Reflections on “Coaching Writers” reading

Our class is reading “Coaching Writers” by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute and Don Fry, a noted Poynter writing coach. We are reflecting on the differences between editors who “coach” and editors who “fix.” The students in the class are posting their responses to the following two questions, but we invite anyone to join our conversation.

1. Who should control a story, the reporter/writer or the editor? Why?

2. Think about your experience with editors or with teachers who have graded your journalistic writing. Were they primarily “coaches” or “fixers”? Give examples of the kind of feedback you received from them, and what you learned from that feedback. Which kind of editor did you prefer? If you have done some editing, which kind of editor are you? Which kind do you want to be? If you share unhappy tales of an editor or teacher, please don’t include their names. Feel free, however, to name the editors you praise.

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15 responses to “Reflections on “Coaching Writers” reading

  1. In most scenarios i believe that a writer should control the story because it is their name on the byline and their reputation at stake. Also, they (typically) put their blood, sweat and tears into a project and editors should remember that any piece by a writer is the result of their time and effort, NOT the editors.

    My high school newspaper copy editor was by far the best that I have worked with on a regular basis. She understood whole-heartedly what writers put into their work and focused her editing on the improvement of our work, but writers always had the final say in the matter (except when it came to grammatical errors). She understood that we had researched, interviewed, and invested the time to write the story and only interfered if we had veered from the initial intent of the story.

    I assumed the position of copy editor after she had left and tried my best to continue the style of editing that she had put in place. I realized later how difficult it is to keep your opinion out of the matter when going through other people’s stories. I had to bite my tongue when i just wanted to scream “you call this a story?” I did the best I could, but had a new appreciation for the patience it takes to be a good editor.

  2. Molly Rasmussen

    I agree with Clark and Fry when they state that both the editor and the writer should have control over the story. I think the basis of the control should be in the writer’s hands because they are the ones who have put in a majority of the work and it is their name that will be attached to the article. However, I do think that the editor should exhibit some control over the story, because it is their responsibility to make sure that the story is ready and perfect in order to go to print.

    In high school I mainly experienced the fixer type of editor. My teachers would take the dreaded red pen and mark all over my paper. They would also write paragraphs about what I did wrong and how their thoughts would be better in my paper. I once had a teacher who was extremely religious and insisted that I included something about religion in every one of my papers for her class. Since coming to college I have experienced the coaching type of editor. My professors choose to guide my writing by giving helpful feedback and by asking questions that pull out more information to make the story more compelling. I have to say that I prefer the coaching editor to the fixer. I have learned so much more and developed more in my writing through my professors coaching then I did when I just simply had someone telling me what to write or discouraging me from even trying to write my own thoughts. I like the freedom, but also the guidelines that coaching gives to me as a writer. I appreciate it when a professor takes the time to coach my writing. I can tell that they are trying to help me improve and it makes me want to work harder for them.

  3. In any situation I firmly believe that the writer/reporter should be in charge of the piece/story. As much knowledge as an editor may be able to offer in terms of “fixing” the editor still did not cover the story and is therefore unqualified in making changes as to the happening or events within a story. It seems that in the worst of cases, editors tend to or have made the piece something it was not intended to be by the writer/reporter. It is then that the editor should be a coach and still give the writer/reporter the necessary tools to feel like he/she is in control of the piece while not compromising the integrity of the piece.
    As to the second part: I’ve been very fortunate to have mostly “coach” type experiences. I’ve been able to speak with my high school and collegiate journalism educators and we’ve been able to make my pieces a collaborative effort between myself and them. By asking questions, I was able to focus my attention on areas of my piece that were strong and worth telling and forgetting other parts that may have been weak and that would not otherwise connect with the readers.
    I was also the Editor-in-Chief at my school paper and when I got papers back I would like to be helpful in my approach and always schedule meetings with writers such that the final work represented what they truly meant it to be originally.

  4. Collaboration is key when ‘controlling’ a story. It should be neither the editor nor the writer’s full responsibility to control a piece. With the editor and the reporter working together (which can sometimes be a luxury and not expected), the piece is likely to be at its best.

