When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. — Lao Tzu
The mentor role is ancient and storied. Mentor, in Homer’s Odyssey, is the friend of Odysseus who tutors Telemachus, Odysseus’s son. Athena, disguised as Mentor, steers young Telemachus’s search for his father. Those ancient Greeks did spin good yarns. Here I explore the contemporary mentor, defined by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, as “an experienced and trusted advisor.”
My mentorship reflections are rooted in various mentor and mentee experiences, including 35 years as a music therapy clinician-researcher, a doctorate in adult education, and 12 years as an editor and published (read: paid) writer. I have discovered that learning occurs from teaching that is delivered through formal instruction and teaching that is delivered spontaneously and on-the-fly. Mentors teach explicitly through feedback and implicitly through modelling. Rosemary Shipton, the 2022 Karen Virag Award recipient, from whom I learned structural and stylistic editing, recommends “deep shadow mentoring,” which she describes as:
- the mentee and mentor edit the same manuscript,
- the mentor reviews the mentee’s work and
- the mentor and mentee discuss their different approaches.
Rosemary’s method facilitates mutual learning, which evokes the saying that the wise person learns from everyone. Deep shadow mentoring can be practised on short or long documents, but long, time-consuming manuscripts may be best suited for an in-house edit milieu. This sample website about the workplace mentor role addresses its organizational function. See also Rosemary’s mentoring post. I write specifically from the freelance perspective about what I consider as necessary qualities for successful mentorship — within and beyond editing — regardless of mode of delivery or location on the mentor-mentee continuum.
Varieties of mentorship experience
I was matched in 2012 with Nan Ackerman of Amadea Editing in the Editors Canada (Toronto branch) mentorship program, a good fit for the academic editing I pursued. Neither of us can remember what we did, but I do recall that Nan modelled professionalism, integrity and a comprehensive website. She didn’t provide job referrals that I’d hoped for, which I subsequently realized was an unfeasible expectation, given my novice skills. Nan mentors still by modelling how editors can work into their elder years.
I am equally grateful for negative experiences. Some unnamed mentors in my past transgressed professional boundaries by imposing personal beliefs and opinions that I was encouraged to adopt, or at least not protest. Others tried to sell me products or programs. They modelled how not to mentor. None of these negative mentorship experiences involved editors.
Suggestions for mentors and mentees
In addition to writing and editing, my current practice includes mentorship of editors and writers in multiple genres according to each client’s unique circumstances, preferences and goals. Based on my own positive experiences as mentee, I strive as mentor to impart knowledge generously while also mirroring editing principles of clarity, brevity, precision and specificity. Below, I chart suggestions.
|Contract clear conditions and expectations and communicate the limits of your professional expertise, as needed.
|Be realistic about expectations.
|Listen to what your mentee says and question unvoiced issues.
|Listen to feedback and question what you don’t understand.
|State what works before offering feedback about what needs work.
|Provide feedback on the feedback you receive.
|Provide constructive, specific and precise feedback, not vague generalizations.
|Ask specific questions.
Concurring with Alan Middleton, an author and speaker on mentorship, about the fundamental human process of mentorship, I contend that writer-editor mentors and mentees must exercise compassion for the blank page. I, a mere modern mortal, don’t want to summon Athena. But, full disclosure, I would channel the late American Canadian editor and publisher Ellen Seligman if I could.
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