing techniques. But until they put those techniques into practice, all of the information you’re imparting is mere theory.

Homework allows the writer you’re mentoring to put that information into practice. Obviously, the homework should focus tightly on an area in which they need to improve. Take, for example, one of the writers I’ve been mentoring. He had some trouble with using the passive voice. I came up with some exercises to help him wean himself off of the passive &mash; rewriting passive sentences in the active voice, then rewriting his work to make it active.

Make sure you give the writer you’re mentoring enough homework to challenge them and to let the lessons you’re teaching sink in. But don’t give them so much that the homework takes up all their free time — assign writing a few paragraphs rather than writing a chapter of a book.

Mentoring another writer is a challenge. It’s also rewarding. You’re not only helping someone improve as a writer, you’re also learning a bit more about your craft and about yourself.

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