Heinlien famously said never to change anything unless an editor told you to.
Part of what a writing coach does is act as a substantive editor, which is to say, help the writer realize the maximum potential for the manuscript by pointing out what isn't working, suggesting ways to go deeper, and when it's ready to be published. A good substantive editor can help a writer focus on the bits that need revision that the writer might have overlooked; but also stops the writer from obsessively revising bits that don't need it. Substantive editors can therefore save a writer a good deal of time, energy, and angst by focusing effort only where it is needed.
Additionally, a good editor often goes beyond the current manuscript to identify strengths and weaknesses (see, for example, this editor gently suggesting that award-winning author, Arthur Slade, has picked up a bad habit he needs to eliminate) that will help the author going forward to future projects.
A writing coach takes this all a step further. Not only do they attend to the words on the page, encouraging the writer to get to the next level; they can also aid with the writer's process. A writing coach can help identify and resolve the issues behind writer's block; can help with motivation and self-confidence; check out-of-control egoism (before it leads to a premature publication the author may later regret); and generally hold the author's hand through what can be a very confusing process.
For example, Robert taught a writing course for graduate students that allowed them to take on a thesis by first understanding that they had to unlearn everything they thought they understood about writing from their undergraduate experiences. Undergraduate papers are generally first draft only; they are on topics assigned by the prof; they are consequently on topics the student doesn't particularly care about; they are short enough to keep in one's head from start to finish; they are often low-stakes assignments; and are (let's be honest) usually written the night before they are due. In contrast, a sustained piece of writing like a thesis or a novel is the exact opposite: it's too big to keep in one's head all at once; it requires multiple drafts; it's a topic one actually cares about a lot, so the emotional stakes are much higher; it's usually a do or die project, so higher stakes in terms of career as well; it requires sustained effort over months or even years, so requires a level of commitment and self-renewing motivation that is difficult to maintain; trying to write it the night before doesn't work, so time management changes; and so on. Graduate students have to unlearn the strategies that worked so well for them as undergraduates to be successful in their thesis or novel, but unless someone tells them that explicitly, chances are they will find themselves staring at a blank page thinking "I've finally lost it!" Most graduate programs teach how to collect and analyze data, and provide a lot of guidance and support through to the end of research process, but then typically the supervisor will get to the point where s/he says, "Great, you're done! Now, just go write that up!" As if writing were not itself a very problematic process! Research suggests that many PhD programs have something like a 50% attrition rate at the point where the student had completed all their course work and data collection/analysis because candidates were unable to finish—that is, could manage the angst and sustained writing to complete their dissertation.
A good writing coach, then, can identify the issues with the author's writing process and help the author correct or overcome them. The writing coach develops a relationship with the client, understands the author's vision and process, and works to help the author achieve his/her goals. For example, we are frequently approached by graduate students or authors who have become 'stuck' half-way through their project. The project fails to 'jell' and they don't know why. One woman, for example, had put her novel aside for twelve years because she couldn't get past chapter ten. Dr. Runté immediately identified that she had given everything away in chapter six, so the book had quickly run out of steam after that. Once recognized, the problem was easily resolved. In another case, a graduate student had been written off by two previous supervisors because neither had been able to get publishable work out of her. Whereas neither previous supervisor had understood the student's vision, but had insisted instead that she write as they thought one should (e.g., at one point advising the student to take a course on 17th century poetry, even though hers was a contemporary thriller), Dr. Runté worked to bring out the student's authentic voice, and she subsequently passed with flying colours. Another author, writing a novel based on family history, had been stuck for decades trying to work in too many stories from too many points of view so that the manuscript became an unfocused jumble. Further, the author's attention to unimportant details (whether the event had happened on a Monday or a Tuesday) distracted from the narrative. Essential Edits was able to identify which characters were important to which scenes, tease out the main narratives, and reorganize the rich body of material into not one but three separate books.
Finally, writing coaches sometimes work as tutors, especially in the case of beginning writers. Like tutors for other subjects, this may involve setting a schedule of semi-weekly meetings to talk about both the current project and the author's process, motivation, self-confidence, and so on. Each session would target the most pressing issue with the client's writing/process, and may include the assignment of exercises or readings to be completed by next session. By identifying the most significant problems and barriers—leaving the question of split infinitives and dangling prepositions until later, if ever (that's what copy editors are for)—rapid improvement can often be achieved. Dr. Runté has published papers and lectured widely on student-oriented feedback, so knows how to focus feedback in ways that resolve difficulties rather than overwhelm students with too much detail or undermine self-confidence. The other Essential Edits staff are even gentler.
Essential Edits offers all levels of coaching at $45/hour, but where clients require improvements in basic skills, may recommend other courses, workshops, writing camps, and programs instead as more economical than one-on-one tutoring.
[Although not a psychologist or reading specialist, Dr. Runté is open to coaching those with dyslexia or dysgraphia. (Dr. Runté has dysgraphia himself, though he didn't know that until recently, when both his daughters were diagnosed. Turns out there was a reason Dr. Runté does not offer proofreading services!) Because both his daughters have dysgraphia, and one has dyslexia, he has had to learn about these conditions, and can act as a supportive and understanding writing coach when others may not quite 'get it'.]
Last updated May 12, 2017.