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.


37 responses to “How does this coaching stuff work?

  1. Marissa Mumford

    To me, the most striking element of the reading was an example provided on page 27, where the authors describe Kansas City Star editor Ray Lyle’s approach. Lyle would always ask his writers a simple question: “What happened?” As elementary and basic as that may seem, it is also incredibly helpful. For me, writing succinctly can be difficult, and even more so when I have spent hours interviewing individuals and doing research. In the past, I have on occasion had the ironic issue of having too many “good” quotes. In the end, having too many quotes and not enough facts took away from the story. Taking a step back and asking myself “What am I trying to say? What is the story here? What is the focal point?” has been the best way for me to strip my story down to the essentials.
    This also closely relates to the quartet article we looked over in class. Beyond the sloppy work and grammatical errors, the major issue was the lack of focus. The writer made it very difficult to understand the essential: what happened? What is important for me, as the reader, to understand?
    Being reminded that there must always be a focus point is an excellent way to move towards a newsworthy article.

    • Brian Taylor Carlson

      This part of the chapter echoed of last semester when I had an amazing professor for the first half of Writing & Reporting Principles who would ask “What else?” as we were discussing current news stories at the beginning of every class. I looked forward to that part of class everyday. I will never forget him, and I will always have “What else?” in my head each time I write a story. I wholeheartedly agree that even the most basic and elementary of questions has the power to provoke creative thought processes in order to make a story a masterpiece.

    • I too have had that ironic issue of having too many “good” quotes and it is sometimes difficult to choose which ones to include because they are all so crucial to the story. I think that those questions too will help ease that filtering-out process and bring better insight to the essentials as you said. Great point!

    • Kristen Bramhall

      It seems like the best editors are the ones who are confident in their writers, and know that they are equipped with skills and information to convey their story. They ask the important questions, the ones that they know will help the writer to get the story the way the writer wants it to be for themselves, and the way the editor needs it to be to print. And you’re right it does seem so basic, but at the same time not very many editors and coaches can do it successfully.

  2. Avery Gregurich

    In Coaching Writers, Roy Peter Clark brings up a particularly interesting tension that arises between writers and editors. This tension arises when a first or rough draft of a story is done, and the writer feels that the execution of the piece isn’t as strong as it could be. In short, the piece is severely flawed but the writer isn’t sure of how to change the article. Frustrated, he throws into the editor’s office or email account with a note saying, “This is the best I can do,” or something of the like. From then on out, the editor is treading thin ice. If you attack the article with only a red pen and no suggestions, the writer will become even more agitated at further degrading by offering nothing but flaws rather than solutions. On the other hand, if the editor is too accommodating and attempts to “play nice” with the frustrated writer, the article will not receive the attention it deserves and the audience will suffer from its inadequacy. The book’s suggestion of simply talking it out with the writer and finding out what they already know will perhaps work in some instances. I feel that the book’s suggestion of disregarding the “wall” that editors often put up is good advice. Working side by side during the editing of a first draft, (if this is possible), will produce the greatest potential for a story to progress and become something worthy of being printed.

    As far as the “failure is instructive” comment, I will agree that some of the biggest steps I’ve taken as a writer have come from pieces that I struggled mightily with. Frustrating at the time, but grateful for those experiences as time goes steadily on.

    • I also agree with the author when he talks about disregarding the wall. If the writer knows he hasn´t done a good job and he is already frustated, it would not get better if the editor tells him how bad it is or give it back to him with a lot of red corrections. With a short talk, the editor can understand why the writer is frustrated and help him intead of being a “fixer” and correcting everything.

  3. I really appreciated the idea of consulting without reading the writer’s work. The author suggests consulting as a way to keep himself from taking over the story and “fixing” it, but I see a flip side to that.
    While working on a story, a writer may hit a mental wall and become discouraged. At that point they may hand their story off to the editor under the pretense of seeking advice, but in reality the writer is trying to shed responsibility off to the editor. If the editor refrains from reading the story, at least until it’s well established, it keeps both parties honest and the writer is fully engaged.

