Welcome back to “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Got a question you’d like answered? Check out the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today’s question is about whether or not writing and marketing experts and gurus help writers or just get in the way:
“With so many claiming to have the secrets to either writing or marketing, is this just another layer keeping new writers from their goals?”
My short answer: It depends — not necessarily — but there are some things to look out for.
Here’s my longer answer.
When writers endlessly pursue study or looking for the “right” mentor with “right” secrets, we can absolutely keep ourselves away from the best and truest learning ground for writers — writing. Particularly if we’re seeking system after system to plot a novel or develop a script or learn to market our work without taking our writing projects all the way through to completion, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
There IS a lot to learn
Many if not most of the folks out there teaching writing and the marketing of writing are doing it from a sincere desire to help writers (as well as making a living) and much of it can be valuable. There’s insight to be gleaned from various systems and experts, and as you study, you’ll develop your own methodology (and in an ironic twist, perhaps, might even someday end up with a process you want to share with other writers yourself). Sometimes one expert will nail one piece of the writing puzzle that fits just perfectly for you, and another expert will arrive with another one. The process of trying and testing other people’s methods gives you the chance to explore what works for you and what doesn’t, and assemble your own approach bit by bit.
… especially for new writers
One important aspect to your question is how you framed it as being about new writers. This is a place where working with courses, books, and mentors can be particularly valuable. As a new writer, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. Having a method or person who’s walked even a little farther down the writing trail can be reassuring in just the right way. The tricky thing is that many writers can write themselves into corner after corner, script after script. So having someone to turn to can be just the ticket for working our way back out, and not taking the same missteps in the next draft.
And, writers can be vulnerable creatures
Having said that, writers can be vulnerable creatures, and we have use caution around exposing our raw work too soon, or trusting experts who will not be kind or professional when they respond to our work. Look for people who see you as the expert of your story, who are trying to help you deliver on your concept to the best of your ability in a kind, supportive, respectful way.
Stay in your own authority
There’s also the danger of making someone else the supreme expert or surrendering your authority as the creator of your work, getting overly caught up in trying to find the “right” or “perfect” system, or staying in the realm of study without taking action. (There’s also budget to take into account too.)
Consider your learning style
Something else to keep in mind is your own learning style. If you thrive while taking a course due to the deadlines, structure, and accountability — and you can fully commit the time to taking the course — it can be valuable (almost regardless of the specifics of the system) to work step-by-step through a process of developing, writing, revising, or marketing your work. In other words, sometimes the structure and support alone is worth the price of admission.
Take a break from courses and experts when you need to
On the other hand, if you’re someone who buys course after course (or book after book) without ever working through the content or taking advantage of the accountability (it’s easy to fall into magical thinking about how much time we have), you may want to hold off on uploading any more content — or guilt — into your system. Take a break, reset, consider what you think, and carry on with your own work.
Keep in mind your personal resonance
Another variable to consider is your personal resonance with the style of the instructor or expert. I’m not interested running a heavy-handed marketing campaign, for example, no matter what an expert might say I “should” do. If I choose to work with a marketing expert, I look for someone who aligns with my general philosophy about authenticity in marketing and matches with who I am as a person. As I mentioned earlier, taking a class or working with a mentor can be the perfect way to inspire myself to take actions I might otherwise be putting off. Same goes for story structure work or page writing accountability.
Watch out for “busy work”
There’s also the “busy work” variable. Sometimes story development or marketing preparation work can feel like endless busy work. Is it? Isn’t it? As someone who’s participated in training in both realms, it's my experience that there can be a lot of busy work. Look for practical, non-mysterious steps that walk you from start to pages or promotion in a way that feels grounded, knowable, and useful. I personally prefer to find courses that allow me to work on my own projects, rather than responding purely to prompts or writing exercises, though each has their place. Having said that, magic can emerge from happenstance exercises and prompts, so trust your gut here to find the path between busy work and meeting the muse.
One rule to rule them all
One important rule to keep in mind: There really is no one right way to write, and anyone who tells you they know the only or the best way is either egotistical or selling you something or both. At best, you can learn their method and take from it what you like. Be mindful of being swept into the orbit of gurus who never teach you how to do the work yourself but hold themselves out as the only one with all the answers.
Remember to write, write, write
At the end of the day, the best way to learn to write is to write, write, write, and read and watch across many genres. My advice is to pick and choose wisely who you let into your mental sphere and allow to influence you. Look for role models and mentors who inspire you, who feel aligned with you as a person, and whom you feel you can genuinely learn from.
Writers can absolutely learn from others. And, following other people’s secrets can sometimes be a distraction, or at its worst, a blow to self-esteem, confidence, or learning. Find people to work with that you trust and resonate with. Use training for accountability and knowledge when you need it, but stay in your own authority. Develop your own writing process and systems, combining what you learn from other writers, instructors, and marketers along the way and bringing in your own insights. But keep your focus on your own stories along the way.
Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or send an email directly to email@example.com. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.