How to be an Awesome Writing Mentor

So, you want to be a great writing mentor? Here are five tips to help you establish a positive relationship with your mentee, and help them to provide their possible work for publication:

  1. Separate and identify structural issues as opposed to stylistic edits.

If a piece of writing has made it to you for peer-review, you can assume that your mentee has successfully addressed the requirements for that particular journal issue.

Initial submissions are rarely perfect – most need significant editing and guidance before they are publishable. That’s where you, dear mentor, come in.

Your main role as a mentor is to guide your mentee so that his/her writing reaches its maximum potential. No one formula for writing is correct, in fact, some of the most interesting and successful narratives break the conventions of a traditional three-act structure, such as Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (2016), which is composed entirely of a series of multiple choice questions. These, however, are the exception to the rule because, in the main, the absence of elements such as conflict, climax and/or resolution, tend to leave the reader feeling unsatisfied.

While journal-specific connections, such as themes and genres, can be tweaked for improvement structural issues tend to be more difficult to execute and remedy successfully, therefore, it is important that you, as a mentor, reflect on how successfully your mentee has conveyed elements such as voice, character and place, as these have a significant impact on the overall quality of a final piece.

These more complicated considerations should be tackled, as a priority, before moving on to edit for language conventions such as grammar, style and punctuation.


  1. Beware of information overload

Presenting a writer, especially an emerging writer, with a long list of ‘to do’ edits and/or criticisms about their work is the surest way to affect self-esteem.

It is unrealistic to expect a mentee to return error-free writing after a single edit, so expect the peer-review process to be an ongoing, back-and-forth, relationship.

Most of us can only cope with a few instructions at a time, so be wary of overloading your mentee. If he/she requires significant guidance, in a number of areas, then choose three specific areas to address, with each edit. It is less daunting to deal with revisions if they are separated into chunk-sized pieces and arranged under narrative elements.

In terms of structural issues, for example, amendments might be specific to pace, tense and character development. Editing for punctuation might include dialogue formatting, the overuse of adverbs and sentence structure.


  1. Establish strict timelines and clear feedback

Publication deadlines are determined by finalised articles and creative works, so it is essential that expectations and targets are clearly expressed and adhered to. Ensure that your mentor understands what revisions are needed and allocate a specific and realistic date for the work to be completed and returned.

Equally, it is important that you return any feedback and instructions with sufficient time for edits to be completed. Provide some wriggle-room, approaching the publication deadline, to ensure that you have time to fix any issues or emergencies that may arise.


  1. Format and present your feedback appropriately

Most computers have a ‘Review’ function that supports word processing software. This function is a great peer-review tool for mentors as it allows you, and your mentor, to track changes on each and every edited version. Each revision is clearly formatted and itemised, which is much less imposing than presenting a mentee with a myriad of red lines or editing marks on a page.

While honest critique is essential, it is also important to consider how you will word your feedback. Using a ‘sandwich’ technique, whereby constructive criticism is inserted on either side of positive feedback and suggestions, facilitates a more productive outcome.


  1. You have the final say

It takes a great deal of courage to submit a piece of creative work knowing that it will be exposed to criticism and, as such, contributors can often feel protective when mentor feedback seeks to change the original vision of their work.

We all have differing tastes when it comes to writing so it’s important to recognise that creative work is subjective. Therefore, you should prioritise the technical merits of a writing piece over any stylistic preferences you have.

At the end of the day, however, you and the editorial team decide what will and will not be published. Sometimes, questioning a mentee about writing choices can clarify an issue so that you can give appropriate guidance to improve his/her work.   A carefully worded suggestion can also help communicate feedback, such as, would the author consider changing …  


NB: The advice on this blog post can be used in conjunction with the article titled Creative Writing: workshop critiques


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