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 the readings?

For me, it’s a sentence in the “Editing Side by Side” sidebar on page 31 in “Coaching Writers”: “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.


44 responses to “How does this coaching stuff work?

  1. I found Paul Pohlman’s listening tips to be an interesting section of the book. When it comes to meeting with a writer to discuss edits, I have never strongly considered our location or how we positioned ourselves in terms of providing a positive environment for listening. Although these changes are going to have to be made consciously at first, I think it’s definitely worth testing to see if it helps to improve conversation.

    • I think it’s really interesting to consider how the dynamic of the conversation would change based upon seating positions. The idea of sitting next to one another and looking at the computer screen is appealing because it makes the text the focus of conversation, but I wonder if something would be lost because eye contact would be reduced. But sitting facing each other across a desk does create a power hierarchy that might be uncomfortable. Maybe a mix of the two would be best?

  2. I would never think to do what this chapter of Coaching Writers suggested:
    “To resist the urge to fix a writer’s copy, try coaching without the reading the text” p.30. The idea seems unnatural, but after reading the explanation I think the idea does have value. The idea of “coaching” writing doesn’t necessarily focus on the text directly a lot of the times, so it would make sense to try and focus more on the writer first if you wanted to avoid the “fixing” bug. It really expanded my view on what being an editor means.

    • I agree that not reading the text seems counterintuitive, and my first instinct would definitely be, “Alright, let’s see what you have.” However, I think if I were to focus more on a writer’s thoughts and concerns about their piece rather than getting hung up on grammar and structure, an editing session would go a lot more smoothly. As Coaching Writers pointed out, writers aren’t naive about the quality of their writing. Often, people recognize something needs work before having it pointed out to them.

    • Coaching without reading the story seemed foreign to me as well, but this technique seems like a good way to coach writers into being their own editors, and encourages ownership of their work. I think it’s great to foster critiquing one’s own work, and using leading questions in that important editor-writer meeting allows the writer to review their content and see it in a new way.

    • I found this an interesting concept as well. I definitely feel like coaching without reading the text is a great idea though, because in doing so, you are showing your writer what is important about the story right off the bat, without bashing what they’ve already written. This helps the writer to consider the work they’ve already done and comparing it with what you think is important about the story.

    • The chapter opened my mind in that an article doesn’t even need to be involved in the editing process. It’s important to focus on the writer, helping them improve their craft by asking the right questions and analyzing how an interview can be transitioned into an engaging article.

  3. After reading “Coaching Writers,” I found that when editors ask basic questions, the story becomes clearer. It was especially profound to me in the example with the judge, where the writer had to call the judge back and clarify what happened. If the writer can’t answer the simple questions, then obviously the writer made some sort of error. Personally, I would never think to take more of someone’s time by calling them back for a few clarification questions. When the editor coaches and asks these questions, it forces the writer to do things they wouldn’t normally do in order to get the best story possible.

    • It also probably wouldn’t be my first thought to call a source back to ask more questions or fill in details I missed. I think my first thought is that I’m afraid I’ll be pestering/annoying my sources, but in cases where I have had to do that people have generally been understanding, so that’s a roadblock I need to get over.

  4. After reading the article “3 Key Moments…”, Ir realized how important meeting between story assignments and reporting is. As a writer, I’ve always been let loose to do my reporting after receiving my assignment, but looking back, I realize that I could have really benefited from meeting with my editor before research and the interviewing process. One of my biggest problems as a writer is being too broad, so a meeting with my editor before reporting could really sharpen my ideas and create a more concise premise for the article at hand. Why does the reader care about what I’m writing? The editor can help clear up my vision.

    • I totally agree. Having a sharper focus before the reporting would be extremely helpful in knowing the direction I plan to take and thus what more specific questions to ask. Going more in-depth in reporting would also be a benefit, I think, of having these conversations beforehand.

    • It’s crucial for the editor and writer to have a “shared vision” at the story’s outset. If they don’t, they burn time and energy that
      neither can afford.

    • I agree that clarifying the story’s angle with an editor before the interview process is one of the easiest ways to produce an article that both writer and editor will be happy with. I have never taken the time to sit down with an editor, but I have been given an assignment letter. I found it to be very beneficial because it was written by the editor, so it had her straightforward expectations for the article.

  5. I really liked the idea suggested in “3 Key Moments…” that the editor should be asking questions at every stage in the writing process, not just after the writing is said and done. Some of the questions I liked in particular were:
    -Does the story, at least as we understand it now, represent a larger trend?
    -What surprised you most?
    -Are there any differing viewpoints that need to be reflected in the story?
    I think if I went into writing a story with more of these questions in mind, it would save both myself and my editor a lot of time and heartbreak later, because I wouldn’t have to go back and gather more information, interview more sources, etc. if these issues were addressed beforehand.

