How to find a writing mentor, what a writing mentor does, and alternatives to consider if a writing mentorship isn't right for you
Full disclosure: I am a writing mentor, and I love what I do.
With that said, I’m a terrible businesswoman because I typically spend the initial 15-minute discovery call with potential clients trying to determine if there’s an alternative (cheaper) option to working with me that would still give them the help that they’re looking for. There very often is, and unless you’re supported by some kind of grant or bursary, working with a mentor can get expensive.
There are also a whole host of advantages to writing mentorships, of course, not least being that you’ll have an experienced writer in your corner who’s almost certainly fought every one of your writing battles themselves, and who will passionately cheerlead your work like you can’t even imagine, because we get super invested in our clients’ success.
In this post, I’m going to suggest some questions to ask yourself before you start looking for a mentor, some places to find and connect with us, and some free or low-cost alternatives to embarking on a mentorship.
If you’re wondering whether or not a mentor would help you, the answer is a resounding YES: that’s what we’re here for. But the vast majority of us work freelance, and because we have to pay the bills, we have to charge for the time we spend mentoring. And because it’s 1:1 focused attention, that makes a mentorship considerably more expensive than, for example, taking part in a writing workshop with group feedback. I charge at the lower end of the scale, and even my rates probably look pretty eye-watering if you’re on a budget.
So, is mentoring the right choice for you? Or might you be able to get the support you need elsewhere? Only you know for sure, but here are some questions that might help you decide.
1. Are you looking for confirmation that your work is on the right track?
Define “on the right track”. Do you mean, is it publishable? Because nobody can tell you that for sure unless they happen to be offering you a contract to publish your work.
A mentor can certainly help you avoid some of the major “new writer mistakes” (I hate that phrase, by the way; hence the quotation marks) – padded prose, point of view failures, inconsistencies in plotting or characterisation, and so on – and I’m pretty sure that, had I had a writing mentor twenty years ago, it would have taken me substantially fewer drafts to develop a publishable version of my first novel. But a mentor can’t guarantee that even the greatest work will find a market. No-one can.
If you’re happy to put in the hours and write, rewrite and rewrite again, you will get better without a mentor. (I did.) But if self-doubt is plaguing you and you want some solid guidance through the impenetrable maze of writing to a publishable level, a mentor can absolutely help with that.
2. Are you looking for accountability in your writing discipline?
That’s easy: you don’t need a mentor for this (though I’m very well aware that it’s often one of the most valuable services we provide – which I feel a bit guilty about, because we don’t actually do much in this respect other than prompt the occasional guilt-write on the morning of our mentoring meeting when you haven’t met your target word count).
No, really, you don’t. There are so many ways to make sure you keep accountable to your writing goals that don’t involve hiring a mentor, and I’ll list them out below. Like I say, it’s something that you’ll definitely get from a mentorship, and I know it’s something that’s often been really helpful to the folks I’ve mentored, but it’s an added extra – if it’s literally just accountability that you’re after, you don’t need a mentor for that.
3. Are you looking for regular, actionable feedback?
Again, this depends on the level of feedback you’re after, because constructive criticism from a reciprocal beta reader will, nine times out of ten, do the job just as well. The difference is that a beta reader might not have the skills and experience to guide you through your response to that feedback, and some of their critique may tend towards impressions (“this doesn’t really seem to be working”) rather than specifics (“I’m not sure this passage adds anything to the forward flow of the story – it feels like filler, and I think you need to either find a way to integrate it more closely into plot or character development or consider cutting it completely”). This could mean that your revisions might take off down a couple of blind alleys before you work out how best to put that feedback into action.
A mentor will work with you to make sure that you’re confident in how, when, and even if you address the points that they raise, and they’ll be on hand to discuss, at whatever length you need, any possible strategies that you might be thinking of employing.
What that means, in practice, is that you could spend years writing and rewriting a piece without having a clear sense of the direction it needs to go, and if frustration creeps in during that time – as frustration is wont to do – you might decide to jettison a perfectly serviceable manuscript on the grounds that you don’t seem to be able to make it work. If that sounds like you – or if you’re already there – then, yes, a mentor may well be a good investment.
