Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mentoring, Anyone? Five Things Writers Should Consider

These days you’ll find an abundance of mentorship opportunities for writers, from the mentoring relationships inherent to full-blown MFA programs to mentors-for-hire who advertise online.

For several years, I’ve mentored writers both informally and for hire. Recently, I was asked by a chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) to design an affordable digital mentorship opportunity, and that prompted me to think about what contributes to a positive mentoring experience.

Here are five factors you should consider if you’re thinking about signing on with a mentor:

  • Your expectations: A mentorship should yield improved writing and a refined sense of how you can grow as a writer. It is not, however, a guarantee of publication. Which particular areas you hope to work on with your mentor? Which aspects of publishing you hope to learn more about? As you begin to explore mentorship options, list what you hope to accomplish with your mentor. Take a hard look at these expectations and adjust based on where you are in your journey as a writer as well as how much time you can devote to improvement. Depending on what you hope to accomplish, you might be best served by a series of mentorships, either arranged independently or within the context of an MFA program.
  • What you’ll bring to the mentorship: Before you begin working with a mentor, you should have at least a solid start on a project you’d like to improve. You should also have a sense of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. A good mentor functions as your coach, your editor, and your critic. If you’re thin-skinned, mentoring probably isn’t for you (and writing may not be, either). As with your expectations, jot down what you’ll bring to the membership. Sharing your expectations and your self-assessment with a potential mentor will help both of you decide whether the relationship will be helpful.
  • What else you’re doing to grow as a writer: Mentoring is a wonderful way to work one on one with a writer who can help you toward your goals, but you shouldn’t rely on it entirely. Do you read systematically both in your genre and in your craft? Do you write regularly? (One of the benefits of a mentorship, by the way, is that it gives you deadlines.) Do you study with a variety of writers at workshops and conferences? How will your mentorship dovetail with these other activities?
  • Your options: Ideally, you want a writer who has experience as a mentor and who enjoys mentoring. You also want a writer who is several steps ahead of you in the game, a person whose writing you admire, and who has a proven track record in publishing and/or sales. As with many other professionals, the best mentors don’t need to advertise much, and they know better than to take on too many clients. Ask other writers whom they’d recommend. If you’ve enjoyed a workshop with a particular writer, ask if he or she does any mentoring. Ask your local writing center and local chapters of writer’s organizations like SCBWI if they offer mentorship opportunities. Although the ideal mentoring relationship might be with a writer in your genre, that’s not essential. I rarely write short nonfiction (except for blog posts), but one writer I mentor only writes essays, and most of the projects she has worked on with me have been published. It goes without saying that a good mentor will be able to provide references and testimonials upon request.
  • Your relationship: I’m a big believer in the preventative power of the written word. If your potential mentor doesn’t offer a written description of how the relationship will work, don’t be shy about asking for one. How long will the relationship last? How will you communicate back and forth? How often? Will both macro- and micro-editing be included? If the relationship’s not working out, can it be dissolved? Will your mentor work with you on building a career as a writer? How much will it cost, and how is the cost billed? Every mentor handles these questions differently. For both macro- and micro-editing, you can expect to pay in the $50 per hour range.