Wednesday, October 17, 2012

5 Simple Questions To Ask Before Choosing a Writing Mentor

Or, "There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch"

One of the things that greatly enriches my life is acting as a mentor or writing coach to other writers.

We're all climbing the same ladder, but if I can help someone climb up a rung or three, I am honored to do so. Why? Because I have always appreciated those who helped me take my writing to another level. Mentoring works both ways: if you are willing to take at one point, I firmly believe you should be equally willing to give back later.

Whisker-lickin', nose-pickin' hungry dog is hungry!
Not so many years ago, I was in the "hungry" stage of my writing career. As in: Hungry for bylines. Hungry for print credibility. And running out of ramen. So I freelanced for a time for several of our local newspapers and magazines.

Near the end of my writing-related Hunger Games, our local rag of a newspaper, owned by a large and impersonal conglomerate, as are most newspapers in the country,  sent out the following announcement, which is a study in How NOT To Mentor:
Dear Faithful Correspondents:
Note the condescending pat-on-the head initial tone. This is not a religious, publication, mind you. “Faithful,” here doesn’t mean “pious” or “honorable,” so much as it means “lapdog.”
You are invited to a writing session on Nov. 16. It will begin in the conference room at 11 a.m., and I assume it will easily go until 12:45-1 p.m. If anyone wants to hang around after that to ask questions, we'll hang around too.
Big of them, don’t you think, to invite writers to a writing session and then offer to “hang around” to answer their questions?
We will provide a catered lunch and also will pay you $30 (the rate of a simple feature story) for your attendance, because on the next day we will also pay our full-time staff members for their attendance at a similar session.
So many comments beg to be made. First, did you catch what the going rate is for a feature article? Thirty bucks! Assuming that you spend an hour interviewing all your sources, half an hour transcribing your notes, an hour typing like a fiend while writing the article, and half an hour proofing it, you’ve made a grand total of… $10 an hour! Before taxes.

Of course, that’s assuming that you don’t get an overly talkative source, that you can do all of your interviews via local telephone calls (so you don’t have to spend money on gas or long distance), and that you can write a worthwhile feature story in an hour.

Sadly, you can bet that the full-time staff members won’t even be paid $30 for their time at the same event the next day.

Finally, I find it fascinating that the writer (one of the editors) felt compelled to tell the correspondents how much they made on a simple feature story. As if the correspondents, who are responsible for their own billing, didn’t know.
The purpose is to go over some writing tips and no-nos (especially the most common lapses and mistakes). City Editor XX and I have collected lots of examples of writing that could be improved. The examples are both from full-time staff and correspondents, and we will do our best to keep the writers anonymous!
They’ve collected “lots of examples,” have they? Not “many examples.” Not “scores of examples.” They haven't even simply “collected examples.” No – “lots.” This is a newspaper, after all. Dedicated to getting the facts right and to unbiased reporting.

Bomb Detector Kitty -
I’m thinking that if they’re going to go over writing that could be improved (“rife with colloquialisms,” “use of slang,” “imprecise measurements…”), they could start with the opening sentence of that last paragraph.

Here’s my personal favorite:
The focus will be on getting the little things right, because cumulatively they add up to big things.
We'll only have a short time to deal with larger structural issues of story construction. We also anticipate this will be a convenient time to answer your questions about such things as staffing of the Metro Desk on nights, submitting your correspondent pay sheets, sending digital pictures, and so on. Photographer YY will attend part of the meeting to talk about j-peg transmissions and picture compositions and to answer any questions you may have.
It’s too bad that they won’t have much time to deal with the larger structural issues of story construction, because it appears that someone could use a refresher course in paragraph design.

A paragraph is not very strong. It can only contain one topic. That’s all it’s capable of holding. That's why, for example, asking a single paragraph to contain information about “getting little things right,” “submitting your correspondent pay sheets,” AND “picture compositions” is quite unreasonable. One topic per paragraph. One.
As most of you know, we will be increasing the pay rate for some categories of stories and pictures for correspondents. That will take effect with the December pay period. We intend to have new pay sheets available at the meeting.
And thus the road to hell is paved…
If you cannot attend the Nov. 16 session you are welcome to attend the Nov. 17 session with full-time staff. It will also begin at 11 a.m. and have a catered lunch.
Since these starving writers are making only $30 a pop for their articles, why not get a double dose of composition advice from the masters? That would not only result in two “free” lunches, but it would also allow them to compare who got the better catering service. It would answer one of life’s niggling little questions: Is it worth it to be a staff newsperson?
Please let me know in the next week or so if you can attend. That will help us in ordering the food.
I eat you now, k? - lolcats.comAnd voila, a letter about the importance of good writing skills ends with a masterpiece of construction.

That particular letter made me realize several things.

For one, I was done writing for that newspaper.

More importantly, I realized when it comes time to seek writing advice (and seeking such advice is necessary at all levels of the craft), it was vitally important to do one's homework. Ascertain whether or not the mentor offering “advice” is worthy of your time and attention. It behooves you to ask yourself the following questions:

1.   Does this person have practical, professional experience in my field?
2.   Does this person exhibit writing traits that I admire and wish to emulate?
3.   Can this person construct a coherent sentence / paragraph / piece?
4.   Do I respect this person’s professional accomplishments?

And, last, but not least:

5.  Can I get a free meal out of this?

If the answer to three out of the four is “yes,” go with God and make the most of your time with your mentor.

If, however, the only positive answer is followed by, “What’s on the menu?” perhaps it’s time to find another guru to guide your career.

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