    • And after a while, a writer will learn to anticipate your questions and answer them herself, before you need to ask her.

    • It’s amazing how much using guided questions can make a difference in the quality and coherence of writing. I certainly agree that these questions can save the writer and editors time. But, I think it is important for the writer to really consider these questions and take time to answer them fully–blowing them off would be counterproductive.

  6. “3 Key Moments…” struck me as important because it emphasized how important the meetings and discussions between writers and editors are. Even more importantly, an editor’s job is not to tell the writer what to do—the example questions and conversation points Huang gave were more like leading questions, letting the writer answer their own questions and shape their story on their own. In “Coaching Writers,” the same idea of a writer’s ownership of their story is emphasized. The greater message I got from “Coaching Writers” was this: let the writer talk first, and let them have a conversation with you about where they are with their story. Making the environment friendly and the conversation open allows a writer to be realistic with their editor about what they’re thinking and where they need guidance. It seems that leading questions are the way to coach a writer affectively, and make the meetings between the editor and writer worthwhile.

    • Conceptually, a lot of the ideas in both readings made a ton of sense to me. Creating a friendly atmosphere, having a conversation rather than an “editing session,” all of that sounds great and really productive. But I wonder how realistic all of this advice is in a busy newsroom where tension is high and tempers are hot. When the paper needs to be out tomorrow, how does an editor keep calm enough to be facilitative, and to allow the writer to maintain control of their story?

      • I agree that it does seem idealistic, but at the same time, I think that’s why both readings emphasize coaching throughout the story process, not just at the end. If an editor does that, then hopefully he or she just has to fix a few small details here or there before going to print.

      • emily.vanschmus

        I agree – these ideas all seem pretty idealistic and would also take a lot more time. Realistically, I don’t see myself being able to take the time to do every single thing on this list to the best of my abilities. It would be nice, but there is only so much time before deadlines. I think with enough coaching when there is time for it, a writer can be trained well enough to work on their own when there is a time crunch before deadline.

  7. I really like how both readings describe coaching a writer as more of just a casual conversation about their story. Asking questions like “how do you feel about the story so far?” can make a huge impact on a writer’s relationship with their editor, as well as the progress of the story. It was also cool how in “Coaching Writers” the author talked about an editor who always asked the same question: “what happened?” Both of these questions are so simple and yet they can make such a big difference.

    • I agree. The huge difference these questions make is that they force the writer to assess their content on their own rather than relying on instruction from the editor on what to fix. An editor can sit and talk to a writer for ten minutes saying all of the things wrong with a story, but it only takes thirty seconds to ask some of these questions that will be more helpful to the writer.

      • Going off of that, I think it’s important that editors not abuse their power. The suggestion given on page 28 and 29 of “How to Consult With Reporters” is a really handy tool that an editor can use to assure that they are approaching their reporters as an equal. Something as small as sitting down side by side at a table, as opposed to across from one another, can really help to close the power gap. Although it might sound absurd, giving someone your full attention can be extremely difficult at times of high stress; I know I have fallen victim to this many times. As the reading said, you have to want to listen to your writers first and foremost. It is necessary that editors take the time and talk with their writers, whether it is about an article or their personal life, so that they know they are a needed an necessary asset. Creating an underlying friendship and trust amongst members will make the team that much more valuable, not to mention productive.

    • emily.vanschmus

      I think these kinds of questions are also helpful in holding a writer accountable and keeping them on track. If an editor is asking you how it’s going along the way, you’re probably more likely to begin reporting earlier (if you’re the kind of person who would otherwise leave it until the last minute), which gives the reporter more time to dig a little deeper rather than rushing to get the story on paper at the end.

  8. Two things from the readings this week struck me as revelatory; timing and trust. Both Huang and “Coaching Writers” addressed the fact that coaching should occur throughout the writing process, not just at the end. “Coaching Writers” even specifies a length for these coaching bursts, 30 seconds to 5 minutes. The timing surprised me because in most of my writing experiences, I work with the editor when the draft is completely finished, generally for a longer period of time. The conversation is usually productive because I’ve been lucky enough to have professors/editors who are willing to have a conversation with me rather than simply marking up my paper and handing it back, but I do think it would be helpful to receive coaching earlier, even at the conception of the idea. During my best writing experience, the coaching was more intermittent per the articles. While writing for Drake Magazine, my editor met with me several times throughout the writing process, once even before I began writing or even interviewing sources. This helped keep me on track and saved time later, and I ended up writing one of my better pieces.
    Second, I really liked the concept of trust that “Coaching Writers” mentions. “Bouncing back” sounds harsh, but it shows that the editor trusts your capabilities as a writer. Knowing that your mentor has faith in you is a huge confidence boost. I also like knowing that a coach is going to push me until I’ve produced my best possible piece. One of my worst experiences as a writer occurred when I wrote a piece for an online publication. I wasn’t completely sure what was expected of me because no one met with me early to help me develop an idea. My first draft was not remotely close to what was expected of me, and it was returned to me with only a brief email describing what I should do. I re-wrote and sent it back, but I was still unsatisfied with the piece. My editor clearly was, as well; she never responded to me, and the piece was never published. To this day, I don’t know what I did wrong, and the experience was a huge blow to my confidence because I felt like my editor gave up on me. Experiences like this are why trust is important. The editor needs to trust that I can do my job (with guidance), and I need to trust that my coach believes in me.

