Sunday, 11 October 2015
What is a Writing Coach?
Heidi Williamson, a Writing Coach based at the Writers Centre Norwich, describes her role and what coaching could do for you:
'There’s a whole host of workshops, courses and groups where you can get help with writing skills – the nuts and bolts of sentences, character arcs and stanza breaks. But few places where you can get help with the process of becoming, being, and enduring as a writer –your development as an artist.
Who do you talk to about the issues? The practicalities of trying to get published. Fears and confidence. How to get beyond where you are. Recognition. Getting un-stuck. The nitty-gritty of daily concerns – lack of time, space, cash. When you know you should do something, but for some reason just can’t….
People to help you work through this stuff are few and far between. That’s why the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) and Arvon decided to grow their own.
Several years ago I attended a development session where I was asked a series of practical questions about my writing practice. It fundamentally changed my work. Fast forward a decade and I still use the strategies and techniques from that session. So last summer when I saw NAWE and Arvon offering a qualification in becoming a Writing Coach – helping equip other writers with strategies for self-development – I signed up in a heartbeat.
Training was delivered by RD1st over the summer of 2014. We attended three very full days in York, then had a period of a few weeks intensively practising coaching and co-coaching, writing up case studies, a journal and reflective essay, then came back together for a further three days including a live assessment by an external examiner.
One of the first questions our trainer asked was ‘What is coaching?’ It turned out very few of us really knew. Vague notions of American cheerleading style ‘you go get ‘em baby’ clichés entered my head. ‘How is it different to mentoring?’ ‘What specifically is coaching writers, and how can it help them especially?’ After day one I felt I’d done a degree in psychology and wondered how on earth they were going to fill the remaining five days of training.
We learnt techniques for helping writers structure and develop their thinking. Spatial visualisation of goals. How to use metaphor as a powerful method for getting the subconscious to help out. How to work with and through self-limiting beliefs. Managing conflict. Strategies for dealing with difficult relationships that are holding you back. Thought, visual and spatial exercises to cover all sorts of eventualities.
Everyone on the course was an accomplished writer also working as a tutor, mentor, and in some cases life coach too. The training we had will stand us in good stead for whatever comes up in a session, and I’m grateful for that. The eighteen of us that completed it together really bonded, and I made some good friends.
So what exactly is a Writing Coach? Being a coach, working with a ‘coachee’, is a more equal relationship than mentoring. A mentor is someone more experienced showing you the way. You learn from how they did it. But with coaching, it’s about stepping along together, with someone keenly questioning how you can step further. It’s about what will work for you.
What happens if you decide to come along for a coaching session? Well, each session is usually an hour and can be face-to-face, by ‘phone or Skype. It’s entirely confidential. All you bring along is an idea of something you’d like to make progress on. A pen and paper is handy too for anything you’d like to note down. You don’t need to bring any of your work. Surprised by that? You’ll understand why if you read on.
At the start your coach asks what you want to cover in the session. She’ll ask you detailed questions, probe your answers, and help you expand your options before helping progress towards practical steps you can take. This could all happen in one hour-long session. Or you might book another session for a few weeks later to explore further, or talk about something else. Towards the end of each session your coach will ask you to recap what happened in the session for you, and what has changed.
Coaching isn’t about feeding back on your work at the level of the writing. So it doesn’t matter if your coach is in the same genre as you. They won’t edit your work in a session. It’s not about whether you can improve that sentence or ending on the page. It’s about how to get your head in gear and develop strategies for overcoming any issues and moving forwards. Which might well improve that sentence or ending. But the point is to help you stand back and come up with answers you couldn’t see before.
It does help that you’re working with a fellow writer – someone who knows what writing is, what it means. The processes that underpin any writing are the same. The issues writers face are common across genres.
As a writer herself, your coach can help you shortcut to the nub of the matter. If you want to go there. Because the great thing about coaching is the ‘coachee’ is in charge. You call the shots for each session. If you want to explore a reason, a problem, unpick just how and why something worked so well for you so you can do it again… you’re in charge of how far you go with that thinking. The coach will give you a nudge, but you don’t have to say it out loud if you don’t want to. Or you can mull on it after the session. The coach is 100% on your side and working for you. Think sports coach and you get the idea.
I’ve found Writing Coaching to be a unique, rewarding occupation. I get to hang out with other writers. And to help them help themselves. I’ve since joined the Association for Coaching and gained AMAC status. I have regular supervision, CPD and meet up with other coaches. It’s turned out to be something I enjoy immensely.
If you want to find out more, there are Q&As and testimonials if you click on ‘Coaching Sessions for Writers’ at writerscentrenorwich.org.uk.
There are a couple of helpful blog posts about how Writing Coaching was useful for a couple of local writers too – read debut Penguin novelist Becky Done’s post at http://bit.ly/1KOMk3s or poet, editor and tutor Julia Webb’s blog at http://juliawebb.org/blog/?p=380
You can see me at Writers’ Centre Norwich, Dragon Hall, on a Monday sometime between 10 and 2. Or my fellow coach Katri on a Wednesday between 1 and 5. Writing Coaching works really well by phone or Skype too.
So what can writers really gain from Writing Coaching? Quite a lot I think. You could always come along and find out for yourself…'
Heidi Williamson (AMAC) qualified in relational dynamic coaching with the NAWE and Arvon affiliated RD1st Accredited Writing Coach programme. She is an Associate Member of the Association for Coaching, specialising in Writing Coaching. She studied poetry and prose at the UEA and has many years’ experience of teaching writing, including at The Poetry School, Writers' Centre Norwich, Poetry Anglia, and Virgin. Published by Bloodaxe, her poetry has been shortlisted for major prizes and received a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her next book 'The Print Museum' is due out with Bloodaxe in Spring 2016.