    As the book states, “collaboration need not mean dependency, because coaching fosters independence in writers…to build confidence of the writer, the coaching editor uses sincere praise as a tool. To improve a story, the editor helps the writer identify what works in a story. Then the pair can concentrate on what needs work.”

    Therefore, not only does the writer have the control over the facts, tone, ‘voice, etc. of the story, but the editor also is able to control the more grammatical aspect of the piece and ensure that it would fit well into the final product, be it a newspaper, magzine, etc.

  5. Heather Shoning

    Let me say up front that I am magazines and that is what I think of while answering these questions.

    I think the control over a story is shared by the writer and editor. If the editor takes the time in the beginning to properly convey what type of story she is looking for and discusses possible directions for the writer to go, there should not be a huge gap between what she expects and what she receives. Then there will not be fundamental problems with the story. What is left is the opportunity for the editor to guide the writer in making changes to any less-than-stellar parts. This method of partnering on the project allows the editor to get the big-picture story she is looking for, and the writer doesn’t have to contend with her work being hacked up before it goes to print.

    I survived an instance where an editor changed my work without any type of discussion, and I felt in my heart that her changes were not better writing. In fact, one change included a reference to something that I felt was very tacky and not in keeping with the caliber of the item being described. Really, it was just icky. I was astounded by how tacky it was. Anyway, I decided that I needed an explanation for the changes and she did sit down with me to go over each one. At one point she said she changed it because she could and this is what she wanted it to say.

    I realize that as the editor she has the right to do that if she really wants to, but I felt like I was being robbed out of having my own words published simply because of her whim. I was also being cheated out of the opportunity to have real constructive criticism from her and others who would read the piece later. It was a sad experience, but one that taught me right out of the gate that when I am in that position I will not conduct myself that way, and I will strive to help those people who are looking up to me for guidance and as a role model.

  6. I feel like I have had a combination of ‘fixers’ and ‘coachers’ in my writing experience. In high school in particular, the editors seemed to consist of mainly fixers with the dreaded red pen and marks throughout the paper. However, it seems that in college, professors and editors of DrakeMag seem to be more concerned with the learning and growth process of the writer rather than ruining an an article and the writer.

    I cannot recall any particular moment where I had an editor either upset or inspire me. I’ve always secretly enjoyed the red marks and flipping through my paper to see what was wrong (or in some cases, what was right, which makes it even more fun!). Sounds nerdy yes, but there is something about flipping through the paper and discovering what was good or bad and then finally seeing your grade on the last page.

    I hope I can be the type of editor that combines the tools of fixing and coaching, each in moderation. Because I have no extreme negative or positive experiences regarding editors, I hope that I could be like those who edited my work and helped made it an overall positive experience.

  7. I feel the writer should always have more control over the story than the editor. First, the writer is the one who has put in the man hours researching, writing, revising, and rewriting the piece. It is a part of them, something they have produced that is exclusively theres. I think it is the editors job to be more of a guidance counselor on the piece. I know there have been times when I have spent hours writing and revising something that I thought was great. However, there is always room for improvement and having an unbiased and unattached eye on a piece is always useful. I think suggestions, guidance and minor changes are things an editor should have control over but if there is something wrong with the story or the content of the piece itself, it should be discussed thoroughly with the writer and in their control to make significant changes.

    I have also had a mixture of “coaches” and “fixers.” In highschool I had a teacher who was a wonderful “coach.” She would always meet one on one with me about my pieces and give me explanations for why something would work better than what I had. I learned a great deal from her and still think about some of her lessons today. I have also had other teachers who have made strict guidelines on what a piece is supposed to obtain and the order it has to go in. Even though the particular story I was writing worked better one way, I had to change it to something I was not happy with because of the requirements for the assignment. I really didn’t take much away from that lesson because, no matter how hard I tried, the piece ended up unnatural and choppy.

