How does this coaching stuff work?

Chapter 3 in “Coaching Writers” and Tom Huang’s “Three Key  Moments” article deal with specific strategies for working with writers. What struck you as novel, revelatory or worthwhile in this chapter?

For me, it’s a sentence in the “Editing Side by Side” sidebar on page 31: “Failure is normal and instructive.” That sure isn’t the way this perfectionist was raised. But I like Murray’s notion that “writing is experimental. We don’t know what works until we try it.” I need to embrace this more in my writing. And in life.

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31 responses to “How does this coaching stuff work?

  1. I believe trust is a vital part of coaching, and it is one of the main points of this chapter and the previous ones. “As a good editor, you must prove to the writer that no evil consequences will come from sharing work with you” (Clark, p. 26). Editors need to let writers know they will help the writers through the process. As Clark writes later, writers “look for editors with open minds and good hearts” (Clark, p. 26). Editors need to show they are willing work with their writers, not just butcher their copy and send them on their way.

    As Clark points out, “Failure is normal and instructive” (Clark, p. 31). Editors (and teachers) need to encourage questions and dialogue to keep writers heading in the right direction. Writers need the ability to feel they won’t be punished for failures if they are willing to fix the failures and learn from them.

    I also like how the web article and the chapter illustrated the coaching process happening in short stages. The web article talked about key points in the writing process. These key points focused on questions that need to be asked to keep the process moving in the right direction.

    As the chapter pointed out, these key points can be simply touching base with the reporter, so he/she “knows what needs to be done next” (Clark, p. 24). The conferences can work in 30-second to five-minute bursts. To my mind, it is more important to keep things brief and to the point, so the writer doesn’t get overloaded. People need to keep things moving in order to make deadlines.

    • Your comment about coaching “bursts” rings true for me. Often, when I’m conversing with an editor or teacher about my writing, he or she lists suggestion after suggestion. After the conversation, I scramble for a pen and paper before frantically recording my editor’s advice. Usually, I forget a suggestion or two. Additionally, when I return to my suggestion list after the conference, I don’t know where to begin editing. Coaching “bursts,” however, segment editing, making the process manageable and approachable.

  2. I really like the idea of asking the writer what he or she thinks of the article first–letting them do all the talking about what he or she thinks about the progress of the piece before anything else. I think editors have an instinctive urge when we sit down with writers to start pointing out what needs to be fixed and what went wrong right away without first letting the writer explain what might he or she thinks is the problem. I definitely know when I’ve submitted a flawed piece for whatever reason, so it’s a waste of time to have an editor have to recap what I already know is wrong with my story. I definitely think it’s best to let the writers explain what they know needs work first in order to not only save time but reach agreements. I also liked Clark’s point that it will leave less room for arguments. A lot of writers get angry when they get a story back and it’s bleeding red, as if they are shocked their work needed to be edited so much. By having the writer tell the editor, before the story is even edited, what they think they might need help with, the editor can provide more agreeable feedback. It’s a lot more of a collaborative approach, and I definitely agree with it.

    • Like Meagan, I have also submitted work I knew was shy of perfection. As the saying goes, “two heads are better than one.” Sometimes, I’ll bring some of my writing to a peer or professor with the specific intent of getting a second opinion on what I think is wrong with my piece. A pair of fresh eyes really does help to round off the rough edges.

      We all have unique ways of looking at things which can be very helpful. A question I may not have thought to ask an interview subject might be the first one in the mind of one of my fellow journalists.

      Though a “fixer” may lurk somewhere within us, the “collaborator” should be encouraged to the surface more often.

  3. Jennifer Heartley

    When I read this chapter I was only one paragraph in when I said this is definitely what I do. I may not always verbally ask for feedback, but I’m usually hoping for praise when I turn it in. I do respect helpful criticism though even if I’m not happy with what I’m told. But let’s be honest, every writer wants “good” feedback.

