Keep in mind that I’m not speaking from extensive personal experience. But my chats with people, and comments on yesterday’s post, suggest that lots of people have even less knowledge.
The impression I’ve picked up suggests that a writing coach is a combination of editor, deadline-enforcer, and therapist. Writing groups can be all that, but I think the dynamic of an individual who is paid is different. One, having admitted you need help, no need to front. Two, you’re paying them, so it’s okay to dump a complete mess on them. Three, more frequent feedback: my writing groups met maybe every 3-5 weeks, and I came up in the rotation once or twice in a year, while presumably a coach might be more like monthly. In addition, and I think this is most important, remember that if you had a good dissertation committee, they probably were acting as a combination of editor, deadline-enforcer, and therapist, and those are exactly the functions the university paid them to serve. So replacing that out of your pocket as an investment in your career shouldn’t really seem the leap that it is.
I’m glancing over my notes from a workshop in March (why didn’t I hire this woman then? well, let’s not go there). We went around and shared our difficulties. So right there I think there’s value in admitting “I need help” and being forced to do a self-diagnosis of “these are the problems I need to deal with”.
She had a nice analysis of why this is hard, that the requirement of sophisticated intellectual creativity hammered into a massively tight organization is actually a unintuitive and unnatural combination. And she offered some general analytical tips on that tension, e.g. that the process is really only about one-third mental, one-third emotional, and even one-third purely physical, which changes some of the anxiety around it. And she started out talking about the importance of knowing your own writing style and your own preparation style.
Then she had a lot of concrete suggestions to address difficulties, some of which I’ve heard before, some of which were new. Probably half the value in a writing coach is someone to force you to do what you know you ought to do, which, again, is the role that many dissertation advisors occupy. Some of her strategies:
I think we’ve all heard the advice to use a to-do list to break tasks down into small pieces (but how many of you actually always do it?) A writing coach will read your to-do list, but who gives that to a writing group?
I know I get overwhelmed dealing with the book, because it just seems like every subsection needs so much. An excellent suggestion on the editing process was to color-code the types of work necessary—say, yellow for “need to clarify idea”, orange for “needs more research”, green for “idea fine, need to write better”, purple for “fix footnote”. Then go through and work on one type of edit at a time.
Get positive reinforcements even at a trivial level. Find someone who will say “good job!” when you say “I wrote two pages today”, etc. Spouses/partners probably do this naturally, but a lot of us are single.
Rather than big goals (“If I write all week I can go to the lake on Sunday”) set up a self-indulgence kitty and pay yourself a dollar for each morning/afternoon of quality work, so that you both get interim prizes and save toward a big treat.
The usual advice, about managing your writing space, doing pre-writing to get the juices flowing, etc. Books on writing offer all this, of course, but it’s a different dynamic, and these strategies wind up individualized to you. Books don’t demand that we answer follow-up questions.
So, I don’t mean to suggest that a writing coach is the end-all, be-all, and each of us has unique needs, but I do think the option should be considered a more natural step than it is.