    I hope I can be the type of editor who takes the personality of my writers into account when reading their pieces. I want to know how they feel about a piece and what they went through to write it. I hope I would be very communicative and open with them. I also hope I would offer constructive critisicm that would encourage them to write more and write better than they ever had before.

  8. I think the role of an editor is both to “fix” and to “coach,” although coaching should be their man focus. The editor fixes the small things the writer might miss, such as stylistic and grammatical details that will make the story fit smoothly into the publication. But coaching the writer on his/her assignment and the changes the editor would like is their main focus. As much as I agree that the writer should have control of the story, ultimately it is the editors job to make necessary changes even if the writer disagrees. A good editor will try to work with the writer on these changes, but it is essentially in the editor’s hands in the end.

    I have worked with both “fixers” and “coaches” before and I feel I’ve learned something from both types. The coaches really made me feel valued and talented, though, which makes all the difference.

  9. As far as who should “control” the story, I think that the editor has the final say in every scenario. Of course the writer should have the opportunity to pitch his/her ideas, but I believe with the editor, the buck stops here. After all, the editor usually has longer experience than the writer and worked longer to earn that position. An editor should know the readers’ needs inside and out; therefore, have final say in a story.

    As far as my own experience, the editors at my internships acted more like “coaches” and the editors on campus publications acted more like “fixers.” I usually prefer editors that I’ve worked with at my internships because they are the role models that student editors all strive to be someday. Plus, I learn more information from the “coaches” versus the “fixers.” Unfortunately, I’ve had an experience as a student writer when a student editor placed incorrect punctuation and grammar throughout my story. It was a little upsetting considering my name was in the byline and the mistakes reflected on me. I even received feedback from readers saying they noticed the incorrect punctuation. Thankfully, it’s a learning experience for everyone when it comes to student publications. Hopefully I won’t run into that problem in the “real world.”

  10. As a writer, I’d like to think that I have complete control over an article. However, The editor should have final control over a story. Presumably, an editor has a keener sense of what would be in the paper’s best interests to publish. I’m not saying that editors have full right to rip a story to shreds, but they certainly can decide whether a writer’s work can be published and potentially help the newspaper. News media is a business; it needs a good profit to survive.

    Nearly every “editor” I had in high school was a fixer. While this worked for technical assignments, it was mind-numbingly frustrating for creative writing. My Senior year, my newspaper instructor was a coach. His style startled me so much that, at first, I never wanted to accept his line of questioning. I felt it was an attack on me, not something meant to be constructive.

    As an editor, I’ve unfortunately been a fixer. This is primarily due to the fact that I wanted to take an article and write it from my perspective. I’m working on changing that, but old habits die hard…

  11. While I don’t think an editor should ever change a writer’s ideas or “control” a story, I do believe editing is what makes a story successful. An editor sees a story from a fresh perspective, which brings up unanswered questions and makes the story clearer and more focused. Not only does editing improve a story, but it also makes it fit the style and voice of a publication. I think an editor has an ethical responsibility to discuss changes with the writer, but an editor’s suggestions ultimately improve a story and readers’ satisfaction.

    My teachers and editors primarily “coach” me with my writing, rather than just “fixing” it. Most teachers pose questions in the margins and circle things that are unclear or irrelevant. At my internship, I receive suggestions as well as direct corrections, then rework the copy myself until it’s ready to go to print. And lastly, when writing for DrakeMag, I meet with editors to discuss questions/concerns and submit corrections the following week. This type of editing is constructive and appreciated.

    From the perspective of an editor, now, I’d like to think I am a “coach.” But when it comes down to it, sometimes I can’t help but fix something that’s not quite right. Especially if there’s a deadline approaching.

  12. As was mentioned in the readings, many professionals prefer to look at editor/reporter relationships as partnerships above anything else. A reporter’s primary objective is to collect information and communicate it to the readers, an editor’s job is to decide what content is communicated and to make sure the message is as effective as possible. Reporters couldn’t exist without editors, and visa versa, so I feel they share control of the stories produced.