    • I could not agree more! Similar to your experiences, more often than not, I get feedback from the editor shortly before we go to press. Needless to say, I’m left scrambling to make the adjustments and meet the approaching deadline. That is exactly why I enjoyed reading the “3 Key Moments” article. The writer suggests that the editor get’s involved in the creation of the story intermediately during the writing process to avoid hacking it to pieces at the very end. Too many times I have seen editors have to pull an entire article the day before a deadline because it did not satisfy their wants/needs in some capacity. Had the editor worked alongside the writer through every step of the writing process, the entire situation could have been avoided. As you mentioned in your post, a mere 30-second conversation between the editor and writer could have cleared any miscommunications or concerns. To put it simply, communication among members is the key to success in any given publication.

  9. I really identified with this quote from page 26 of “Coaching Writers”: “As a good editor, you must prove to the writer that no evil consequences will flow from sharing work with you.” This is really important for editors of students to remember; the “evil consequences” can be bad grades. So many times I would get nervous about handing in an assignment because I was worried about my grade, which definitely affected my writing. That’s why I think allowing us to turn in a draft (and get feedback) before turning in our final copies for a grade is beneficial. We have the opportunity to ask questions and revise our stories before we have to worry about a grade. Inman did this for us in 91, and I appreciated it, as this didn’t happen in my 54 class.

    • Another drawback of fearing “evil consequences” is that it squelches any risk-taking in writing. If we fear evil consequences, we play it safe, doing what we’ve always done because it works. But that is deadly stifling to creativity.

  10. Having been on the Times-Delphic staff for about two years now, and being part of my high school newspaper, I have a running list of editors I have worked closely with. What I have come to find is that no two editors are the same. It’s always very interesting to see what different tactics the editors use to manage the staff, offer valuable feedback, and stand up as a leaders. The excerpt on “How to Consult With Reporters” was particularly interesting to me because it gives suggestions on how to most effectively lead a body of writers. It is one thing to be an editor; it is a very different thing to be a productive leader. The suggestion that really resonated with me, found on page 23, was to simply listen to what the writers have to say. Through the hustle and bustle that inevitably occurs when trying to reach a deadline, a lot of fine, yet equally as important, details can be left unattended to. Too often I have seen editors get too absorbed in their hectic schedule that they seem to forfeit valuable time to sit down and get to know their writers as individuals. It is the job of the editor to connect with the writer and to help inspire them whenever necessary. Editors must remind their writers that their work is both valuable and important.

    • One thing we try to teach in the j-school is the ability to adapt and respond to different editors. Blachford, Inman, I and others all have our own preferences and peeves when it comes to writing. It may seem confusing and even capricious to students, but it’s also a reflection of the real world. We’re always impressed by students who can take suggestions and criticism and turn around an improved draft.

    • Having been an editor for a few years now, I understand the difficulty of scheduling meetings with writers. But like the readings have pointed out, these conferences don’t have to be very long. A ten minute meeting can save an editor a ton of time in the long run, plus make for a stronger article.

  11. emily.vanschmus

    For me, the first “key moment” was the biggest takeaway from the reading. The idea of sitting down and talking about what should be asked during the reporting is something I hadn’t really ever done before as an editor, but after reading the explanation, it seems like it should have been common sense. As an editor for various publications in high school and now as a section editor for the Times-Delphic, I’ve come up with and assigned a lot of stories. One of the most frustrating things about being an editor is having the writer come back with a product that really isn’t anything like what you thought it would be. When I send out budgets for the paper, I write a blurb about what direction I had in mind for the story, but even so, sometimes the message doesn’t always get across. Having a conversation about what kind of reporting needs to be done seems like it would be an easy fix, just because the way you go about reporting and the kinds of questions you ask can really influence the angle of the story. This is definitely something I am going to do when I am editing, and I’m also going to begin to ask questions of an editor before doing my own reporting and writing.

