The dictionary defines a mentor as “a wise and loyal advisor.” For writers, it’s often a more experienced writer who volunteers to give you feedback on your writing and/or advice or your writing career. How do you find and keep one? Here are some tips from National Writers Union/Boston Chapter members Barbara Beckwith, Charles Coe, and Susan Pollack.
1) Make a connection and give it time to grow. Mentorship should emerge from a relationship, one that may take time to develop. It’s a little like dating, and you don’t ask someone to commit to marriage on the first date.
2) The writer you approach needs to like your work. Perhaps you share an interest in your particular genre and/or your political viewpoint.
3) You’re likely to best connect if you approach a potential mentor with a knowledge and appreciation of that writer’s work.
4) IF the writer turns you down, respect the integrity behind that refusal, and say thanks.
5) Don’t send a writer an unsolicited manuscript with a request to read it and give feedback. Check first if the writer has the time and interest to do so. A writer once mailed Barbara a poetry chapbook she hadn’t asked for, requesting reimbursement of printing and mailing costs!
6) Be willing to be treated like a professional. Don’t expect to be coddled with only praise. “Embrace the Buddhist master/student concept of ‘ruthless compassion,’” says Charles. “A mentor is not your mother or your therapist.”
7) Acknowledge all correspondence. If a more experienced writer offers you feedback or advice, thank the writer even if the feedback is not what you want. It’s crucial to express your appreciation for the time and attention it took to read and respond to your work.
8) Give back in an appropriate way: take your mentor to lunch, spread the word about upcoming readings, suggest your mentor as a speaker, link to your mentor’s website post a review on Amazon and Powells. “Since my expertise is due to what I’ve learned as an NWU member since the 1980s,” Barbara says, “I only expect of writers I help that they join or keep up their Union membership.”
9) Generally, don’t ask a poet to mentor you if you want to be a journalist, or a novelist to mentor you if you’re trying to learn to write essays.
10) If a writer works professionally as an editor, don’t ask that writer to mentor you for free.
11) Mentors can’t do everything. If you need someone to help you format your book for ebook publication, for example, find someone who specializes in that – and offer to pay.
12) When a mentor needs to step back from advising you, accept their decision graciously, and show your appreciation for the wisdom you’ve received. Don’t whine about it: continue on your own – or to find another mentor!