    I’ve had English professors at Drake ask me questions very similar to those listed in our textbook. At the time I didn’t realize it, but they were asking helpful questions that made me realize on my own how I could improve and make my story better. It’s amazing how those simple questions can make a piece of writing much better than if it was just edited for grammatical errors and typos.

    Having an editor sit side by side with you is a great way to edit for content. I don’t like the idea of the editor with the computer, because then they can change anything they like without any record of what you had before they “fixed” it. The article should still be gone through again after being printed off though, just in case. Even though we may not like “fixing”, we still have to keep in mind to check for grammatical errors and typos before the piece is published.

    The editor sitting with you at the computer is a great learning tool, because they’re merely making suggestions. You’re learning how to find what you can do to improve your writing on your own.

  4. The passage in “Coaching Writers” about discerning how the writer feels about their piece was enlightening. The authors said the writer may have some of the same misgivings about the story that the editor has. By asking the writer their feelings about the story they said the editor can possibly avert delivering bad news to the writer. This technique makes the process more of a team effort of working together instead of a superior versus subordinate dynamic. Asking the right questions to prompt the writer to come up with their own solution was another great technique for building up the writers self esteem in addition to their problem solving and writing abilities.

    When the authors talked about watching the body language of the reporter, it made me think of the editorial relationship with a freelancer, which is probably more common now than ever before with all the downsizing in the industry. Since it is not possible to determine body language if the reporter is at a remote location, at least speaking with the writer on the phone would provide a much clearer picture than communicating by email which does not include tone of voice or other clues.

    As far as the editing side by side technique, this might not work for everyone. In some cases, the writer could feel as if someone is looking over their shoulder, which can be intimidating and thwart their creativity and diminish the writing process.

    The questions in the online article were relevant and helpful, and I’d like to print them out as a reference for the editing and writing process.

    • I absolutely agree with Dawn that some sort of actual person-to-person contact is necessary during the editing process. In the past, I have submitted pieces electronically to have them edited. Though that is a convenient way to save paper, it is not always the most pleasing form of feedback.

      The review feature in Windows is a modern marvel, but it still does not provide you with facial expressions or eye contact. Emailed responses to stories are usually brief and lack the in-depth feedback you may want. If you sit down to revise your edited story, but have questions about your editor’s remark, sending another email will not provide instantaneous feedback.

      A face-to-face discussion or a simple phone call, as Dawn suggests, really is ideal compared to the tedious process of email tag.

    • I agree with your comment about the downfalls of side-by-side coaching. Editors adjust advice from story to story; likewise, editors should adjust coaching from writer to writer. For some writers, side-by-side coaching works best. For other writers, though, across-the-table coaching works best. Thus, editors should ask writers about their coaching preferences. By consulting writers about their preferences, editors support writers, and writers feel comfortable. A comfortable writer, in turn, focuses on the editor’s suggestions rather than on the editor’s eye looming over her shoulder.

  5. On page 23, the author starts to talk about satisfaction with your own work, making the point that just because a writer turns in his/her story doesn’t mean he/she is personally satisfied with the piece. I feel like the editor-writer dynamic is most often thrown off when the inherent hostility of the two egos can’t recognize each other’s vulnerability–both persons standing their ground, but not exactly knowing why. The book continues on to make the point that if the writer outwardly states what he/she doesn’t like (or what’s ‘not working’) about the story, then the awkward ‘bad news’ never needs to be delivered; the editor simply agrees with what the writer says.

    It’s hard to be open and vulnerable about your own work, and from my past experiences of being shy/standoffish/overly confident with an editor or someone giving me criticism, the ‘best work’ is not produced. Being honest and straight forward is difficult for ‘the passive-aggressive writer,’ but critical to growing and learning as a writer/editor/person.

    • I agree it is hard to take criticism and the natural reaction is to “take a stand” as you say and defend yourself. It’s especially hard when you create something such as a written piece of work – it can seem like a personal attack. I’ve learned that looking at it as feedback instead of criticism and an opportunity to improve instead of a putdown is a more effective and mature way to handle it – though it is hard if you are just told to change it a certain way to what someone else thinks it should be and you still disagree with the changes. The asking questions technique from the editor leaving the writer with some ownership and input over the changes would go a long way toward preventing sabotage from a writer with passive-aggressive tendencies.

