Coaching is not “fixing copy.” We’ve all been “fixers” at one time or other (especially on deadline). We look at the copy, see a weakness and do an immediate rewrite. The copy is better. A problem is solved, but only in the short-term. The same copy, or a variation of it, may surface tomorrow. That’s the flaw in fixing. It is efficient — but ineffective. Coaching takes longer, especially at the start, but it pays dividends as writers grow.
Let’s take a common newsroom situation. A reporter has finished writing a package and is ready for a script check. You are the coach. Here’s what you need to do:
Sit on your hands. Writers need to know you respect their ownership of a story. Resist the temptation to start writing an improved version. That’s fixing — not coaching. (The only exception to this is a critical deadline situation. Even then, ask the writer for permission to lay your hands on the copy.)
Have a “content conversation.” Ask the reporter to tell you about the story. Listen to how the reporter relates the information. What was the first thing said? What tense was used? In what order were the facts laid out? When was a surprise revealed? What emotion was expressed and when? How did the reporter conclude the oral account?
Read the story with a “dual personality.” This is tricky, but it is a skill that coaches develop with practice. Read the story as a person who knows all the facts (since you just heard them) and as a person who knows nothing more than what the text states.
Ask yourself questions. Does the text you’ve read appear to be as strong as the story you heard? Often a story that sounded good in the content conversation gets lost in the writing. What changed? Did the story include too much information? Not enough? Did the focus change? Was emotion or surprise eliminated?
Ask the writer questions. Keep in mind that the writer may be feeling very nervous at this moment. Do story elements that are missing, conflicting, confusing or superfluous. Remember to respect the writer’s effort as you frame your questions.
Beware of “projected content.” Often writers know the facts of a story so well they presume those facts are in the copy — when they aren’t. Unclear copy is clear to them because they mentally project the missing elements onto the page. This is where the coach’s constructive questions (and mastery of dual-personality copy review) can help the writer see and correct gaps in a story.
Involve the photojournalist. Whenever possible, involve the photojournalist in script reviews. In the best newsrooms, reporters and photojournalists take a team approach to storytelling. The person who shoots the video may have excellent insights to offer the person who crafts the words. When the photojournalist is consulted in the script review process, it reinforces the storytelling partnership. Remember, photojournalists can be writing coaches, too.
Apply ethical decision-making skills. Coaching conversations provide excellent opportunities to reinforce journalistic values. Talking about fairness, perspective, diversity and balance should be an automatic part of story reviews. Again, think in terms of questions: Are there other people we should hear from? Are we telling the story in context?
Remember the value of legitimate praise. We all thrive on positive reinforcement. Coaches identify successes and point them out. Even when a story is in great need of repair, its writer may have done a good job of fact-gathering in the field. Acknowledge that. Make all praise specific. Tell the writer exactly what you liked and why. It reinforces the skills and values you are teaching, and it lets the writer know the praise is genuine.
Check your ego. Back when you used to “fix” stories by doing instant rewrites, there may have been a thrill in showing off your skill. Now, through your coaching, writers discover better ways to craft their own copy. People compliment the writer on a good story, rarely the coach. Your satisfaction comes from knowing the valuable role you play in the professional development of your colleagues and your newsroom. And every now and then, the writer just might offer the coach a little specific praise, too.
Remember: Good newsrooms treasure good writing. Good writers treasure good coaches.