Well, it depends…let’s define the two activities and you can decide!
What a writing coach does
A coach (who also may be called a tutor) assesses your skill level in a certain type of activity and helps you raise your performance to another level. For example, I have a business coach, Michael Sunnarborg, who helps me figure out my next steps for my business whenever I feel stuck. He points out what he sees that is blocking me and shows me the opportunities that I might reap if I overcome my blockages.
A writing coach, also called a tutor, might serve a writer in the same way. If I were coaching you, for example, I would first assess your writing and then point out your strengths (good sentence length and structure, for example) and your weaknesses/blockages (your wordiness and repetition could confuse the reader or block your message).
Over the years, I have had many different writing coaches (formal and informal, voluntary and involuntary). Sometimes, the process has been painful. However, I now see that their suggestions were intended to strengthen my written documents and the process made me a better writer.
What an editor does
So, how does a writing coach different from an editor? Editors basically take your text and make it conform to generally accepted norms so that your readers can process your text quickly without stumbling over rough spots that derail their reading.
Here is a somewhat simplified description of three levels of edit (some editors add more levels, but this is enough for you to get the idea):
Light edit: proofreading plus conformance to style guidelines and checking for errors in headings, tables, figures, and references
Medium edit: proofreading plus basic grammar and punctuation errors, word usage errors, and correcting overly complex sentence structure. This level is often referred to as a “copyedit.”
Full (heavy) edit: proofreading plus grammar edit, rewriting to improve sentence and paragraph structure, and reorganizing document if required. This level may be referred to as “a developmental edit.”
Notice that at all three levels, the editor will change your text, while a coach will suggest possible changes. Writers may accept or reject a coach’s advice, but I would advise a writer to accept your editor’s changes as much as possible and query any changes you don’t understand.
Do you need both a writing coach and an editor?
As I mentioned above, it depends! If you find that you are not getting ahead in your job and suspect that part of the cause might be that you aren’t confident in your writing skills, you probably need both. This is especially true if the comments you receive from colleagues and bosses are about your writing organization (“Add an introduction”; “I can’t follow your argument here…”). A writing coach can most definitely get you on the right track with regard to structure.
Once you are confident that your writing skills have improved enough, then you may rely on just an editor to polish your grammar and punctuation. (Please note: Everybody, even the Text Doctor, can benefit from editing!)
On the other hand, if most of the feedback you get on your writing is not structural but editorial in nature (correcting punctuation, spelling, grammar, or word usage), then you should definitely engage an editor before you submit important documents that are likely to require the most feedback.
Sure, professional writing help is expensive! But it’s also expensive to lose a client, fail a class, or miss out on a promotion because your communication skills needed improvement.