    • Marissa Mumford

      I completely agree, this an excellent point I hadn’t necessarily considered. It’s completely novel to consider that part of a coaching process may not even include reading the piece, but speaking to the writer could very well reduce the amount of edits that need to be done in the end. Sometimes, a writer simply needs a fresh perspective on the ideas he already has, and a simple conversation with a more experienced individual often provides essential insight.

    • I totally agree, I never though something as simple as that would help in order to be a coach intead of a fixer. It is true that you can become a fixer once you have the paper on your hands but if you just listen to the writer and ask a few questions, you can be helpfull and the story would still be the writer´s.

    • The whole hands-off thing at the beginning of the process was a shock to me but shows total trust in the writer. I think that this technique really would make a writer feel that the editors have that confidence in their work. I know that the suspense the editor has (I know I would anyway) while “waiting” to actually read the article would almost make them more eager to ask those good questions and offer that great advice and mentoring. This might not be such a bad idea.

    • I never thought that someone could convince me that hands-off editing would be a potentially successful tactic, but this makes a lot of sense. It’s too easy to become frustrated with a discouraged writer and just decide to take over the story, but this isn’t going to help the writer grow or enhance my coaching skills as an editor.

    • Jennifer Gardner

      It’s a great point that writers sometimes try to pass the buck to their editors when they are frustrated or struggling with a story. While it initially seemed counterintuitive to me to have the editor just discuss the article instead of reading it, I can definitely see why it would be beneficial to discuss the article in general terms before reading it. That would also help avoid a writer getting unnecessarily harsh or picky feedback on a story that they’re just beginning to develop.

  4. Kristen Bramhall

    For me, the idea that stood out was mentioned on page 24 of Coaching Writers, “Conversation between reporter and editor leads to a shared vision of the key problems in the story.” Editors and reporters have two different roles to play in the publication of a story, but neither would be very successful in working with the other if they did not immediately start out in the same corner. I agree that conversations need to happen in regard to what needs to be fixed, but also about what the story should aim to do, and why the story is newsworthy. Tom Huang’s guidelines for Key moment #2 mirror this need for collaboration and conversation. Allowing the reporter to share with the editor their opinions and take on the story gives the editor the chance to be prepared for what their reporter might be writing. If necessary, the editor can ask what exactly the reporter is getting at through the story, and narrow down on other finer points, such as quotes, possible tensions within the story, and how this story can be different from other similar stories.
    I think it would be encouraging to work with an editor that was open to hearing the reporter’s side of the story before immediately jumping in and changing the story to be how they interpret it. Collaboration between both editor and reporter is crucial for the story to be published accurately and well-written.

    • I agree. At least in my experience, it has been rare that I have any sort of real communication with an editor before I have written the first draft of my story. Oftentimes, I will work hard on a piece, only to turn in my first draft and find that it is not at all what my editor was looking for. If I had met with my editor before I had begun writing, or even before I had begun reporting, the chances of writing a quality first draft would increase dramatically.

    • I really liked what you had to say about editors and writers needing to be in the same corner from the beginning. If the editor allows the writer to present their idea from the get-go, then it goes beyond being instructional. The writer begins to become their own editor and build their confidence.

  5. Brian Taylor Carlson

    Chapter three was highly insightful, but I just couldn’t help feeling like I was being taught how to become a parent like Mike Brady from the ‘The Brady Bunch’ reruns to reporters and writers in the newsroom. My biggest takeaway was on pg. 22 with the introduction of the concept of “conferences,” or “consultive editing.” The writer should be made to feel comfortable and confident enough to enter into dialogue with the editor throughout the entire process of producing a top-quality story with little or no editing necessary by deadline. As long as there is open communication from start to finish, along with constant feedback, support and motivational pep talk, a writer may be coaxed into a state of mind that is necessary for perfecting a story. That extra added push might be all that is needed. The piece by Tom Huang seemed to be a condensed reinforcement of the methods that Donald Murray presents on pp. 25-26. The message is clear in that during the development of a story from start to finish, the editor should be a committed and supportive driving force for that writer. I also found the sections on body language and verbal cues to be valuable. So often, we lose sight of how important your stance, eye contact and facial expressions truly are. When a writers feel like what they say is important and that they matter, it will be easier for them to write from the heart. Sometimes, it is just that simple. At other times you may be fighting fires but what truly matters at the end of the day is that you were able to get that writer’s story set to ink before deadline, with the satisfaction in knowing that you were able to accomplish it by being a coach.

