What advice would give to an editor trying to become a better writing coach? I’m the city editor at a fairly small daily, and I’m working with a fairly young crop of journalists. We’re all looking to improve our skills. I’m always looking for ways to help them, but I’m not much more experienced as an editor than they are as reporters. How do you approach your role as a writing coach?
City Editor, Desert Dispatch, Barstow, Calif.
* * *
“How can I help?”
I usually approach coaching writers by first asking that question, and then listening to the answer. I think of it as “The Coaching Way.”
Coaching is based on the idea that the power to recognize a story’s problems as well as the means to fix them lie within the person reporting and writing the piece.
This does not mean they don’t need editors. In fact, the editor’s role is essential to the writing process. Even though reporters know all the problems as well as the solutions, they often are blind to that knowledge and need someone to help them find their way. (See the sidebar and resources listed at the bottom of this column for specific coaching tools.)
That’s why “How can I help you” is my starting point, and why anyone with the ability to ask a question and listen to the answer can coach someone else (or themselves).
Back in 1981, Don Murray, who’s spearheaded the coaching movement, called it “Consultive Editing.” (I’ve never met a copy editor who didn’t want to change that to “Consultative Editing,” but I figure if you coin the phrase you can call it whatever you want.)
Consultive editing—a.k.a. coaching, Murray said—has four primary aims:
1. To make use of the knowledge and experience of the writer.
2. To give the writer primary responsibility for the story.
3. To provide an environment in which the writer can do the best possible job.
4. To train the writer, so that editing will be unnecessary.
But that fourth goal did not mean that Murray believed then, or now, that editors will become unnecessary. Writing in the April, 1981 Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Murray said:
We need editors who can produce newspapers and also produce writers, editors who can tolerate, manipulate and support the self-indulgent, anxiety-ridden people who turn out copy that isn’t just up to standards, but is above and beyond newspaper standards.(The first time read that passage, I thought, “Murray, you’ve seen into my soul.”)
Most writers are non-organizational men and women, self-absorbed, self-doubting to the point of false confidence, exceptionally sensitive to their own problems and insensitive to their editors’ problems. But if editors want good writing, they’re going to have to nurture and support writers.
Asking “How I can help?” is not a cop-out or touchy-feely approach to the challenging work of journalism. Coaching should never be synonomous with coddling. The best editors challenge, communicate, care, and collaborate.
At its best, it represents a good-faith effort to get the very best out of someone for the benefit of readers, viewers, and by extension, the democratic society that gives journalists enormous advantages and, along with them, enormous responsibilities—the responsibilities of accuracy, fairness, and care. It’s immensely powerful because the question, like the approach to editing that it underlies, places responsibilty for the story on the writer. Coaching requires active participation, rather than sitting back and waiting for others to tell you what to do.
It’s valuable as well because it draws on two basic skills you as a journalist already possess: the ability to ask good questions and the ability to listen to the answers.
• What’s the news?
• What’s the story?
• What works in this story?
• What needs work?
• Where can you go to find that information?
• Who can you talk to about this story?
• What’s the quickest and most compelling way to begin your story?
• What’s the most resonant ending?
• What’s your next step?
Those are the kinds of open-ended questions that good editors have always used to get the best from their reporters and students. Unfortunately, newsroom cutbacks, pagination, and other economic and cultural forces make it more difficult for editors and reporters to have these kinds of conversations. There’s no time, editors say—until they realize that the help they offer benefits not just the reporter but ultimately the reader and viewer. And that’s what makes coaching so valuable.
More than time, effective listening requires empathy: the ability to identify with another person’s point of view and to communicate that understanding. It requires a range of other skills and qualities, too, such as flexibility, confidence, a willingness to experiment, a keen awareness of another’s situation, and a genuine desire to help someone else achieve his or her goals.
For me, the qualities of a good coach were best summed up in the obituary of a New Yorker magazine editor named Robert Gerdy:
The work of a good editor, like the work of a good teacher, does not reveal itself directly. It is reflected in the accomplishments of others. Bob Gerdy was a consummately good editor. He had the qualities that were needed. He was generous, he was sensitive, he was tactful, he was modest, he was patient, he was imaginative, he was unfailingly tuned in. He never suffered from the editor’s occupational delusion that he is writing the writer’s work. He found his own joy in helping other people bring their writings to a state of something like perfection.Reporters confront daily challenges that test their intelligence, energy, courage and sense of what is right and wrong. To reach “a state of something like perfection,” they need all the help they can get.
In 1992, Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry wrote the book on coaching: “Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together.” A decade later, they’ve produced a new, revised edition, “Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together Across Media Platforms” (Bedford/St. Martin’s) that includes updated sections on coaching for broadcast and online, diversity, ethics and an extensive reading list.
Poynter’s Karen Brown Dunlap and the late editor Foster Davis collaborated on “The Effective Editor: How to Lead Your Staff to Better Writing and Better Teamwork,” a book that “speaks first to news editors and news directors, but also to others who guide writers in their work.”
Don Murray articulates his philosophy as writer and writing coach in “Real Writers Don’t Burn Out: Making a Writing Apprenticeship Last,” a keynote address he gave at the 1995 National Writers Workshop in Hartford, Conn.
“The Writing Coach in the Broadcast Newsroom” and “How to be an Effective Coach” by Jill Geisler.
“Coaching Skills” by Paul Pohlman.
“Coaching Skills in Cyberspace: Your Role as a Newsroom Manager” by Nora Paul.
“No Train, No Gain” is the website of newsroom trainers and chockful of resources for editors trying to help reporters. (Of course, reporters can benefit from the tips and insights as well.)
How can editors help writers?