Mentoring – all you need to know about getting help with your writing.

In life, we all need a helping hand occasionally. If I’ve got a problem with my car and I can’t fix it, I take it to the garage. If a couple of tiles come off my steep roof in a storm, I’m nowhere near brave enough to ascend the roof and repair the damage. So along comes the roofer, looking more macho than I ever could.

We don’t think twice about calling in the experts when we have a problem with something we can’t solve alone. And it’s the same with writing. People struggle along for months, often years, to get down on paper what is swirling around their heads. And often they do it too – except that it hasn’t come out the way they wanted it. They feel that it just doesn’t ‘read right’ somehow, that it’s not quite captured what they wanted to say. Then they start to realise that while we can all write, in terms of putting one word in front of another, there is a bit more to this than meets the eye.

Over the years, part of my ghostwriting work has included an element of mentoring writers who are ‘almost there’ but need that little bit of support. In fact, I’m doing it at the moment. For obvious reasons, I can’t say who it is or what the story is about. Suffice to say that from initial drafts the narrative is shaping up very nicely indeed, and the manuscript has found itself a deal and a publisher.

I really enjoy this kind of work. It’s different from ‘pure’ ghostwriting, in which I do the whole impersonation trick and – quite regularly – my client doesn’t write a word. A mentoring role is a much more advisory one. My role is to be the critical friend – the one who says, ‘hang on a minute…we’re off the point / I don’t understand this / we’ve lost the flow / are you sure you meant that?’ etc. I don’t do much re-writing unless it’s really necessary. Instead, I reach out a hand and gently guide my would-be author to the end of the line.

If you’ve written something and you think it’s OK – but only just OK – here are a few thoughts about working with a writing mentor like me:

  1. I’ve had a lot of things published.

Not just books – 25 and counting – but millions of words of journalism too. The world around me can be something of mystery at times, but when it comes to writing I know what I’m doing. I can fix your paragraphs and shore up your structure just fine.

  • I won’t tell you what to do.

When I ghostwrite I tend to dictate what happens. Not in the sense of being a dictator; I just tend to know how it ‘should’ go. When mentoring, I don’t take control. I might advise, cajole, gently persuade or raise my eyebrows – what I won’t do is tell you. Hopefully, by showing you the way, you’ll follow your own path.

  • Collaboration is stimulating.

Like many things, doing something in pairs is fun. Working on a text is the same. It’s a beautiful thing, working together to create something exciting, interesting, unexpected. A bit like making a baby, except that in the case of a book, it’s you who gets to hold ‘it’ once it’s ‘born’. And I can go and lie down quietly…

  • You’re the author.

I don’t insist on a credit for ghostwriting. But it’s always nice and very polite to be given one, even if it’s just a quick mention in the acknowledgements. With mentoring, it’s all your own work, and yours to take complete ownership of. YOU did this, not me. There’s no fakery, no pretending; it’s your writing that has made all the difference. I just shined the torch down the murky path.

  • I’ll learn something too!

There’s always something new to learn via writing. A turn of phrase, a point of view, a concept you’ve never known before, a topic you’re totally unfamiliar with. I’ve learned so much via ghostwriting and mentoring, and I’ve often found – being a literary magpie – that I’ll subconsciously absorb what I’ve learned into my own writing. And sometimes, not even subconsciously…