  6. The part that stuck with me is that the writer should do most of the talking, not the editor. I have have had many instances where I, as a writer, was too afraid to speak up and I just let the editor do the talking. It is crucial to have the writer talk, because this is their work, not the editor’s. The editor should serve as a listener, closely paying attention to what the writer/reporter has to say. “When reporters talk, good editors must listen” (pg 23). A good editor will listen to what the reporter has to say, and pick out things to focus on. Editors need to let the writer/reporter develop the story and express their feeling on the process of writing, interviewing, and editing. The editor is there to help the writer find those places where their feelings aren’t as easy to express. They help find those holes or hurdles where the writer is tripping on.

    • That’s another good point, Cecily. Allowing the writer to do most of the talking is a sign that the editor is willing to listen and work with the writer. It takes a lot of faith from both sides to be willing to do this. “Only a confident editor can be open and patient enough to hear the writer out, to accept an emphasis that contradicts an editor’s presuppositions on how the story should turn out” (Clark p. 23). It takes a lot of self-control to hold back opinions, but there’s a time and a place for them. Since editors are responsible for the big picture, they need wait for the picture to develop.

      Editor’s task involves being a sounding board for the writer’s ideas. Editors don’t want to take any more time to edit a story than they have to. By helping a writer spot his/her own holes and hurdles, the editor gets the writer to fix their own work. The writer gets to maintain ownership of the story and keeps the editor from having to “fix it” under a deadline. Everyone wins.

  7. I think what struck me most about the entire chapter and the article was the extensive emphasis on questions. I’ve never seen so many questions suggested in the editing process, nor have I experienced as much conversation in a traditional editing situation.
    The idea does remind me of a conversation I had with Inman this past week. For the magazine publishing class, each of us are supposed to construct an idea for an extension of an existing brand via some type of media (magazine, app, iPad edition, etc.) I proposed my initial idea to him, scatterbrained and confused about my direction, and after a twenty minute conversation full of questions about audience, intention, scope and realistic expectations, I found myself focused on very specific goals. Not only that, but I was so excited to start working and crafting my product. Comparing this to a writing situation, I can think of very little that is more helpful to an assignment than an enthusiastic game-plan and reflection on key issues and goals. The power of a guided musing can go a long way.

    • I agree, Kerri. I think so much about writing is confidence, and if someone else endorses and supports you in a project, you are going to be much more likely to want to continue and to be proud of your work. In our reading, this is mentioned by Cynthia Gorney, when she says, “A great editor will make you feel like a real trouper, a truly talented person for being able to fix a story, for being able to send something in that’s flawed and then make it better.” An editor needs to be supportive and constructive in a way that allows the writer to continue to feel confident about his or her writing.

      • I think you made a good point about an editor being “supportive and constructive in a way that allows the writer to continue to feel confident about his or her writing.” This would be a good thing for an editor to keep in mind each time they are working with a writer. If you are destroying someone’s confidence or self esteem, then you are not doing a very good job of helping them develop their writing skills.

    • I agree with this, as well as with your comments about Inman. I am in that class as well and I had a really hard time focusing down my ideas, and was making things much too difficult for myself (as I have a tendency to do). He showed me that another idea I had was much more clear, and would yield a more concise and sensible result, instead of trying to mash a bunch of concepts together. Having someone who is willing to take the time to talk an idea through and won’t make you feel stupid is so valuable, and can make the process much more positive.

    • Kerri, I, too, was sort of surprised at the amount of questions, primarily in Huang’s article. A lot of editors give lots of commands and find many things wrong with a story. But the emphasis on primarily asking questions does seem like a more beneficial approach for the writer. That way writers will get better at finding their own errors and working through the problems with guidance. I found myself rereading Huang’s article so that I could remember the material for the next time I’m editing. Seemed like it’d be effective.

