Do-It-Yourself Story Coaching (II): Two essential keys to coaching

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Image courtesy SXC.

One of the main differences between “editing” a piece of writing and “coaching” a story is the attitude toward the process of revision. When you’re in a purely edit mode, revision is interventionist, something that’s done after the writing—the “real” work of creating. Approaching your work as a story coach calls for an attitude of collaboration between the part of you that’s writing the piece, and the part that will polish it.

To become a good self-coach, there are two skills that you will want to acquire or improve upon to get the most out of the process: learning to speak the language of structure and learning to frame (and ask!) useful coaching questions.

Becoming a story architect

It seems like common sense that a writer should be able to explain how he or she has built a story, but many very competent writers, even ones who have degrees in journalism or creative writing, struggle with this.

Writing a story that doesn’t fit the inverted-pyramid news style, and can’t be sliced into a series of tips or how-to points, requires a familiarity with the structure of narrative. Nonfiction writers have a number of sources they can tap to learn the lingo of fiction-like storytelling:

Coaching Writers by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry devotes an entire chapter to building a structural vocabulary, explaining their take on terms such as “scene,” “characterization,” “cinematic reporting” and so forth.

Clark continues the structural education in Writing Tools, in which he devotes an entire section of the book to learning how to develop “blueprints” for your stories, with tips on how to use dialogue to advance the action, how to work from an outline or structural plan, etc.

The journalism program at the University of King’s College Halifax in Canada has a neat checklist page related to structure, which outlines a number of key elements to using narrative structure in nonfiction writing.

Why is learning structural language important if you’re self-coaching? Two reasons, really: one, if you do choose to discuss your work with another writer or an editor, you’ll be able to ask for feedback on the structure in a more precise way; and two, it will improve your understanding of how you build stories and allow you to rework stories in a way that preserves the integrity of the overall piece.

Questioning the answers

If I were to teach only one skill to would-be self-coaches, it would be the ability to frame relevant questions about their work. Questions outstrip criticism (even constructive criticism) in their power to improve a piece of writing because they draw the writer into the process of looking at their work from the outside, rather than placing them in the position of defending their choices (as often happens when our editor is in a “critic” mode).

There are three criteria for crafting coaching questions, whether aimed at one’s own writing or that of someone else.

  1. Coaching questions should be constructive. (e.g., “What other approaches did you consider for the lead?” not “Don’t you think leading with this quote is a little weak?”)
  2. Coaching questions should be aimed at generating insight. Again, the idea is to generate options and consider alternatives, not to spark a defensive battle about existing choices employed in the story. A good example of an insight-generating question might be, “What surprised you the most when you were researching this story?”
  3. Coaching questions should be forward looking. After answering a series of well-designed coaching questions, a writer should have some idea how to revise his or her work.

Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute has written a series of brief articles about framing excellent coaching questions. His “big 2,” applicable to just about every writing situation imaginable, are these:

  1. What works?
  2. What needs work?

His order on the big 2 list is also important. By starting with an inventory of your stories assets, it’s much easier to determine which of them you can use or retain as you work on the aspects of your story that aren’t quite there yet.

Putting the 2 Keys to Work

Once you’re able to sharpen your use of structural language when thinking or talking about your story and you are able to get in the habit of shaping useful coaching questions for yourself as you move through researching and writing your piece, it helps to have a framework from which to view the story-creation process itself. Just as learning the structure of story will make you a better writer, learning the structure of story-creation will make you a better self-coach and ultimately a better self-editor.

I’ve studied a number of models for coaching the writing process and developed a six-step model that I think covers the most important moments in the writing of any type of nonfiction piece, from a brief anecdote to a book-length manuscript. Next week, we’ll introduce this six-step coaching model, and discuss the first two parts of it—the assignment and the research phases—in depth.

Next Week: Self-coaching the assignment and story research phases

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