How we’ll work with you will depend on what works best for you. That might be regular meetings, in which we discuss the work you’ve submitted in advance and work through any issues you’ve encountered since we last met. It might be intensive, 1:1 sessions on plotting methodologies, character development, or the intricacies of dialogue. It might be a marathon 3-hour meeting at the start of the year and then radio silence until you’re ready to re-engage. There’s no one-size-fits-all in mentoring – otherwise, what’s the point?
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve worked with a mentor myself and having access to that level of expertise was worth every penny spent and more. I owe my current career to that mentorship, and I mean this quite literally. But it was paid for via a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland – and that makes a huge difference in terms of whether or not that level of dedicated support is affordable for many writers.
So with that in mind, let’s look at some places to start if you’ve decided that a writing mentorship is the way you want to go.
Where to find a writing mentor
1. Writing classes
I will almost guarantee that the writer leading your class would be delighted to work with you as a mentor. Most of us mix group tuition with 1:1 mentoring, and I met many of my clients via classes and workshops that I’ve run. Starting off with a writing class is a great way to get a feel for whether or not the tutor is someone you’d be comfortable working with on a longer project. These days, it doesn’t even need to be someone local: online classes are everywhere, and most of my mentoring takes place via video conferencing anyway, so if your dream mentor lives on the other side of the world, your only real worry is the time difference.
I’d bet good money that your local arts centre has at least one writing class. I’m also fairly certain that your local Further Education college does too. Libraries often have writing workshops and so do community centres. If there’s a writing festival near you, chances are high that it’ll include a couple of classes. I know of at least one bookshop that turns into a writing den in the evenings, and I’ve heard of classes that take place in the pub.
Local “what’s on” boards – whether physical or virtual – are a good place to start looking, or even just a Google search.
2. Umbrella bodies
This can be a little bit more involved, depending on the organisation’s main area of focus, but it’s also where you’re most likely to find grants, bursaries and subsidies to support your mentorship, so it can be well worth the effort. I’m most familiar with what’s available on the island of Ireland, so those are the examples I’ll use. There’s usually a wide variation of provision according to location, but this should give you a basic idea of what sort of support you might be looking at.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council of Ireland are both government-funded agencies established to support the arts in, respectively, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Neither is dedicated specifically to supporting writers, but both have funding programmes to which writers can apply. Some of the grants are for established practitioners; others are available to emerging artists. Though they will expect you to find and make arrangements with a mentor yourself, they can often offer in-depth advice if you’re having trouble deciding where to start.
The Irish Writers Centre, on the other hand, exists to “support, promote and inform writers at each stage of their journey.” They maintain a panel of mentors on the island, all of whom are IWC Professional Members (which effectively quality-checks their credentials for you) and run various subsidies and programmes designed to open up access between emerging writers and mentors. If you’re an emerging writer on the island of Ireland – congratulations, these guys are fantastic. If not, find out what your local equivalent is – even if they can’t offer financial support, the knowledge and advice you’ll get from them will be invaluable.
3. Other writers
Whether that’s in a Facebook group, a local writers meetup, your beta reader, an online forum – anywhere writers gather, there’s writing knowledge. Someone has almost certainly worked with a mentor they can recommend, or knows of a scheme that’s opening up. Maybe they have a friend who mentors or they’ve been to a writing retreat and got chatting to someone. Word-of-mouth recommendations are a great way to connect and give you that extra bit of reassurance. Sure, just because a mentoring relationship worked for someone else doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best fit for you, but it’s a promising place to start. And mentors know other mentors, too – I, for one, would have no trouble redirecting you to a friend or colleague if I think they’ll be a better fit for you.
So… do you need a writing mentor? “Need” is a strong word, and there’s few among us who couldn’t benefit from a helping hand along the way. I don’t imagine that you’d ever regret embarking on a mentorship, but there’s no doubt that it’s a serious commitment and there’s plenty you can do to grow your writing by yourself if working with a mentor isn’t right for you at the moment.
And if you’re still on the fence, you could always book a quick 15-minute chat with me. I promise that last sentence is as salesy as I’ll ever get.
Blog updates on the first of every month.