    • I agree that the first key moment was a valuable piece of advice. As an editor it’s easy to assume the writer has the same vision for a story as you do, but that’s not always the case. A brief assignment letter is sometimes too vague, but an in-person meeting can be much more effective. The problem is that in-person meetings seem more time-consuming, but in reality they will save a lot more time in the editing process–and lead to better articles.

    • I can’t overstate the importance of the assignment phase. In nearly every capstone, there will be at least one story that is still unsatisfactory after weeks or even months of writing and revision. 99.9% of the time, we can trace the problem to a rushed, incomplete, sloppy assignment.

      It’s the responsibility of the editor to issue clear and thorough assignments. But it’s also the responsibility of the writer to speak up and demand clarity if the assignment isn’t clear and thorough.

    • I’ve been on the opposite end of that– as a writer, sometimes I’ve gotten story ideas that are not clear or are misunderstood between the email blurbs that are sent out. I sometimes worry I’ll have a different interpretation for the story than the editor has in mind, and I have to admit I’ve never thought of actually having a conversation with the editor to clarify. It would save a lot of time and effort on both sides of the spectrum.

  12. I really liked the idea of coaching without even reading the writer’s text. I thought that this line on page 30 summed it up quite well. “Leaving the piece in the writer’s hands allows that writer to maintain control of it while it’s in progress.” I think that this strategy is an excellent way to avoid becoming too much of a fixer when editing the work of another writer. I have to admit that I have never heard of this technique or tried it before, but I think I will definitely try it in the future. I mentioned in my previous post that I have a lot of “fixer” tendencies, and I think this could be a good technique for me to use to avoid that.

  13. As an editor, I found the last tip in “Coaching Writers”–try coaching without looking at the text–extremely interesting. When I’ve met with writers before, it’s so easy to jump right in and go through my marked up copy of their article–but that’s skipping the most important part. By discussing the story without reading it first, an editor can get a sense of where the writer (the true expert) is at with it, which is more helpful in the long run.
    As I writer, the piece of advice about editors asking how their writers are feeling about a story was helpful. I’ve always been told to be confident in the writing I turn in, even if you know it has some flaws. I still think that’s good advice, but admitting the flaws to your editor will allow you to come up with solutions together.

    • I use this strategy a lot. And if the writer replies: “Oh it’s crap, and I know it,” I tell them that it sounds like it’s not ready for me to read. Instead, I ask them to identify its flaws and their struggles, and then advise them on how to work through those. It lets them retain ownership – plus, it spares me from having to read rubbish.

    • The idea that a writer should be confident in their work is something I struggle with. I guess I never thought that my lack of confidence in my writing meant that my work wasn’t ready to be handed to an editor. I think it’s more of a defense mechanism for me.
      I certainly agree that coaching without reading the text first is effective, especially for less-experienced writers or writers who aren’t clear with the direction of their article.

  14. Chapter 3: How to Consult With Reporters spoke volumes to me. The idea of a reporter trusting their editor was a worthwhile reading. I’ve found that, especially with peer editing, I get nervous when someone edits my work. If I don’t know that editor’s writing, I sometimes feel less confident in their edits than I should. But, if my editor coached me through the process, was there throughout the entire writing process, and treated me like an equal (as they should), I agree with this article that my writing would improve. When I don’t have a good editor, I don’t try new or risky ledes, I focus so much on word choice and making my writing sound good–I should instead be more concerned about the focus and structure of my writing.

    • Like the reading said, It’s really all about trust. I know when I had a bad editor I wouldn’t want to try something risky fearing that I would look incapable to my editor. In a sense, the editors also make up the story. If the writer trusts the editor, he/she will try writing something amazing trusting the editor will not judge or criticize, but help and coach.

  15. I love the three key moments for coaches: after the idea, before the writing; after the reporting, before writing and the first edit. I thought it was just during the edit, but I guess the more the editor is involved with story the less the editor has to edit the story.
    I also enjoyed what to do during coaching. Listen. Also, the questions you ask the writers are very helpful and that coaching should be a two-way conversation between the writer and the editor with most of the talking done by the writer. I’ve had an editor that only ever told me what to do and never asked my opinion on what I thought about my writing.

    • I agree that the key three moments are vital for both the story and the writer to succeed. Once the writer is done, the writer shouldn’t stop thinking about it. With that said, the editor shouldn’t start thinking about it at the first edit; he/she should consider the story from the very beginning. I like what you said about how if the work is spread out between the editor and writer, the less edits have to be done later in the process.

      • I agree. Before the reading, I never thought writing to be a team effort. I thought first it’s the writer’s turn then the editor’s turn. But having the editor along the process makes sense, and saves editing time in the end

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