Chip MacGregor

July 30, 2012

How can I find a writing mentor?


Mandy wrote to me and noted, “Recently you encouraged all serious writers to find a writing mentor. How does one do this? I’ve been to several writing conferences and am acquainted with some well-known authors, but I’m not sure I’d ever be bold enough to ask one of them.”

Well, my first thought is that you keep in mind what a mentor is: Not someone perfect. Not someone on the top of the bestseller lists. Not someone who is necessarily your best friend in the business. A mentor is someone who is a bit further down the path from yourself — a writer with a bit more experience in the field, who can offer you some wise advice and direction, especially when you are trying to grow or you are faced with a major decision. Would you benefit from having that sort of relationship with another writer?

If so, I’d suggest that it’s tough to walk up to someone you don’t know well and ask, “Will you commit to being my friend?” Most of us would probably find that a bit odd. So focus on one of those experienced authors you already know, perhaps someone you’ve met and enjoyed at a conference, and think about what you’ll say to him or her.

By using the framework of “talking to a friend,” consider going to that experienced author you’re friendly with and talking with him or her about mentoring. What are their thoughts? Who mentored them? Take the time to write down what you’d like to receive from a mentor (a chance to talk things over? career guidance? some wisdom when faced with big questions? suggestions for writing exercises?), so that it’s clear in your own mind what your expectations are. If you don’t know what you want, it’s tough to explain it to someone else.

Approach the person in a one-on-one setting sometime and simply say, “I have a favor to ask you. You don’t have to say ‘yes’ right away, but I’d like you to consider my request. I need to be able to occasionally talk to someone with more experience than myself — someone who has some wisdom, and who is a little farther down the path from me. I’d like to ask if I could approach you via phone or email briefly, about once a month, just to glean some of your knowledge. I like and respect you, and I believe I could learn a lot from you. Would you consider some sort of relationship like that?”

Okay, that might not be the perfect script, but something low-key like that is a good place to start. You’d probably agree with me that most of us are busy and don’t need another complex relationship — but at the same time, most experienced people are interested in helping foster the next generation of writers. So approaching someone who already knows you and with whom you feel comfortable, and asking for a bit of their time, but placing firm limits as to how much time and what will be covered — that’s a way to get the mentor/protege relationship started.

Is that helpful? What other tips do you have for approaching a prospective mentor?

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  • Edna R. Aluoch says:

    Hey, I like this article and wholly agree! I have written a book on why writers need to be mentored and you have touched on some of the suggestions I have given in the book. It’s something that writers really need to think about…

  • Chip says:

    And Carla wrote this: “Thank you for this article. I mentor, and I have a mentor who was first a friend, and it has been an invaluable experience for me.  As a mentor and a “mentee” I have some tips for the other “mentees” out there: Remember that your mentor’s time is valuable. (Everyone’s time is priceless—we only have so much of it in a day to get what we need to get accomplished). Be sure to find out from your mentor what he or she expects to provide to you in the mentoring process, the best time to contact the mentor, etc. To avoid bombarding your mentor with a ton of questions each day, try to answer some on your own, and make a list and send a few at one time. On occasion, you may have a portion of your manuscript that gives you trouble, but unless your mentor has agreed to read your entire manuscript, don’t expect him or her to do so. And unless agreed to otherwise, ask your mentor if it is okay to send your work for review before sending it. As the mentoring friendship grows, of course, the situations change, but it is always a good idea to set some guidelines at the beginning so that you do not inadvertently take advantage of your mentor’s willingness to help and lose both a friend and a mentor.”

  • Chip says:

    Renee wrote to say, “I’m glad that question was asked. I’ve been writing for a few years now and have had a fairly good measure of success, but I have completely struck out with the mentoring thing. I would have so loved to have someone to walk with me down this writing journey, steering me around the mine fields, and simply being there as a sounding board. I have tried on several attempts to locate these people and, in one form or another, ask them for their help. But every single one was too busy or would just give me a pat answer to one of my questions. I found this to be extremely frustrating and eventually gave up on the whole idea. I’ve learned to navigate on my own but also have promised to not do that to other new writers who may need some help.”

  • Tiffany Amber Stockton says:

    Chip, this is fantastic advice. I love the tip about approaching with a low-key expectation initially and allowing the potential mentor to ponder the request. Starting small and letting things grow as they will is excellent.

    Another suggestion I’d offer is to not necessarily set out to approach someone as a potential mentor. Instead, find someone you respect, maybe someone whose books you love, or someone you feel offers sound advice to others, and simply talk to them. You might be surprised where the conversation leads, and you’ll likely be more yourself if you don’t have specific expectations.

  • Diana Sharples says:

    I used to have an unrealistic impression of what a mentor is and does. I thought it was someone who would always “be there” for me to ask questions, to look at my writing and help me make it perfect, to act like a teacher in a classroom. The truth is those people and that kind of situation is so rare, more Hollywood than reality. With deadlines and the demands of career and family, most authors just can’t take the time to hold hands with newer authors. Or if they can, it’s one or two new writers they believe have exceptional promise.

    Instead, I’ve found mentors in casual encounters and friendships, by watching and listening and taking classes. By carefully reading the work of authors I admire and studying how they make their words and stories brilliant. I’m also a big advocate of critique groups, especially if there are one or two members who are further along than I am. Ultimately, though, it’s my responsibility to study my craft and learn the business. The people I can honestly call my mentors (to whom I’m exceedingly grateful) are not people I’ve entered into any sort of mentoring “relationship” with.

  • This is great advice. 

    I mentor a young woman even though I’ve never published a book. I’ve been studying publishing forever and I’m able to help her. She emailed me and asked if I’d mentor her and I was happy to do that. Unfortunately I’m not an ideal mentor because when she finishes her book and it’s polished and ready to go, I won’t be able to help her get it published, because I don’t have any clout in the business. However, by the time her book is ready to submit, I may be published and I may have clout. We just don’t know what the future holds. I know authors now who have clout, and when I met them they were nobodies. 

    I would add that when you find a mentor, you need to be serious and not waste her time. One women latched onto me at a conference after she heard an editor saying she was excited about my work. This woman asked if we could meet once a month. She was appalled at the work I wanted her to do to prepare for each meeting. She didn’t want to invest time or money in learning how to write well. She just wanted me to read her lousy manuscripts and tell her they were ready for publication. 

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