    • Ariella Miesner

      I definitely agree with your point about body language and verbal cues. For the last seven years I have been a hairstylist, and while I wasn’t an editor to writers, I did have to coach my guests on how to do their hair. It was always crucial that my body language and verbiage communicated that I cared and understood their hair issues. I often witnessed my co-workers neglecting this area and it always resulted in the guest not coming back.

      • Marissa Mumford

        I think it is so fascinating to study how editing successfully is just like communicating successfully in every other area of life.
        Although an editing relationship must of course remain professional, being an editor does not make you “above” your writers. Having better writing skills and more experience should be used as a tool to aid others, not a way to get ahead of them or make them feel small. Appropriate body language and verbal cues are a great to affirm writers and make them feel understood, not belittled.

    • I found the body language section to be incredibly valuable as well. We have become used to just communicating via email, and often times tones and meanings are misconstrued. I want my writers to feel like they are worthy of my time and communicating face-to-face with me. As a writer, I have often felt like a burden to my editor when I request a meeting. I feel small and unimportant if I’m simply brushed off and told to just email my problems.

    • Jennifer Gardner

      I love the comment about the body cues. Especially in the younger generation, we are becoming less adept at communicating face-to-face and interpreting body language. It’s definitely an important skill to have, and I think it’s one that gets neglected a lot, especially when people are in a rush. Reporters aren’t stupid, and they can tell when an editor isn’t sincere. By putting a little more thought into whether our body language is matching our verbal language, we can become more effective communicators, both as editors and as people.

  6. For me, Chapter 3 is really about understanding not only what needs to be done in terms of the stories they oversee the writing of, but more importantly, the writers themselves. Merely asking questions in an attempt to understand a writer’s feelings toward a story, an editor can provide the writer with a direction without giving orders. Being perceptive of tone of voice and body language when asking these questions only furthers that understanding and can help an editor continue to coach, rather than fix. But more importantly, an editor should strive to form relationships with his or her writers to create a comfortable environment where information is free-flowing. One of the worst things an editor can be is apathetic to the needs and concerns of his or her writers. But by showing genuine interest, an editor can foster a healthy, trusting relationship grounded in open communication.

    As the reading explained, these “conferences” between the editor and writer need not be more than a few seconds, and can involve something as simple as a reassuring smile. But I do think that it is important for an editor to constantly be available and eager to listen to writers, whether they think they need guidance or not. Editors are not be like the Wizard of Oz–frighteningly omniscient, grumbling shut-ins who are only willing to help at the very last minute. Understanding the human element of the writing process by way of empathy and curiosity are so crucial in fostering growth among writers. Always hearing, “It’s good,” or, “It’s bad,” do not inspire confidence in a writer, nor do they help the writer truly articulate the quality of their writing. An editor who takes the time to be approachable and provide writers with feedback equipped with “why” and not just “what” are going to help writers the most.

    • Avery Gregurich

      Your distinction of the difference between “why” and “what” is particularly accurate. In my experience, the “what” has helped get the piece to print, but the “why” would have taught me much more about the writing and editing process.

