If you can’t write, teach (aka, writing coaches are full of shit)

Today someone involved with a prestigious writing retreat requested to join my Facebook group, then immediately spammed us with a last chance offer to join an expensive online writing course. Technically, she was offering something that could have appealed to writers, so I felt bad for deleting the post, but on the other hand… you don’t join a Facebook group and post an offer right away.

It’s just bad form. If I let that kind of behavior go, I’d be setting a precedent to members and my group would fall apart as everyone spammed their latest book release (authors are terrible spammers. If it’s permitted, they will spam).

And I sympathize… I’ve run expensive courses or training events before. You’ve got to find a way to get new buyers or the income dries up. I would have done something more clever than joining a bunch of writing groups and posting my offer (though I won’t say I’ve never done it), but the truth is, it could work. There are worse forms of marketing, like never getting your message in front of your audience at all.

But that’s not why I’m writing this.

After I deleted that post, I looked up the woman who posted it, and also the celebrated writing coach to see whether they were on Amazon. After all, she’s a “NYT Bestselling Author.” Before I pay a lot of money to learn how to write a book, I’d want to make sure the person teaching me knows what they’re talking about.

But I was kind of surprised to see that this person didn’t have much… some nice looking non-fiction books (hardcover only, no ebook) and some poorly designed fiction (not sure whether they were self-published). I wouldn’t care so much about the book cover design, but the reviews were also telling: the non-fiction hardcovers had some reviews, but with a three star average.

The fiction didn’t have any reviews.


Not fiction; I couldn’t tell from the cover designs, but the more recent stuff is more non-fiction with poorly designed covers. They don’t have any reviews and look self-published.

This is what that tells me about the author:

They’ve published (jointly with another author) some books that did well and hit the NYT list somehow. But that was years ago and the publisher hasn’t figured out putting up an ebook yet, or doesn’t think it would be worthwhile. The author has tried to follow up her success by self-publishing some similar stories, but has no idea how to go about book marketing.

So she teaches other people to write books instead.

I see several dangers here:

Firstly, writing non-fiction is hugely different from writing fiction… and writing in different genres is also very different. But even if I was publishing non-fiction, I would expect more than an “NYT Bestseller” label.

If I hired a writing coach, I would want one that had written some good books and gotten a lot of online reviews, and knew enough about the state of modern publishing to figure out how to get quality book cover design done, and enough about marketing to at least sell some books.

That said, I don’t believe a writing coach necessarily has to be a successful author. There are many brilliant university professors of English Literature that couldn’t write a novel.

I was an amazing editor before I published any of my own fiction. You can teach people how to write without ever having your own bestselling story. (Likewise, you can be a shitty teacher and know nothing about writing, even if you’ve written some bestsellers… your personal process may not work for anyone else).

Writing a book is not the same as writing well.

Is the teacher going to teach you “good writing” or “how to write a good book” (and following that, are they going to teach you how to write a novel or a non-fiction, and what experience do they have writing those?) Are they going to teach you how to write books that sell, or just help you finish the one you want to write (huge difference).

Writing a book is not the same as writing a bestselling book.

And this is actually an enormously crucial problem, because the majority of writing coaches, writing centers and writing retreats probably come from the old-school, classical mentality that literature is an art, not a science. And most authors believe that. They want to write their story, they just want to write it well enough to make it a bestseller.

The assumption in this case, a fallacy that both student and teacher believe in, is that writing a book well is the way to make it a bestseller.

But that’s almost never true.

What makes a book a bestseller, in almost every case, is that the book resonated with a select group of readers, who loved the story.

Having it be well-written certainly helps, but it can’t (at all) save a book that doesn’t resonate with anyone but the author.

Writing coaches will tell you that you must improve your craft diligently, and polish every sentence until it sings… but most readers hate purple prose, and the biggest sign of an amateur author is over-writing passages when they should have focused on telling the story neatly and clearly.

Should you hire a writing coach?

You might assume I’m going to say something like, “You should never hire a writing coach.”

I’m not going to.

I think writing coaches are lying if they say they can help you write a bestselling book, and delusional if they think the quality of the writing is the path to success. And I’m skeptical of you hiring a writing coach who doesn’t know anything about book design, (modern) publishing or book marketing, because you won’t be learning the crucial skills you actually need (unless you refuse to self-publish and are going to just keep improving your craft until you get an agent and go traditional).

But I also think most writing coaches are incredibly knowledgeable about writing.

