The Difference between a Critique Group and a Writing Coach

I was sitting in a café chatting with a new client last weekend when I surprised the hell out of her.

And this was not the first time this has happened. Usually, whenever I get a new client, they’re always surprised when they hear this one little question, followed up by one little statement, from me.

“Can you send me your book? I’ll start reading it immediately.”

Invariably, they’re shocked. The whole book? Do I really want to read the whole and entire unabridged unedited manuscript? But it’s not finished. It’s not polished. They wrote it for NaNaWriMo and it’s a mess. It’s 700 pages long. Or it’s too short. It’s a bunch of fragments, really…it’s…it’s…am I sure?

Yes, I always say. And I always mean it. I’m sure. I want to read the whole book. And, in fact, for us to do really excellent coaching work together, I will need to read the entire thing.

I understand why this shocks my clients. Many of them have never had a writing coach before, but they’ve had a lot of experience in critique groups. Don’t get me wrong—critique groups can be helpful. But due to the nature of the group, you will very rarely find a critique group made up of members who have enough spare time in their lives to read and offer feedback on entire manuscripts from the other writers. It’s just not a realistic expectation.

So, many writers tend to assume that this is all there is. You join a critique group, you polish up a few chapters and pass them around and you get valuable feedback…on just those few chapters. Then you either try to go it alone with the rest of your novel or you go through the long, drawn-out process of waiting your turn to submit a few more chapters to the group, and then a few more…and then it’s two years later and you’re sick to death of the project anyway.

Working with a writing coach is a totally different experience.

As a coach, I don’t have a peer-to-peer relationship with my clients. Instead, I work for them. They pay me to give my undivided attention to their work. When a client sits down with me for an hour, or we work over the phone or through Skype, the session is all about them. It is all about their book, their story, their writing dreams and goals. They don’t have to take turns with anyone. They don’t have to wait to talk. They can send me their whole book to read and not have to worry that it’s too much.

One of the reasons I became a writing coach is because I LOVE stories. It doesn’t matter what subject the story is about. It doesn’t matter what genre, time period, writing style, or set of characters the writer chooses to speak through, I love to read the stories that other people have written. When I take on a new client and they send me their book, I’m really, really excited. Every time.

And that’s another difference. Members of a critique group are not always really, really excited to dive into new pages from one of the members every week. This is understandable. Reading and giving feedback on pages is work, and the main reason most critique group members are doing it is because they expect their chapters to be given the same treatment. That’s cool, but there’s a world of difference between doing something to adhere to the basic law of courteous reciprocity, and doing something out of a lifelong passion that has driven you to make a career out of it.

As a writing coach, I fall on the lifelong passion end of the spectrum.

When someone comes to me with a raw manuscript, I offer a variety of ways we can work on it together:

Beta Read – No Sessions
In this case I provide detailed notes on just about every page, pointing out what I liked, where I stumbled, what could be improved, what needs to be fleshed, what could be cut, etc. Then I send it back to the writer and let them run with the revisions on their own. They might follow-up with just a few questions but overall this is my most “hands-off” option for writers who want total independence.

Page-by-Page Coaching
For these clients I do the same exact thing detailed above, only they also opt-in for coaching sessions. We use the sessions to go through the manuscript page-by-page, talking through plot tangles, character knots, and any other problem areas. Writers leave the session with a list of revisions to work on before our next scheduled call.

Big-Picture Coaching
These writers get the same beta-read treatment, but might feel a bit overwhelmed or just not yet ready to take it page-by-page. In these instances, we use coaching sessions to talk about more general themes—like story arc, emotional tone, and big pieces that need to be added or reorganized. Instead of going page-by-page, we use the manuscript only for reference when we need it. However, they still leave the sessions with a short list of immediate goals to help get the book going in the right direction.

I also have clients who never let me see their work until they’ve polished it so hard they’re ready to publish it the next day; and clients who use me as a sounding board for new story ideas before they’ve even written anything yet.

No matter what kind of writer I work with, and no matter what kind of coaching works best for them, one thing remains true. I am a safe place for my writers. Always. Having a writing coach is like having your very own fairy godmother, and she can’t wait  to read your book.

If you’re looking for someone to get really excited about your book, read the whole thing (yes, the whole thing), and help you manifest your writing dreams, now is the time. Check out my coaching page and email me at writecitysf@gmail.com to talk writing and see if we’re a fit.

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4 Comments

  • Reply Jeff C 12 January, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    Another great article. I really like the descriptions between the various levels of coaching you give, and, of course, it’s nice to know that there’s more than just critique groups, which I’ve had (perhaps too much) experience with.

  • Reply Marie Bailey 13 January, 2016 at 9:08 am

    Excellent post, Lauren! Thanks for describing your services as well as noting the difference between coaching and critique groups. You really captured the main reasons why I don’t belong to any critique groups. I’m sure some can be supportive and nurturing, but in all honesty, I don’t want to sit through discussions of other people’s writing either. It may be selfish of me but when I’m working on a story, I don’t want to distracted by someone else’s WIP.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 13 January, 2016 at 9:47 am

      I totally get it Marie, and I don’t think it’s selfish at all. We all have busy lives and they just seem to be getting busier. Fitting in a critique group–and the work that comes along with it–can add a lot of stress.

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