3 key moments to identify when coaching writers

For the editor, coaching means engaging the writer in an ongoing conversation about the story, from the conception of the idea to the final edit. The more the editor can invest time and thought in this conversation, the less work she’ll likely face in “fixing” the story when it comes in.

Let’s focus on three key moments in coaching. The editor can reduce or expand these questions depending on the scope of the story and the amount of time she has for the conversation.

Key moment #1: After the idea, before reporting

In this conversation, you can help the reporter sharpen the idea, develop an initial premise for the story and prepare for any potential minefields in the reporting. Here’s a set of questions that you can use to guide the reporter:

  • Why are we doing this story, and why will the reader care?
  • Knowing that the premise will evolve during the reporting, what do you think this story could be about?
  • What are our expectations of the story? We’ll be flexible about the story’s scope depending on what we find out, but let’s start talking about story length and the amount of time for reporting.
  • What are some of the key questions to address in the story?
  • What sources should we consider? Who are the stakeholders? If applicable, whom might you tell the story through?
  • Does the story, at least as we understand it now, represent a larger trend? What background do we need to understand this trend?
  • Do we need to address issues of ethics and diversity?
  • Are there any previously published stories from newspapers, books or magazines that I can share that will inspire the reporter?

Key moment #2: After the reporting, before writing

In this conversation, you can help the reporter talk about what he found out in the reporting, sharpen the focus of the story and consider different approaches to telling the story.

  • What is the question driving the story?
  • What is the news?
  • What is the story really about? Can you say it in two to three sentences? In one word?
  • What surprised you most?
  • If it’s possible, how do you tell this story differently than previous stories on the subject?
  • Who do you think might be the main character or characters in this story? Or, put another way, who will be featured most prominently in the story?
  • What are the quotes, anecdotes, details, scenes that stand out to you?
  • Are there any lines of tension or conflict that you’d like to develop in the story?
  • What are some possible beginnings and endings to the story?

Key moment #3: The first edit

In this conversation, you can give the reporter feedback and talk about premise, simplicity, clarity and story flow.

  • After writing the first draft, does the premise of the story still hold? How are you conveying what the story is really about?
  • What can you do to make the story’s language simple and clear?
  • Are there any differing viewpoints that need to be reflected in the story?
  • Knowing that we’re interested in tight, powerful writing, take a look at these story elements and keep only those that are relevant to the point/theme of the story: quotes, details, anecdotes, scenes, characters. Does the beginning hook you into the story? Does the ending resonate with you? Does the structure of the story have a logical flow? Does it set up the story effectively? If applicable, does the flow add to the sense of drama?

If you take advantage of these three key moments and ask some of these questions, you and the writer will be happier with the process and the end result.

  • Tom Huang

    Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program.


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