  8. It doesn’t seem like what I posted on Wednesday went through, so here it is again.

    In this portion of the text, I was reminded of that elementary school principle our teachers and parents were so eager to drill into our heads: the importance of listening.

    In “The Unnatural Act of Listening” section, Pohlman writes, “So how do you hone your listening skills? You have to want to listen” (28).

    When I was little, I never made the differentiation between hearing and listening. Both actions seemed to occur by way of using the ears. Listening, however, requires slightly more brain activity than hearing.

    An editor may hear what his or her reporter is saying, but, as Pohlman says, if he or she is truly listening, they must be focused and engaged. I found it very worthwhile and intriguing that this section of text helped the “father knows best” idea ring true once more.

    • Jennifer Heartley

      What Emily says reminds me of a phrase I heard often as a child. “When I talk to you, does it go in one ear and out the other?” And even more often i heard many people tell me that they believe I have “selective hearing”. (Although, I never seem to remember what they said before that made them make that statement.) There is a great difference between listening and hearing. To put a title on that difference, I would call it remembering. If you remember a few hours later what you were told, then you were listening. If not, then you were only hearing.

    • Emily, I think you brought up a good point about listening as did many of the people who responded to this post. I, too, can be guilty of this. I think a lot times when people talk we naturally start thinking of our responses to what they have just said, meanwhile, they are still talking and we can miss what else was said after the first sentence or two. Especially as editors whose job it is and whose tendencies are to think of many ideas at once it is a challenge to keep listening without losing the ideas that are coming to mind.

  9. The one thing in this chapter that I found interesting was the idea of coaching without even looking at a writer’s text. Page 30 says, “Leaving the piece in the writer’s hands allows the writer to control of it while it’s in process. The right questions help the writer decide what to do next and save the editor valuable time.” It then goes on to give an example of an editor talking the writer through his/her struggles and gets him/her to discover changes to be made on his/her own. Putting a writer through this process conditions the writer to think things through on their own before their piece even gets to the editing stage. Coaching, once again, is all about asking the right questions, and that can easily be done without a red pen on paper.

    I personally struggle to think outside the box sometimes when I am dealing with a really tough interviewee who maybe doesn’t speak my only fluent language (English) well, or who just doesn’t have much of a relevant story to tell. Having an editor who helps guide me through figuring out how to either find a story to tell or go in a new direction is extremely helpful.

    • Leah, I agree with your comment about editors helping writers “find” the story. After I finish reporting for a story, I often struggle to write. The blank Word document stares at me, pleading for the story I can’t yet find. Helpful editors, however, reduce my blank page paralysis by offering new ideas or reinforcing existent ideas.

  10. After reading “3 Key Moments,” I felt that it would be a great page to bookmark and look back on when writing articles myself. Thinking through those questions while deciding what questions to ask during an interview, or how to outline an article, would most likely save time and give a better, more developed draft.

    I also found the section in Coaching Writers about the non-verbal cues people can send when having a discussion. I feel like if someone has a strong opinion about an issue, they can often have a difficult time not expressing themselves through facial expressions and body language. We don’t realize how much others pick up on these little things, but mastering them could help discussions or negotiations go much more smoothly. The relationship between editor and writer can be very important, but can become tense if either feels like the other does not respect their opinions. Learning to master things like this while coaching could be of great value to the editing and writing process.

    • Lindsay, I completely agree about bookmarking the article by Huang. I think looking at them will be a huge help to self-edit and focus my stories from the get-go instead of realizing a major flaw in my idea after a lot of time and effort has been put into it. One of my favorite questions was to think about the beginning and ending of the story before even writing the first draft.

    • I agree with what you have said here, Lindsay. I also think that the “3 Key Moments” is something to keep in close reach when interviewing someone, outlining, and drafting. I think it is important to distinguish those three moments from each other and take those necessary steps for each moment.

      I also think the non-verbal cues section in the reading was also very important. Eye contact and nodding, to show understanding, are crucial non-verbal cues that both the editor and the writer need to express to show they are paying attention and understanding one another.