  7. Jennifer Gardner

    The part that stuck with me the most was at the bottom of page 23 when the author brings up how important it is to ask the reporter how they feel about their own work. I think that, as editors, we often feel that we have the right opinion and that our reporters are turning in work they’re satisfied with. I think that taking the time to listen to the writer’s feedback on how they think their piece is progressing is a vital step in transitioning into becoming mentors. Writers aren’t stupid, and oftentimes they know if a particular sentence or story approach isn’t working out well. Like the book said, it’s a lot easier to address a problem when the reporter brings it up themselves, so I think that was a valuable suggestion. It also helps fill in gaps in the story because the editor can get a feel for what the writer knows about the topic and how they feel about it which may illuminate vital tidbits the reporter didn’t include the first time around.

    The line that “failure is normal and instructive” also stuck out to me because my perfectionist nature was against it the second I read it. Unfortunately, failure is part of success, and I need to get used to the idea of failure in order to be successful. No one wants to fail, especially in the media where your failures can be very public and spectacularly ridiculed. I need to get comfortable taking those risks in order to push myself. Great pieces come when you take risk, so I need to be prepared to face failure in order to accomplish anything.

    • Avery Gregurich

      Your point about “public failure” is very accurate. Journalists are constantly battling between getting the “truth” out to the public and protecting the subjects involved. In being the medium between public and information, you are constantly aware of your obligations, not only to your audience, but also to yourself and editor.

  8. This chapter could not have hit home for me any harder than it did. I personally have had some horrific experiences with editors not asking me those “good questions” and actually listening to my concerns or excitement about a particular article. Those editors always were able to make my self-worth as a dedicated writer sort of diminish and I myself would sort of turn into that “robot” of a writer because that is the sort of treatment I was receiving from the editor. This chapter stressed a lot of great points but I feel that having that good feedback and personally I prefer editing side by side as Donald Murray states on page 31. I think it is similar to texting a person and things getting misunderstood in the process because you are unable to show facing expressions, body language, and emotion unless you are having that face-to-face conversation.

    I had an aha moment when the book described an editor repeating the same question several times to the writer in order to not only help the writer see the persistence and concern from the editor, but as a writer they too will gain better insight on the purpose or importance of their article that they may have not thought of before.

    • That’s a great analogy about how editing can sometimes be more like texting than talking to a person face to face. If the writer and editor were to sit down together, side by side, the chances of them having clear communication (like talking face to face) would greatly increase. There would be much less misunderstanding and the writer would be more likely to write a story that fits the vision of the editor.

    • I love the texting reference! It brought up memories of when I have had editors in the past email me the changes to my articles. This is so unproductive! I would have to get it edited many more times because points would get lost in translation. But I do remember one teacher who had me stay after class so I could watch her edit my article. It was weird at first, but I was soon agreeing with everything she pointed out now that I was able to see why she marked what she did.

  9. The most interesting and worthwhile piece of information that I gained from this chapter was the emphasis that Clark and Fry put on short, frequent conferences with writers. In my experience as a writer, I have always thought of conferences with my editor as relatively long, sit-down meetings where the editor looked over my work and told me what I needed to revise. Each piece I write generally gets two conferences with the editor, one after both the first and second drafts.

    Clark and Fry are clear that this is not how conferences should be conducted. On page 22, they write “The editor may suggest an alternative approach, or may just had it back to the writer with a nod of approval. Even a grunt or a smile can be a conference.”

    I think that this is a very different and intriguing way to look at the editorial process. If the editor is in constant contact with their writers, longer conferences where the editor is trying to tell them everything that needs to be changed won’t be as critical. With constant feedback, the writer will be able to make those changes on their own. The writer will also feel that they have the support of their editor if they receive signs of approval throughout the writing process. A great editor will recognize this, and this constant feedback will help their writers to become great.

    • Kristen Bramhall

      I agree with your thoughts on short, frequent conferences. In my mind I always thought that feedback would have to be something concrete and provide more direction than just a “grunt.” I can see how both versions, and everything in between, can provide the writer with some guidance. As a writer, I do appreciate more constructive and fulfilling conferences, but there is obviously not enough time for a conference like this every time a writer needs guidance.