    I see I’m echoing other responses in saying most of my high school editors were fixers as opposed to coaches. They were more than happy to make squiggly red marks all over my double spaced reports, but it was rare for one of my instructors or peers to leave a comment that I could use to improve my writing.

    The best example of a coach I have worked with thus far would have to be Greg Smith, the City Editor at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. While working as the PC’s reporting intern this summer I noticed that Greg did many of the things the book mentioned. He would always make sure the writers understood the assignments and he tried to debrief us when we returned to the newsroom. Greg often pulled reporters over to discuss story reorganization, and he always addressed issues so that reporters still felt like they had control over the story.

  13. I believe it is the editor’s responsibility to clearly relay a story’s desired direction to the writer from the very beginning. Once that is determined, the writer should have creative freedom in deciding how to approach that result. The difficulty I have run into comes from editors who give only a vague explanation of what they are looking for, and then complain in the end that the finished story isn’t what they had in mind. While the editors should and need to have control over the topic and content, writers must be allowed their own style, methods and voice, as it is ultimately their name on the byline.

    I am always discouraged working under fixers because I feel the changes are theirs and not my own. Coaches help me to figure out the solutions to the problems myself, and I’m always prouder of the way those pieces turn out. I try to remember this when editing another writer’s work; fixing succeeds on a grammatical level, but coaching ultimately brings out the best results.

  14. It’s hard to imagine, as a writer, that one could spend so much time and put in so much effort only to have no control over one’s article, which is why my first instinct is to say that the writer should control the story. However, the editor has to share control of the article because no writer’s instincts are flawless 100% of the time, and the editor has the big picture view that the writer may not be conscious or mindful of. Ideally, the writer and editor are working from a basis of trusting each other and working toward a successful story.

    I’ve never had any traumatic editing experiences, luckily. My J54 professor neither fixed nor coached, which is disappointing in hindsight. I was copy editor for my yearbook, so I was there to fix once the story has been successfully coached. Sometimes my sentences get convoluted and I need my editor to remind me to simply and clarify. Kellye Carter Crocker was great at helping me express ideas as directly as possible while keeping my own style in the piece.

    Heather, you must share the tacky phrase that was edited in!

    (Professor Van Wyke, in the interest of the visiting public’s impressions of the blog, the first sentence of the post should say “passed away” and there should be another set of quotation marks on fixers in the second question, no?)

  15. Brigitte Haugen

    The writer is the author of the story, the one who created its complete sentences from scribbled shorthand. The writer is the one who labored physically, mentally, and perhaps even emotionally to compile the words, phrases, and paragraphs to tell the story, move the readers, and evoke emotion, passion, or action. When given the freedom and control, with a guiding hand by the editor, the writer may take creative turns they’d never imagined possible.

    A good editor should give the writer more control over the story because the writer is like a mother: she was the one who gave birth to it. But the editor must be close by, like the father, helping out wherever possible and creating a safe and healthy atmosphere for the story to grow; but when the story takes a wrong turn, the editor/father should take control and fix the error.

    I have worked with both kinds of editors, but prefer the coach to the fixer. I value the input of fixers as they bring to light things I didn’t notice, and oftentimes offer creative ideas as to where to go next with my story. I like coaches better, though, because they work alongside me and are patient. My cousin Kenny is a great coach. While working on a paper for a high school English course, I called him at 1:00 am U.S.-time, but 6:00 am London-time. He stayed up for a half hour and coached me through it – what a trooper!

    I once had an editor who was barely there. I think s/he was either too busy with his/her own schooling or just didn’t understand what a good editor does. I needed guidance, but I received nothing from my editor or the staff besides solemn faces and pursed lips. I needed someone unreservedly approachable, but sadly, I was afraid of my editor. And it got worse as time went on. His/her icy demeanor and standoffishness toward me waxed as my confidence in myself and my writing waned. I stopped trying and turned in crap. To put a long rant short, I failed. Hopefully I will regain faith in myself as a writer, as well as have a better experience in the future with an editor.

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