January 30, 2015

I have done a lot of coaching and editing in my career, but I have never, since the college literary magazine, been THE editor. But I often imagine that I am. So let’s say that I am assigned to become a coaching editor at a make-believe enterprise called the Calusa News. We are covering a community on the west coast of Florida, and I will direct the work of, say, ten writers and reporters.

The first thing I would do – before I read or edited a single story – is interview each writer. This turns out to be a surprisingly rare event. I remember chatting with one veteran reporter at a newspaper who told me, “I’ve been here for more than 30 years, and you are the first person who asked me about how I work.”

Recently, I read a magazine article about “36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The questions — such as “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” — are designed to create intimacy, even among strangers. The idea, according to Daniel Jones of the New York Times, “is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness.”

With that as a wild analogy, I have developed a list of questions designed to build professional collaboration between a writer and an editor. After asking these questions to hundreds of writers, I have confidence that the answers provided by the writer can guide a coaching editor on how best to help the writer over time. Here are the questions in the normal order that I ask them:

  1.   Do you consider yourself a confident or an anxious writer?  On a scale from 1 to 10, with one being anxious and ten being confident, where would you place yourself as a writer?
  2. Based on the answer to number one: What are some of the things that make you confident (or anxious)?
  3.   Do you consider yourself a slow or a fast writer?  On a scale from 1 to 10, with one being slow and ten being fast, where would you place yourself as a writer?
  4. Based on the answer to number three:  What are some of the things that make you slow (or fast)? Or: When are some of the times when you are slow (or fast)?
  5. Some writers describe themselves as planners, while others plunge right in to the writing. Would you consider yourself a planner or a plunger?  Do you work from any kind of a plan?
  6. Based on the answer to number five: If you work from any kind of a plan, what does that plan look like?
  7. Many writers say they need to write a strong lead before they can progress in the story.  Others say that can “discover” their lead through the process of writing. How do you think about your lead from the time you are reporting and throughout the process?

There are many other questions to ask, of course, but these seven almost always create remarkable results. I once asked them to a feature writer at a big news organization. She volunteered to discuss her work in front of a group of editors, a couple who had worked closely with her over time. I don’t have an exact record of my interview with her, but her responses were eccentric and memorable.

When I asked her the question about whether she was fast or slow, she answered that it depended upon her ability to find a certain kind of quote. I think she called it her “golden quote.” She would interview her main source or most prominent character hoping that person would say something that would capture the essence of that person’s character or enterprise. In her process, she would place the quote as a kind of anchor about one third of the way down into the story.  Her lead, then, would build up to the quote. Everything in the body of the story would flow from the quote. But she had to find that quote.

When she left the meeting, the editors began to ask me questions about the writer.  If I were her coach or editor, how would I try to help her?  There was no ambiguity in my response: “Well I wouldn’t bother to ask her about her lead?  I’d ask her if she found her golden quote.”

I don’t mean to imply that the editor should always accept as immutable the habits of a particular writer. If, for example, the search for the golden quote slowed the writer down to the point where she was missing deadlines, we might have another conversation about creating a more nimble process. But if the quality of the work was outstanding – as it was – and the work is in on time, those perceived idiosyncrasies should be reinterpreted as strengths.

Coaching editors have a responsibility to learn the working methods of writers and reporters. A process interview is only the first step. Whatever is learned from such conversations should be tested against direct observation of a writer’s working methods. Subsequent conversations – sometimes called “long coaching” – can focus on different aspects of the work.

It probably makes sense that the writer should also interview the editor about that person’s values, habits, preferences and working methods. We’ll leave those questions for another day.

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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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