Do-It-Yourself Story Coaching: An Introduction

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

Writers and editors can sometimes be an unpredictable alliance. Specialists in each discipline need each other (although sometimes they don’t act like it), but at times it’s unclear which set of skills will best bring a non-fiction article to a satisfactory conclusion and eventual publication.

During the month of March, Write Livelihood will be exploring do-it-yourself story coaching, a new approach to self-editing. Story coaching is a way of editing that broadens the concept of revision well beyond proofreading and line-by-line revision, taking the whole of the piece into account, as well as a writer’s development over time.

Story coaching isn’t new. The legendary author, editor, teacher and writing coach Don Murray, who passed away in late 2006, was one of the first to suggest that an editor’s relationship to authors should be that of a coach, not primarily a grammar cop or an overseer. In a eulogy of Murray on Poynter.org, Roy Clark has this touching anecdote that summarizes Murray’s attitude:

“Some time in the early 1980s, my youngest daughter, Lauren, now 26, was a toddler, and I asked her, “Can you say ‘Don,’ Lauren? Say ‘Don.’ ” She looked up at the Santa Claus-like figure in our family room and said something like ‘Bobo.’ ‘That’s great,’ I said, giving her a little squeeze. ‘Good job, Lauren!’

“What followed was a mini-lesson from Murray on how to teach writing. It went something like this: ‘Too bad we don’t teach children to write the way we teach them to talk or walk. When a baby tries to take her first step and then falls down, we treat it like a national holiday. We surround the baby with support. We don’t say: No, no, no, before you can learn to walk, you need to develop the proper foot angle. Don’t try that again, you little brat, before you’ve mastered the basics.’”

Others who have added to the craft of story coaching are Clark himself (individually and in partnership with Don Fry), Jack Hart, and Jacqui Banaszynski. Banaszynski was my introduction to the discipline; her story-coaching seminar at a gathering of university editors helped me recognize the sort of editor I was all along, and fired me with new confidence that I had something to offer to my writers.

DIY Story Coaching

The only catch with the current state of story coaching is that if often relies on regular contact with an editor to make it work. For many writers, including freelancers or those just starting out, this contact is sporadic or absent. This month’s blog series will cover how to adapt many of the most useful tools in the story coaching “kit” to use with your own writing.

There are many rewards of self-coaching your way through your stories. For one thing, practicing story coaching on your own work makes you much more desirable as a writer to editors, as you will improve your ability to understand their approach to editing and how to collaborate with them successfully. Also, you will be able to peer edit the work of other writers with more clarity and specificity, which is always a useful communications skill to have (and a leg up if you ever want to become an editor yourself).

Next Week: The 2 Essential Keys to Story Coaching

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