Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.
2016 AWP Roundtable #6: Manuscript Masseuses and Book Midwives – Shop Talk for Coaches, Aspiring Coaches, and the Writers Who Need Them
When a crit group just isn’t enough and you need a professional eye, how do you get expert help without breaking the bank? If you love the idea of working directly with writers, how can you set yourself up as a coach?
In this roundtable, experienced writer-coaches Kristy Lin Billuni, Linda González, and Minal Hajratwala share tips and tricks for building a thriving business, choosing the best coach for yourself, and guiding writers past their blocks and on a path to success.
What do writing coaches do? Do you call yourself a coach, teacher, tutor, or what?
Linda González: Coaches assist writers to expand their mental and emotional capacity to live a writer’s life. I help writers understand how their writing fits into their overall lives and then find achievable, heart-driven goals that include both the actual writing and the marketing aspect. Since I coach mostly women and people of color, I connect their platform building to a bigger vision of equity and paying it forward – they easily see that and move to a place of seeing their writing as empowering themselves and others.
Kristy Lin Billuni: I like the word “teacher,” and use it, but I never correct writers or clients when they use other, similar words for me: coach, collaborator, tutor, book-therapist, and many more. I am all these things at different moments in the work, and part of my skill, I think, is being able to understand what the writer and the project need and then filling in that role.
What does your coaching practice have to do with your own writing?
Minal Hajratwala: Coaching pushes me to be in touch deeply with what I’ve learned over twenty-five years of writing. And I also get to learn continuously, which is fantastic for someone like me working outside the academy. My clients “teach” me things all the time, from new software they’re using to books they recommend to the latest publishing trends they’ve heard about in their genres. Often, in giving a client a suggestion or a writing prompt, I realize that I should try it myself, too. I love being in constant conversation with other writers about process, strategies, structure, narrative issues, sources — all the many complex aspects of creative work.
I have so much compassion for “my” writers as they engage in the valiant struggle — which reminds me to turn that same compassion toward myself, when I might otherwise be tempted to beat myself up about my own work, pace, or process. I only work with people when I feel there’s a good fit, so my clients also come from or become part of my wider writing community. We’re all in it together, ultimately.
What were you doing before you started coaching? How did it prepare you? What made you decide to start coaching writers?
Linda González: I was and still work at times as a facilitative consultant and trainer with organizations seeking to increase their capacity to work collaboratively with a focus on equity. It prepared me because I bring a systems approach to my coaching – seeing a writer in the midst of their own systems (work, family, etc.) – and assisting them to integrate writing as a non-negotiable practice that is their gift to the world.
Kristy Lin Billuni: I started out editing novels for a larger editing company. Some of my editing clients needed bigger-picture support, so, with my boss’s permission, I started freelancing with coaching services for those few clients. Before I knew it, I was doing a lot more coaching than editing, and I was able to launch something on my own. I took a business class for women entrepreneurs, which really helped me take myself and my business more seriously.
When I moved to a new home, a loft in the SoMa district of San Francisco, my clients responded positively to the new space. It’s really true what they say about location being a key to business success. There’s something that feels good to my writer clients about coming to work with me in my “artist loft” in a city and neighborhood associated with creativity.
That’s when I began blogging as the Sexy Grammarian. At first, it was just an experiment to see if I could bring more of my own identity to the work and to see if social media might be a good way to market. Very quickly, I found it was an ideal brand for me in many ways. It drew more of the types of writers I loved closer to me, and it repelled writers who were not a good fit. My client stream shifted dramatically from 100% referral to 50% referral and 50% social media.
I came to teaching through the sexual health education world. So, teaching sex is really what qualifies me to be a teacher. Being a writer myself is probably my greatest qualification for teaching writing specifically. I do have a good, natural editor’s eye, but I really see myself as being an equal to my clients in terms of writing skill, not an authority, necessarily. I think being a writer who sometimes succeeds and sometimes struggles makes me a very good collaborator and teacher for other writers.
What’s the best thing about being a writing coach? What’s the hardest thing about being a writing coach?
Linda González: The best thing is seeing people shift from a scarcity mentality to one of abundance – seeing their writing life as a long-term process with small steps each day to achieve their goals. I also love to see writers embrace their authenticity and stop – or at least minimize – comparing themselves to others.
When I look out into the writing world and see my writers being published and following their unique paths, that reminds me our work changes individual lives that make a greater impact in the world. The hardest thing is to see how deep some of our limiting beliefs are about our ability to speak out truth in a world that still does not value the arts and even less values women and people of color.
It is also hard to see people decide to spend money on items or experiences that will not support them as much as coaching. It is a powerful choice to be coached and requires a solid belief that you can make your goals a reality.
What kinds of questions should a writer ask when considering a coach?
Linda González: Having been a coach for over 15 years and having had 4 coaches myself (3 focused on moving my writing forward), I suggest a writer get clear on pricing, working agreements (e.g. payment, session options in terms of time and spacing, cancellations, expectations), and coaching philosophy. My own philosophy, for example, is based on client-driven goals, multiculturalism, spiritual principles, and life experiences.
More than asking questions, I would suggest a writer ask for a sample coaching consultation to get a feel for how that coach works and if their style will help them resolve the issues they have been unable to solve with their other resources. These sessions are typically offered by coaches and range from 15 minutes to an hour.
Do you offer any freebies for writers to get to know you?
Minal Hajratwala: Yes, I offer a free 30-minute initial consultation, and I have a free PDF of writing prompts to help people get started.
