Tag Archives: freelance writers

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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How to Make the Editor Your Friend (I): Meet Deadlines


Photo courtesy of SXC.

Today kicks off a new series of posts talking about the skills that freelance writers need to cultivate to ensure healthy and happy relationships with the editors they work with. For happy, successful, prolific writers, these traits and skills are second nature.

Rule number one is: Meet Deadlines.

Deadlines are the ever-present reality of anyone who works in media. If a newspaper says it will publish every day, it has to publish every day. A monthly magazine should come out once a month. Even online publications, which can be updated continuously, set deadlines for copy to ensure a steady supply of new stories.

Managing editors like myself are essentially project managers. We set deadlines for writers within a matrix of other deadlines—sales/ad deadlines, design and production deadlines, printer’s deadlines, etc.—and have to flex with the inevitable changes, such as a special issue that will require an extra day at the printer because of the metallic finish on the cover, or a layout that has to be redone when significant new developments make the gist of the original design idea obsolete.

How a writer meets a deadline says a lot to me about their general work style. If I need the draft by a particular time on the day I’ve specified (first thing in the morning, close of business, early afternoon), I let the writer know. If you aren’t clear if “due next Monday” means “I want it in my in-box when I get into work” or “before midnight Monday night,” ask.

I try to give writers as much leeway as I can with deadlines. In return, I expect writers to let me know how the reporting and writing process is going. If sources aren’t cooperating, tell me a week before deadline, rather than the day before. Editors can usually suggest other people to talk to, or another approach to a topic, if it’s the structuring of the article or the actual writing of it that’s causing problems. I don’t see questions or requests for advice as a sign of weakness.

Another caveat: I freelance myself, and I understand how easy it is to over-commit. But don’t make your full plate my problem. Be honest with your editor if you’re overbooked. If you just accepted the assignment, call them back immediately and beg off, as graciously as possible. Maybe even suggest one of your less-overburdened buddies to do the assignment (you’ll be making three people happy—you, your writing buddy and the editor—if the writer you suggest is up to the job).

If you’re already well into the interview/writing stage, call the editor and talk about what can be done to rectify the situation, but don’t drop the ball unless you don’t want to work for that editor again. It’s an open secret that many of editors pad their deadlines to deal with writer break-downs, but writers who take advantage of that all the time are not at the top of our “favorites” list.

Writers who meet deadlines promptly and who communicate about issues related to deadlines get assignments. Writers, no matter how good, who cannot make deadlines do not.

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