Thinking of Hiring a Memoir Writing Coach? 5 Tips for Getting the Most out of the Experience (and Expense)

by Pamela Jane Bell on December 2, 2012

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Five Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Memoir Writing Coach

By Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties will be out in 2013. Please visit her website at http://www.austencats.com

PhdIf universities offered degrees in the art of finding and evaluating writing coaches, I would have earned a PhD by now.  Maybe two.  In the many years I’ve worked on writing my memoir, in-between publishing twenty-seven children’s books, I’ve hired several dozen writing coaches, from famous writers to obscure professors.  I’ve worked with some outstanding coaches, such as Tristine Rainer (Your Life as Story), Karen Propp (In Sickness and in Health: A Love Story) and Eric Maisel (The Art of the Book Deal and Mastering Creative Anxiety).

Hiring a writing coach can be expensive, although I was able to pay for much of my coaching with my own earnings.  Still, I haven’t been on many vacations in recent years, my family-room furniture is really funky, and my fantasy of adding an addition to our house remains just that – a fantasy.  But for me, working with all those coaches was worth it.

In Sickness and in Health: A Love Story by Karen Propp

In Sickness and in Health: A Love Story by Karen Propp

As I’m writing this, I ask myself why?  Well, for one thing, it was fun.  I loved the adventure of having a traveling companion on my reflective journey into the past, and another (saner?) perspective.  In addition, I was not fully confident about what I was doing, and I relished the closeness and focus of a one-on-one relationship.  Along the way, I made some new friends and a few – well, not exactly enemies – but coaches I would never recommend. For the most part, however, my experience with writing coaches has been overwhelmingly positive.

This is not a post about how to find a writing coach, but I will say that I found most of mine by contacting the authors of favorite memoirs or “How To” writing books, after determining from their book jackets or websites that they offered coaching. So here are my hard-learned tips for getting the most, i.e., exactly what you want, out of your coaching experience.

Two Women in the Woods by Vincent van Gogh

Two Women in the Woods by Vincent van Gogh

1. Tell your prospective coach precisely what you expect

Most coaches will do anything from a simple line edit to correcting grammatical or punctuation errors, to a deeper structural or thematic critique.  Others offer an on-going relationship, one that may include marketing advice, help writing a proposal, or overcoming creative anxiety. (I still haven’t mastered that one.) Be sure to specify exactly what you’re looking for.

If you’ve had experiences with writing coaches or editors in the past and know how you work best, also articulate that.  For instance, I respond better to concrete examples than to vague editorial directions.  In other words, “Foreshadow your apprehension about your roommate’s honesty,” is harder for me to grasp than, “When I found my roommate going through my closet, I got a really queasy feeling in my stomach.”  The example provided doesn’t have to be good writing – I will rewrite anyway.  But it gives me something solid to stand on.

2. Insist on clearly-stated on the financial arrangements

A writing coach you are considering hiring should provide you with a detailed letter or email outlining exactly what you will be getting for your money, as well as her fee, whether a flat-fee for a specific project, or an hourly rate.  She should also give you a rough idea of how long it will take to read your manuscript, based on its length and the kind of critique you want.  She should be clear about whether her fee includes a follow-up telephone call, a letter, or specific comments on the manuscript, and if you will have an opportunity to ask for clarification on her comments.  If you agree on a certain fee or time period, ask her to alert you if she is going over the limit.

Although it’s fine to pay with a credit card or PayPal if your coach is set up for these, avoid giving her your credit card number, allowing her to charge you for each email or telephone conversation, as some do.  You may not be sure how much or when you’re being charged and the uncertainty makes for a very uncomfortable relationship.  It’s also a good idea to avoid a writing coach who asks you for a three or six-month (or longer) financial commitment.  What if she isn’t as helpful or perceptive as you’d hoped?  Or you might find you’ve acquired expenses you had not anticipated when you hired her.plumbing

3. Arrange for a short telephone conversation before you commit

I offer my children’s book coaching clients a brief telephone conversation at no charge before they sign up with me.  This isn’t so I can make a great sales pitch, but so they can determine if we’re a good fit.  A telephone conversation with a prospective coach will give you a sense of how she thinks and analyzes, and if you enjoy her company. If you are unsure or doubtful, look elsewhere.

4. Look at the person, not the resume

All writers assume a persona when writing. People are not the same on paper as they are in person.  Even the appearance of candor is an illusion – an acquired personality trait. This may be a pleasant surprise, or a problem.  Either way, be on the look-out for it.

fire5. Don’t Get Burned!

Every situation I’ve described in this post is one I’ve experienced personally.  I told you I had a PhD in being coached!  Now I wish I could tell you how not to get burned.  I think, looking back, I would say, trust your instincts.  No matter how well recommended, articulate, or famous a writing coach is, he or she may not be the best one for you.  Respect that, and keep looking.

I once hired a writing coach whose fee included a one-hour follow-up telephone conversation.  But when we started talking, she was distracted, short-tempered, and curt.  I could hear kids screaming in the background.  Maybe her baby-sitter failed to show up, or her husband was late coming home from work.  In any case, it would have been best, and most professional, for her to explain and reschedule.  She wasn’t willing to do that.

Most of the writing coaches I worked with were tremendously helpful, and I’m grateful for their time, intelligence, and insight.  They wanted to help and a few were brilliant at what they did.   Somehow, through all the work, I think I’ve internalized their lessons.

imagesWhen my daughter was two years old, her favorite word was “self,” meaning “I can do it myself!”  That’s how I feel now.  I can finish my memoir myself.  It’s a good place for a writer to be, and a fine writing coach can help you get there.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy Schleining December 3, 2012 at

Pamie,
This was such a helpful article for me. I’m not writing a memoir but it took me to other ideas and books and inspired me to find a coach for my novel.
Thanks again,
Cathy

Sue Mitchell January 1, 2013 at

Thanks for sharing all you learned while getting your PhD in writing coaching! There are some great tips here, especially Tip #1 about having clear expectations. The word “coach” is used in many different ways and it’s important to hire the right type of coach based on where you are in your journey as a writer.

I am trained as a creativity coach, so when I work with writers, it’s to help them navigate the creative process. I help them develop a consistent writing practice, give them a supportive and nonjudgmental place to toss ideas around, and work with the inner critic.

Although I have the necessary skills, I would not edit a coaching client’s work or give advice on the writing craft. That would add to our relationship the sense of being evaluated, which can interfere with their productivity and creative flow. There’s a time for that, no doubt, but there’s also a time to protect your work from criticism.

So a person might work with me in order to get their writing practice going, often in conjunction with taking a class or following a book, and then switch to a more prescriptive coach after they’ve gained enough confidence to welcome expert advice.

Ultimately, the goal is what you’ve described at the end of your post, Pamela, which is developing your own judgment as a writer and feeling like you can do it yourself. But even then, it’s nice to have a companion on the journey!

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