And I believe sometimes you need to make a big, serious, financial commitment to your writing goals. It’s too easy to just let time pass. And there is a lot to learn – whether you’re writing fiction of non-fiction. You could read a bunch of books and actually learn it yourself through hard work, patience and effort, but if you haven’t done that yet (and have wanted to for years) you need to force yourself to take your writing seriously.

More than that, I think a writing coach is actually more of a “book doctor” – they aren’t teaching you how to write, they are helping you to actually do the work. They cheer you on. They give you moral support. Having someone actually waiting for you to finish the writing, someone who assigns progress goals and checks in with you, being part of a class environment with other students, and having a fixed timeline are all powerful motivators.

If you want to write a book but haven’t yet because you never seem to have time, I would definitely recommend finding a writing retreat to go to, or a writing coach in your area, or an online class. Yes they’re expensive, but the less you pay for it, the less seriously you’ll take it.

You’ll say, “Oh I only spent $100, it’s no big deal if I don’t show up for class or do the work this week.”

If you spend $1000, you’re going to make sure you get your money’s worth.

Are writing coaches full of shit? No. They’re just trying to run a business, and they probably have a sincere desire to help you. They can help you finish the work and give birth to magic (which is worth spending money on).

Just keep in mind, the only person who can write a successful, bestselling book is you… and only if that’s actually your true aim. Most authors want to write a book and make it a bestseller, not write a bestseller – those are nearly opposite feats.

And keep in mind, after your work with your writing coach is done and you have finished the book, with tears of joy and gratitude, you’ll probably have to hire a book marketing coach, and they’ll be full of shit too.

The value of writing

This could have been a separate post but I’ll end with this thought: a lot of people accuse me of “devaluing the art of writing” because I want to make writing and publishing easier. Yes writing is hard work, but writing and being successful is mostly a choice of what to write – writing can be a pretty awesome way to make money, if you do it right.

But there’s an ingrained pessimism and negativity in the writing community that says writing needs to be sweat and tears and hard work and suffering… writing entails sacrifice. I don’t believe that’s necessarily true, but I understand how some authors might feel if they’ve been publishing for a decade and aren’t making any money, and then someone likes me comes along and succeeds faster without all the work and effort.

They might assume that my books are of inferior quality, because I didn’t work on them so hard. They might assume it’s impossible to write high quality fiction if you’re doing it quickly. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter.

They’re equating time spent with value, when the only real measure of value is how much people are willing to pay for something (otherwise, every author can claim that their books are amazing quality, with no external verification, which leads to confusion in the market).

If you hire a doctor, do you want someone new who works really, really hard and struggles to do everything right? Or do you want the one who knows exactly what they’re doing, treats the problem quickly and efficiently, and sees 100 other patients in the same day?

Quality does not depend on time spent.

It’s also a matter of experience and knowledge. I can make a book cover in 1/10th of the time it takes most new designers, and it will be 10x better. I also charge 10x as much. That might might seem crazy, but the LESS time an expert needs to solve a problem is probably an indicator of the quality of the final piece. And you’re not paying for their TIME, you’re paying for the finished product. I make covers fast, but the quality is much better, so people pay me more.

When you’re writing your tenth book, it’ll be much faster and smoother than your first, and also probably of better quality. So stop whining about how hard writing is, and that you deserve to be paid for the effort you spent (you don’t. Nobody asked you to become a writer).

If you can hire a writing coach who can help you write your book in a month, instead of a year, that’s very valuable.

If you can hire a writing coach who can help you write a book that people love, instead of something that’s just meh, that’s very valuable.

It can be a business expense, as long as you’re writing like a business (writing products people want with an intent to make more money than you spend).

But if you haven’t gotten to that stage yet and still believe in writing whatever you want to, you probably also still believe that pain and struggle qualifies the work and increases quality. If that’s the case, it’s very likely you will persevere in your own vision of your work, even if you hire a writing coach and they’re trying to give you good advice. You might tune them out, because “you don’t care about the market” or “you don’t write for other people.”

And even worse, you’ll probably believe, with righteous indignation, that your way is the only possible way to write a “real book” of “quality,” and turn your nose up at all those smug indie authors who write “inferior” books and make a living.

More than once I’ve had authors ask for advice, and then turn around and say “I don’t care what you think, it’s exactly how I want it.” In very, very rare case, you might be a misunderstood genius.

But if nobody “gets” your book except you, don’t expect anyone to buy it.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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