Developing Writers: Part 2 of 3: The Joy of Mentoring

In my previous blog I wrote about onboarding new writers. Today we move the discussion to a future state immediately after the orientation and training is finished. The question: How do you sustain the development of your new writer through that critical first year?

I propose that you appoint a mentor to assist your rookie writer along their journey.

First, some context. From Day One at my first real writing job I had the best mentor anybody could want. Motria Hodowanec was my “spirit guide” — an experienced senior writer blessed with the twin gifts of willingness to share her knowledge and the patience to handle a somewhat rambunctious “grasshopper”.  While Motria did just a fraction of my actual training, she was invaluable to me as a go-to resource.  As my most genial and learned sensei, Motria helped me ride the three learning curves of the job —our writing style, our content management software and learning to describe the products we sold. I credit my success in that job to her guidance.

A few years later I inherited the spirit guide mantel. I took it very seriously (to the point of placing a cowbell gong on my desk). From their first days forward, I took my new charges under my wing.

I believe the three most important areas where a mentor can help a new writer are as follows:

  • Knowing when to say when. Output volume is a critical component of ecommerce writing. Up against publishing deadlines, a writer must understand when enough is enough that is, when they have written a product in sufficient detail to enable a customer to make an informed purchasing decision. A mentor can help the new writer to draw this line and step away from the keyboard.
  • Sounding board. I recall one time when I dragged my discouraged self to Motria’s cubicle, product copy in hand covered in green editor’s ink with the note “NOT CURRENT STYLE”. I had based my writeup on a printed catalog description for a similar product. I showed her the page. How could I have gone wrong? Motria smiled and explained, “You based it on this one, but that one on the following page is the newer style. My jaw dropped and before I could sputter how the hell could I know that? Motria said, “You couldn’t know. These pages are collections of products written over many years. Next time, look at more examples and see if you can detect a trend. If you can’t figure it out, ask someone.” That might have been the best advice she ever gave me.
  • Making connections. When you’re the new kid, you don’t know anybody, especially the clients you serve. Motria introduced me to the product managers I needed to know. Once I knew them and they knew me, meeting the rest of their team was easy. As a spirit guide myself I’d stress the value of a face-to-face relationship over an email chain. Especially if the product manager sat just three rooms away.

For the sake of your own sanity and productivity, it’s best to set aside time to meet with your grasshopper. I liked to check in at the start or end of a day, or over lunch. Allow your charge some time to work through problems and pool their questions.

If you are a supervisor and you want to start a mentoring program, choose your mentors wisely. Don’t appoint someone against their wishes. Don’t pick your chronic complainer or closet insurrectionist, either. Choose a confident veteran who won’t feel threatened or bothered, and who is willing to share.

I’ve found mentoring to be one of the most rewarding parts of my job. There’s nothing like the felling when you see the light go on in your charge’s eyes and they exclaim “I’ve got this!”.

Happy mentoring!

In part 3 we’ll examine three learning curves that confront most new ecommerce writers.

This blog is dedicated to my three finest grasshoppers — Liz, the Sharp Knife in the Drawer who learned to think like me; Dave, who became an outstanding catalog manager; and Bill, whose energy and doggedness was a marvel to watch. And to Motria, the Best. Mentor. Ever.

Dan Skantar is Director of Content Services for JP Enterprises.

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