Tag Archives: coaching writers

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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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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