  11. Coaching Writers, by title alone, suggests writer development. In Chapter 3, though, Fry and Clark suggest editor development. Before reading Chapter 3, upon hearing the word ‘editor,’ I immediately pictured an all-knowing editor with his red pen, booming voice, and expletive repertoire.

    After reading Chapter 3, though, I realized editors aren’t all-knowing. In fact, to improve their writers, editors should likewise pursue improvement: “Every editor should have a toolkit filled with strategies on how to confer with writers. These can be practiced until perfected” (22). Namely, one simple strategy captured my attention: sitting side-by-side rather than across a table. Sitting across a table divides writer and editor, both literally and figuratively. By sitting behind his desk, the editor brandishes his authority, making writers feel inferior. By sitting beside writers, however, the editor shows cooperation. Plus, by sitting beside the writer, the editor shows respect for the writer’s role on staff.

    Simplicity underlined every suggestion for consulting with writers, which I appreciated. From sitting beside writers to asking the same questions repeatedly to pinpointing positives, coaching is neither complex nor taxing. Additionally, Fry and Clark’s tips are approachable and applicable even for a novice writer and editor like myself.

    • Nicole Kasperbauer

      Taylor, I agree with the approach of sitting side-by-side. The approach shows that there can be a true relationship between the editor and writer, creating a better writer in the long run. I liked the fact that you were able to mention how this approach is incorporated into your lifestyle. It makes it seem very realistic and true to a real life situation.

  12. I especially liked the idea that you don’t necessarily even need to have read a writer’s story in order to give them productive and helpful editing advice/strategies. Often, when I read someone else’s writing, I will see places where they can take the writing, and my suggestions often push them to take the article where I want it to go, rather than where they – the writer – want it to go. I would never have considered editing a work had I not read it, but after reading this chapter, I now know that this is in fact a very beneficial way to go about editing. It’s all about the questions that you ask. And because editing is often about a writer’s ability to know when something needs to be changed, and as long as you are asking questions that push the writer to examine his or her own idea’s about what’s wrong with the article, your lack of knowledge about the article isn’t really going to matter.

  13. Nicole Kasperbauer

    Chapter three talks deeply about the stages of writing on page 26 of Coaching Writers. Writers need the chance to test what the readers are looking for and what they want/need to read. That is what a great editor is for.

    Editors need to hear from the writer what the focus of the story is based on and how they are going to approach the story’s main idea. Constructive criticism is well needed in the editing process for the readers to learn, expand and develop a better understanding for a better article for the reader. Editor’s are there for any extra help the writer is unaware of or in denial about.

    All of these guides mold into Tom Huang’s article “3 key moments to identify when coaching writers.” That is most importantly why I think these simple but extremely important steps stood out to me in this chapter.

    • Nicole, I agree with you that the purpose of editors is to give writers extra help for subjects the writer is unaware of or in denial about. I often produce writing and feel like it is almost perfect until an editor goes at it and comes up with many things I completely overlooked or tried to convince myself it was of importance.

  14. I have very little experience “coaching writers”. In fact, even after all of these readings it still feels foreign to me. I think that the book makes a really good point about what coaching writers should really consist of: asking questions and letting the writer find their own way. Being an athlete all of my life I’ve gotten very used to listening to a coach, taking their criticism, and trying your best to improve on what they talked to you about.

    On the contrary, both the book and Huang focus on letting the writer speak and answer questions. I really liked the questions that Huang focused on asking your writer, especially “what surprised you most?”. It’s not something that I would originally think of asking a writer but I think that it’s something that could result in a really great anecdote to a story.

    Another thing about asking questions is the importance of shutting up and letting the writer speak. Although I don’t have much experience with editing, I do have some experience with running television productions and I needed this advice a lot earlier. In most production classes my way of improving things was to tell people what was wrong and tell them to fix it. Not really that effective. I think that a lot of writers/videographers really do know what they’re doing wrong, they just need help realizing it and flat out telling them isn’t the best way to approach the problems.

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