December 1, 2014
Don Fry

Don Fry

I met my first real writing coach in 1970. Don Fry was my graduate professor. I was 22. He was 33.  Last week Don and I conducted a writing workshop in D.C. with a group of writers and editors, eager to grow in their craft. I am 66. He is now 77.

I wonder how many students and teachers get to work together for 44 years? That’s a year longer than I have been married. Did Will Strunk hang out with E.B. White for 44 years after his famous student graduated from Cornell? The answer is “no”; only 25 years.

Our greatest achievement as collaborators, I would argue, was the creation of the book Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together Across Media Platforms. We believe it is the first book to consider the human side of editing. Though now out of print, Don and I are hard at work on its revival – more about that later. But first some things you should know about Don.

I have heard folks say that teachers should not become friends with their students; it only leads to favoritism and resentment. I understand the concerns, but I am glad they were not enforced in my day. Long after my graduation from eighth grade, I became friends with my teacher Richard McCann, a Franciscan brother. At Providence College, there was Rene Fortin, Rodney Delasanta, John Hennedy, Brian Barbour, and the aptly named Richard Grace – all of whom provided decades of advice and guidance.

None of them grew as close to me as Don Fry.  Don grew up dirt poor in North Carolina, but has the benefit of good genes. His dad – as rigid as a railroad spike – lived to 93, his mother till 99. I just realized that when Don turns 99, I’ll only be 88.

At 77, Don has more energy, stamina, integrity, and gentility than I do. I am funny, musical, and can type really fast, abilities that make him jealous. But I would trade his qualities for mine in a New York minute – or, at least, in a Carolina hour.

When we work together, our differences become advantages. Don is a planner, I’m a plunger. In class he is a time keeper and tries to move systematically through the material, beginning and ending on the dot. I have thoughts and insight I cannot contain and blurt them out. He is the play-by-play announcer; I am the color man. He is Abbott; I am Costello.

What we have in common is a devotion to the practical scholar and the reflective practitioner. Though trained as a medieval scholar (he once exchanged messages with J.R.R. Tolkien), Don always had the sensibilities of a public man. He insisted that his students writer clearly and for a general audience. When he carried these values into the training of journalists, they turned out to be a perfect fit.

coaching-writersBack to the book, Coaching Writers, published by Bedford/St. Martin’s as a college textbook, in two separate editions, the second much superior to the first in that it faces some of the challenges of coaching in the digital age. The idea for the book came with the realization that a news organization could never reach its potential as a home for writers without the full participation of editors. An outside coach might come in for a revival meeting. But it would be editors who would be left with the responsibility of working with writers and with stories.

To repeat, we firmly believe that it was the first book on editing that imagined the craft as an essentially human rather than technical encounter. Earlier books treated editing as if it were the language equivalent of performing an autopsy on a cadaver. They specialized in stories without bylines. The lessons were about:  how to cut this text; how to plug holes in stories; how to move important details higher; how to fix a lead. Fix, fix, fix.

In those books, the editor was imagined as a fixer of broken stories. There was barely a hint that those flawed stories were created by flesh and blood writers who might hand in better stories with a little encouragement and coaching.

That’s how Don treated me as a writer. While he was not the first great teacher I enjoyed, he was by far my best writing coach. When in 1974 I had to finish my dissertation quickly – a teaching job was at stake – he coached me on how to write it. “You know how to write a term paper,” he said. “Think of your dissertation as twelve term papers.” I now have a chapter on that strategy in my book Writing Tools:  “Break long projects into parts. Then assemble the pieces into something whole.”

Working with Don was not an I’m-OK-You’re-OK transaction. I knew the distinction between active and passive voice since I was ten (and Don was 21!), but was not aware of how passive my prose had become as a product of graduate education. He didn’t just mark up my bloated and inverted sentences; he sat beside me and showed me how to write them straight.

Coaching Writers, an expensive college text, has been out of print for a few years. Don and I believe – as do our Poynter colleagues – that coaching is more important than ever as the digital revolution continues to transform journalism, democracy, and society.

Don and I are about to donate the rights of the book to the Poynter Institute. We are hard at work on a new draft. In the months ahead, look for the inspiration and practical strategies about coaching in all forms of Poynter teaching: in the classroom, on our website, on News University, and eventually in an inexpensive e-book, all proceeds of which will go to advancing our and Poynter’s mission.

Don has become an old dog, but recently I received a friendly howl from an even older one, William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well. That great book continues to teach me about the craft. Zinsser is 92, blind, and taking poetry lessons from a poetry coach. See, coaching works! I had written a tribute to Bill, and he called to thank me.  “Let’s keep this mission going,” he said.

Yes, Don, let’s keep this mission going, at least until you are 110 – and I’ll be 99.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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