  10. I really liked when the author explains how good editors ask the writers how do they feel about their work before they try to change it. I think the answer to this is helpfull to the editor to know if the writer thinks he has something good or not. Sometimes, when we write something, we don´t like it but turn it in because we have to or because there is a deadline and we didn´t have time enought to make it better. If the editor knows we know it is not a good job, his fixing is going to be different because he knows we can do better than that but we just couldn´t turn in something better for some reason. If the editor thinks we have tried our best and it is not good, his fixing will be harder and he will think we can´t do better than that.

    Sometimes I have a good idea but when I try to write it I can´t do it as good as I though. Sometimes I can´t find a good begining or a good ending or I just can´t write exactly what I have in my mind and I get frustrated. If the editor knows that I have a good idea but I couldn´t write it as I wanted to, he would probably help me and I would know how to change it and make it a good job.

    • Ariella Miesner

      I also liked this “question” suggestion. Not only does the editor get an idea of how the writer feels about his/her work, but it also allows the writer to reflect one last time before handing it over, and ultimately holds the writer
      accountable for his/her work. I’m noticing that to be a common theme in the coaching method.

      • Amanda Goodwin

        You make a great point. I definitely think that a key part of coaching is to make the writer feel entitled to their work and to continue to make to hold them accountable.

  11. The part of the chapter that stuck out to me the most was “Even a grunt or a smile can be a conference.” I have grown accustomed to finishing a story and then spending a lot of time in one sitting with an editor fixing all of the problems instead of asking for help whenever I get stuck. If I spread out my time, the article-writing would surely go much smoother. I always thought that as an editor I would have to spend hours with each writer plodding through each story until it was perfect, but I much prefer the idea of quick check-ins and fixing problems as they come up, not just at the end of the process. As an editor, I need to remember that it isn’t just the writer’s job to reach out whenever he is stuck. I should take some responsibility and check in with my writers and make sure everything is going smoothy, even if it’s just a simple “How’s it going?” with a smile every day.

  12. It was hard for me to not look at this chapter from the perspective of student media involvement. In the past, I’ve had editors who encourage the “taking over” or rewriting of a reporter’s work. That neither helps the writer improve or helps their self-confidence. It stuck out to me how the author encourages the editors to ask questions before the draft is even in their hands because I see this as something that could be applied in my own work.

    It was especially interesting to me how editors, more than correcting, need to introduce writers to “new ways of seeing, thinking, and writing.” By asking questions and allowing writers to develop their own edits, we may be able to help them become better editors for their own writing,

    • I know I personally can’t wait to try the questions approach. It really made me reflect on how helpful of a editor I was on my high school newspaper staff. I often just let the reporters loose and had them turn in a final copy which I would then edit. I can only imagine how much time and headaches I would have saved if I had just sat down with them to talk about the reporting they had to do in the first place!

    • I agreee a lot about your point of “taking over”. It is unfortunate that so many of our writing experiences have dealt with those types of editors. All of this coaching seems so easy in concept and yet it is so often not common in the sphere of editing and writing.

  13. A quote from the reading that really stuck with me was “Your job is not to judge the writing, but to collaborate on the production of an effective story.” I feel that this sums up both the article and the chapter very well. Both authors encourage the conversations with an editor and writer throughout the process of the article. Asking questions before the reporter has even begun researching is something that I think would be extremely helpful. This communication between the two makes it seem like the article should have two names next to the by-line, instead on one. I now see how the editor can have a huge influence on how the final draft turns out, even if they are not the ones making the changes.
    This whole conflict of coaching vs fixing brings me back to my high school newspaper where we had two very different co-editors-in-chiefs. Within a couple weeks I noticed a pattern. When students were finished with their articles, they tended to turn their papers into the “coaching editor” first to fix any big-picture problems with the articles. Then, when they felt they were ready, they would gave a more finalized draft to the “fixing editor” to change any grammatical errors. The problem with this method the students developed was that over time, the content in the articles improved, but the small mistakes were as sloppy as the beginning of the year. I think that this is a good example of what editing can do to help, or hurt, a writer.

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