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What makes mentoring work? Ten top essential ingredients

A large part of my writing/teaching time is devoted to individual mentoring: hour-long face-to-face or Skype meetings with new writers in which (I trust) they are imbued with creative energy and  the tools to channel this energy into a stronger, better piece of fiction.

‘Why and how does this happen?’ an interested potential mentee wants to know. ‘Is there a formula you follow to create that buzz? What makes mentoring special?’

I ponder. And finally I come up with what I see as TEN VITAL FACTORS at the heart of every successful mentoring relationship:

  1. SHARED ALLEGIANCE. The important (and only) thing that mentor/mentee should share is allegiance to the work. No egos. No ‘stuff’. Or as little as possible when two people collaborate on something as precious as an unfolding piece of fiction.
  2. COLLABORATION is the key-word. I like to see the process as collaborative editing rather than teaching. Working together to make the book as good as it’s possible to be.
  3. SUBJECTIVITY. I always make it very clear to the new writer that – even though my responses are informed by years and years of writing and teaching – there is always a level of subjectivity and, with this in mind, the mentee’s opinions are at least as valid as mine.
  4. DISCUSSION. My input is therefore a series of suggestions rather than instructions, and always open to discussion.
  5. TRUTH. My undertaking, as mentor, is to inhabit the story or fictional world as invented by the mentee and to base all my responses on being true – as I see it – to this world. While we’re in session, no other world exists.
  6. And no other CHARACTERS either. Between us, they are as real as the three-dimensional people we know and (ideally) far more interesting.
  7. MOTIVATION. The most important question we ask of every invented character is, ‘What does s/he want? What does s/he really, really want?’ And the second-most-important question: ‘What’s in the way? What prevents her or him from getting it?’ Which is how, miraculously, we come up with plot.
  8. GOALS. Clear goals are important. During our first session we agree on the best possible realistic outcome for the arrangement. This is written down and referred to constantly in order to keep both mentor and mentee on track.
  9. THE BIG PICTURE. As important as grammar, spelling and layout are, it’s the big picture that counts. The sessions shouldn’t be bogged down by literals. On the other hand, the errors that irritate me (‘it’s when it should be its … don’t ask) will almost certainly irritate the reader who’s next in line. And here I mean potential agent or publisher, not grandma, wife or academic uncle who’d almost certainly take delight in pouncing on stray literals.
  10. TRANSPARENCY. I always say that the best writing doesn’t show. It enables the reader to see straight into the heart of what a writer wants to convey and anything that distracts along the way (purple prose? Over-elaborate layout? Bad spelling? Characters who act/speak ‘out of character) should be firmly addressed.


  1. Having been lucky enough to work with you, I would add ‘personal cheerleader’ to the list. It is invaluable to have someone who believes in you and wants your work to be the best that it can possibly be. You praise, you push and you challenge me to do better. Between meetings,if I’m struggling with my writing or doubting myself, I get an image of you shaking sparkly pompoms at me saying ‘You can do it!’

    Comment by Aliya on November 25, 2013 at 10:48 pm
  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further
    post thanks once again.

    Comment by on September 1, 2014 at 11:57 pm
  3. Thank you, Melissa – good to know. I’ll certainly keep writing if you keep reading. Do let me know if there are any particular issues you’d like me to cover.

    Comment by shelleyweiner on September 2, 2014 at 7:54 am

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