Kristy Lin Billuni: I offer every writer I meet a free 1-hour session. This has turned out to be an amazing marketing tool. I find I get close to 100% of writers who show up for the free session to agree to more paid sessions with me. It feels good to know that if I can get a writer to see and experience what I do, I can get that writer’s business.
I also just launched a free ebook on my site. And really, my site is full of free content for writers too.
It’s important to have good boundaries as an entrepreneur starting out, to not give away too much of your value for free. By having a few things that I clearly give away for free, I always have an answer to requests for discounts or freebies, and that makes it easier to draw a boundary. I’m currently using the free ebook to teach myself some best practices for selling ebooks, and I am learning a lot with that process.
What is your pricing structure? Has it changed? What works/ doesn’t work about it?
Kristy Lin Billuni: I charge $150 for a 1-hour session, and I’ll read up to 10 pages of content to prepare for that session if the client wants that. I mostly work in series packages of 4-12 sessions, with the price-per-session getting lower the more sessions the writer commits to. At the 12-session level, the cost goes as low at $108/session. All you have to do to get the package discounts is sign a contract, make a deposit of any size, and pay the balance by the last session. I have no requirements on time lapse, so some clients will race through 12 sessions in a quarter, and others will savor a 4-session package for an entire year. I have no cancellation or rescheduling fees.
My clients love this structure. It feels flexible and generous to them. It does make it difficult for me to predict cash flow.
I’ve recently received feedback from a trusted business coach that I should totally upend this structure and create something more strict, more like a gym model. I’m putting a lot of thought into this idea.
Minal Hajratwala: Pricing is always a work in progress, I think. My structure is similar for 1:1 coaching, partly because Kristy was my role model! I do try to give myself a $5 an hour raise every year or two on my birthday.
I also have “Manuscript Massage” (developmental editing) rates as well as several online courses for writers that I offer at different price points, from $66 to $615. I started teaching my own courses online several years ago, when I moved out of the U.S. The classes have been a fantastic way to work with writers at a lot of different financial access levels and across geographies.
What advice would you give to a writer who’s ready to start coaching other writers?
Minal Hajratwala: If you want to be a coach, take the plunge! What do you have to lose?
But first, a caution: Make sure you’re doing it because you love working with writers on their writing. Maybe you’re adjuncting and your favorite part is the one-on-one conferences that you’re spending too much time on for too little money? Maybe you’ve been frustrated by peer groups and workshops because you’re always the one with the best advice? Maybe you’re getting requests to “pick your brain,” and you’d love to help, but not for free? Or maybe you feel passionate about the need to help a certain kind of writer or story get out in the world?
Those are all good reasons to try your hand at coaching.
The one bad reason: “I need to make money fast.”
Coaching is not the fast track to money. There is money in it, but money must not be the only reason you’re in it — or you’ll be a terrible coach, do more harm to writers than good, and burn out fast.
Ok, here’s what I’d suggest if you want to dip your toe in:
1. Write up a simple sales page on your website (if you don’t have one, set up an easy free one) that really sells your approach, background, credentials, testimonials if you have them, etc. If you have a particular expertise or niche, mention that; it’s not mandatory, though.
2. Do your research, look at what coaches with comparable experience are charging, and come up with an hourly rate that seems competitive. I personally am a fan of posting rates on my website, because it saves me time in answering queries and recalculating estimates every time, but people vary on that.
3. Set a launch date and create a launch offer. Make the intro deal really juicy and irresistible, like 2- sessions-for-the-price-of-1. (This, by the way, is better than 50% off. You want to work with folks who CAN afford your rate but need a chance to get to know you.)
4. Then turn your sales page into a short email that goes to every! single! person! you know. It doesn’t need to be fancy; you’re a word person, not a graphic designer. Tell them you’re starting up as a coach and they get a discount if they book their editing time by X date, and they can use those hours anytime in the next X months. Include your Paypal info and (sweetly) make it clear that booking a session = paying in advance. In this email, also encourage them to forward / gift / share the deal.
5. During your launch period, spend time in relevant groups being genuinely helpful to writers, without being salesy. Post links to your sales page all over your social media profiles. Bonus if you figure out how to add a cute kitten, cartoon, or meme that will make people share your info.
6. Then see what happens. If you get even one or two clients from this process, you’re in business. Study your success, learn from your failures, take a small business class to learn as much as you can about the path you’re on, and keep going!
Linda González is on the roster of coaches used by LeaderSpring’s Executive Coaching Project and Windcall Residency Program. She has been a featured writer at literary events and fundraisers, has published essays in numerous journals and in three anthologies, and is an active member of Las Comadres para las Americas and Toastmasters. She received her MFA from Goddard College, her BA from Stanford University, and her MSW from the University of Southern California. Her purpose is to work with multicultural wisdom and inspire people of color to embark on a creative journey of balance and healing for this and future generations. www.lindagonzalez.net
Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), and editor of the groundbreaking anthology Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013). Her latest book is Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (2014), published by the (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model press of which she is a co-founder. She graduated from Stanford University, was a fellow at Columbia University, and was a 2011 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar. She is passionate about helping writers unpack internalized oppression and give voice to untold stories. minalhajratwala.com
Kristy Lin Billuni, AKA The Sexy Grammarian is a teacher and a writer. Since 2003, she has coached, tutored, supported, and collaborated with hundreds of writers. Before she edited her first novel, she hustled several very sexy jobs. As her editing business grew, she sensed parallels in her teaching work and her sexy roots. She embraced the idea and called it Sexy Grammar. Cleis Press just published a chapter of her novel, Turning Out, as a short in the collection Bondage Bites. Cosmo recently profiled her story in their “Sex Work” column.