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Mary Rykov

Reflections on Mentorship

Illustration of a businessperson standing at the bow of a paper boat with arm outstretched as two others row.
Illustration of a businessperson standing at the bow of a paper boat with arm outstretched as two others row.
Copyright: pchvector

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:

  1. the mentee and mentor edit the same manuscript,
  2. the mentor reviews the mentee’s work and
  3. 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.

For mentorsFor mentees
BoundariesContract clear conditions and expectations and communicate the limits of your professional expertise, as needed.Be realistic about expectations.
Listening, questioningListen to what your mentee says and question unvoiced issues.Listen to feedback and question what you don’t understand.
Appreciative inquiryState what works before offering feedback about what needs work.Provide feedback on the feedback you receive.
ClarityProvide constructive, specific and precise feedback, not vague generalizations.Ask specific questions.
BrevityDon’t ramble.Don’t ramble.

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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The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.

4 Comments on “Reflections on Mentorship”

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Thank you for this. The mentorship program offered by Editors Canada is extremely important and valuable. Much like this blog. I rate those two features at the top of everything that the association does.

    • Mary Rykov

      says:

      You are welcome, Anita. I agree.

      Mentorships available to Editors Canada members nurture novice editors and also support experienced editors who want to learn new skills.

      No Editors’ Weekly public blog existed when I began to explore editing as a possible career choice. Instead, I needed to reach out to the few editors I knew to gain insight into editing.

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    In all my years of teaching editing at Ryerson U and for Editors Canada across the country, the question I was asked most frequently was “How far should I go in editing a text?” The answer is easy for copy-editing issues of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and consistency because they are all clearly set out in the Chicago Manual. But it’s very difficult for substantive and stylistic editing issues, which require good judgment and experience. The best way to begin learning these skills is by taking credit courses at a university or college where the instructor will review your assignments and provide advice. If you can follow up with a mentorship that allows you to edit real texts alongside an experienced editor, you will be well prepared to take on projects of your own.

    • Mary Rykov

      says:

      And these days we can access virtual course offerings from programs across the country. How rich!

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