Tag Archives: story coaching

Beyond Comma Patrol: 10 Ways Editors Can Supercharge Your Communications

Photo by Nicole_N courtesy of SXC.

I’ve known for most of my career as an editor that there was a whole lot more to what I was doing than copyediting. Yes, knowing how to copyedit is one of the basics for my profession – like knowing basic principles of balance and proportion if you are a visual artist, or having basic arithmetical skills if you are an accountant.

Yet being a crackerjack copyeditor doesn’t ensure that a journalist will be a good managing editor or editor-in-chief. Editors bring far more to the table than just checking your copy for stylistic consistency, grammatical correctness or compliance with generally accepted rules of punctuation. Here’s a handy list of 10 ways that an editor can improve your writing, whether you’re writing a 200-word report or a 100,000-word book.

1) Content curation – “Curation” has become a buzzword in the past few years, but editors have been evaluating, selecting and arranging content to appeal to their audiences for a long time. As the Internet spews skyrocketing amounts of information at us, an editor’s ability to filter and screen content and present the best/most appropriate materials will become increasingly valuable.

2) Content aggregation – Curation of content focuses on the selection of individual items; aggregation of content focuses on grouping materials together in meaningful ways. Before there were RSS feeds, there were wire editors, piecing together national or international news sections by aggregating content in a way that allowed readers to keep up on developments and remain well-informed citizens. I call my personal approach to aggregation “getting the mix right.” Whether it’s a collection of sports briefs or an entire podcast or magazine issue, my editorial focus is on grouping content in a way that forms a coherent whole.

3) Story organization – Some stories have an obvious structure – chronological, say, or a bulleted list (“5 Ways to Fresher Breath”). For those that don’t, an editor can help you dump out your reporting notebook and research files and build a structure that will help the reader pay attention to the story, not the way it is being told.

4) Story-crafting – When I discovered the story coaching method of editing, I had a major epiphany about what value editors brought to the writing process itself. Practitioners of story coaching, such as Don Murray, Jack Hart, Jacqui Banaszynski and Roy Peter Clark, actively collaborate with the writer, both before and after the story has been filed, to shape the story for maximum impact and readability. This skill, along with #3, are two prerequisites that will ensure content that is worthy of having “comma patrol” performed to provide a final polish.

5) Project management – No small amount of a managing editor’s job is being a traffic manager for a communications deliverable. He or she must ride herd over a small stable of writers, shape and polish the story, AND hand it off to design on time, all while remembering how the content in this issue fits with that of 3 issues down the road, and checking to make sure page folios are right and ads do not contain coupons or other offers that are expired. It’s possible to be an editor and be disorganized, but I am not sure it’s possible to be a good editor without a sense of how to move content through the system quickly and efficiently.

6) UX/usability expert – Not just for web geeks, the concept of UX or the user experience is something editors concern themselves with constantly. We are the reader’s primary advocate. If we can’t make sense of a passage or an idea, how will they?

7) Moderator/listener  – I am not convinced that journalists can be objective, but editors are charged with listening to all sides with an open mind. This assignment makes them good at orchestrating interactions between those who hold divergent perspectives, and also tends to make them good at listening for subtle things, such as that which is NOT being voiced during any given debate.

8) Creative consultant/innovator – Editors spend much of their day working within well-defined parameters, such as budget and the format of their publication. They are constantly challenged to make something novel and engaging out within a defined template. This require an ability to innovate and find a way to pour new wine into old wine skins and make it all hold together.

9) Historian – A good editor makes assignments and revises copy with a keen appreciation for the background of whatever topic he or she is working with. Most issues do not spring into existence with no frame of reference. Editors must understand that frame, and make it visible to the audience.

10) Contextualizer – closely related to #9, this role has the editor make visible all the elements, current and historical, that shape a given story. Readers who understand the full context of an issue will be far less easily swayed by sound bites and polemics.

Another view of what editors do: Who am I this time? Roles editors play

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Recommended Reading: “Help! For Writers”

The Book: “Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions To The Problems Every Writer Faces,” by Roy Peter Clark.

The Takeaway: This is a great book for nonfiction writers who are looking for specific strategies to combat common writing problems, such as organizing their material, selecting fresh, imaginative language to use in their stories, or how to complete a draft of their work.

The Review: Too many books about writing try to be all things to all people, when they really aren’t capable of the task. The author will cover everything from how to interview celebrities to how to hire a copy editor, lavishing many pages on his or her areas of expertise, while giving everything else a cursory glance. The result is often a lopsided, unsatisfying book.

Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, deftly avoids this trap in “Help! For Writers,” while still managing to cover vexations from across the entire writing process. His secret weapon is his approach – instead of presenting writers with his “master plan” for how to write and expecting them to fit themselves into his paradigm, he organizes his material, as the subtitle suggests, by addressing specific “trouble spots” that are frequently found on the writing journey, such as “my work habits are so disorganized” or “I can’t stop procrastinating.” (He also wins points with me for phrasing the trouble spots in language that clearly has come directly from the mouths of actual writers!)

The beauty of training this lens on the writing process is that it avoids one-size-fits-all solutions and makes the book useful to a broad spectrum of writers. For example, when responding to the problem “I hate writing assignments and other people’s ideas,” Clark suggests the following strategies:

  • Learn to turn an assignment into your story.
  • Treat assignments as story topics rather than story ideas.
  • Make it your own.
  • Send up a flare to express dissatisfaction with an assignment or to suggest something better.
  • Take what you think is a bad assignment and brainstorm with other writers to turn it into something special.
  • Use your favorite search engine to discover surprising connections.
  • If a story assignment points left, don’t be afraid to turn right.

“Help! For Writers” will be very useful to those looking for those looking for tips and tools to move them out of a writing bog caused by an issue that they can articulate and define. Newbie as well as experienced writers will be able to relate to the problems Clark addresses and benefit from his proposed solutions. It’s also a book that will continue to be useful to writers as they advance in their careers, as the situations that Clark pinpoints are ones that can challenge all writers, regardless of their experience level or professional status.

Learn more about the book

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Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for March 6, 2011

Photo courtesy of SXC.

Are You Too Busy to Write? Seven Ways to Blog More Productively — Chris Garrett on New Media
New media expert Chris Garrett discusses strategies for for increasing the quality and frequency of one’s blogging.

Tweeting from beyond the grave
Russell Working, writing on Ragan.com, discusses the phenomenon of biographers, science center publicists and other history-oriented writers “assuming” the identities of long-dead famous people on Twitter, and offers four lessons that the success of such tweeters can provide to other writers.

Your First Draft is Allowed to Suck! | Fuel Your Writing
In this article, fiction writer Icy Sedgwick reminds us all that a first draft is just that, a draft, and gives advice on how to keep that in mind and improve one’s writing.

How a Writer Can Aggravate an Editor
Meryl Evans, a web content maven and digital publishing blogger, discusses a recent e-mail she received from a writer seeking work at an e-publication that had ceased publishing 3 years ago! A great example of what NOT to do when approaching a magazine (online or off)!

7 Steps to Writing Success | The Artist’s Road
Patrick Ross summarizes the wisdom he soaked up at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2011 Conference and Bookfair. Steps include “write for yourself,” “build an online community,” and “be open to the wisdom of others.”

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Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for July 29, 2010

Photo credit: Everett Guerny, via SXC.

My Reading Notebook
Kitty Bucholtz, writing on Routines for Writers, discusses the paper notebook she uses to write one-page summaries of the novels has read, and how it relates to her fiction writing.

How Media Consumption Has Changed Since 2000
A SlideShare presentation from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Interesting statistics and information on trends in our consumption of all sorts of media.

How to Write About a Boring Topic – 5 Good Writing Tips
Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen discusses ways to dig deeper into a story assignment that you’re not crazy about.

Writers: 8 Alternatives to Magazine Markets
Susan Johnston, writing on the blog Urban Muse, discusses opportunities beyond print magazines for enterprising freelancers. Covers everything from newsletters and catalogs to mobile apps and e-books.

More tips for writing fast | WordCount
Michelle Rafter discusses a couple of ways to cut corners (safely) and get drafts put together quickly without sacrificing quality.

Hire a Journalist | Duct Tape Marketing
The “Duct Tape” folks make the case that journalists, not marketers, should be the content producers in today’s business environment. Good news for unemployed reporters and editors!

Bonus links!

J-Lab | 2010 Knight-Batten Award Winners
The Knight-Batten Awards reward news and information efforts that create opportunities to involve citizens in public issues and supply opportunities for participation. Here are thumbnail sketches of the award-winning projects.

Associated Press: How to Pitch a News Story
This YouTube video, featuring editors from the AP, contains good advice for reporters or PR folks looking to interest editors in a news-oriented story.

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How to Make the Editor Your Friend, Revisited: Discussing the story assignment

Photo by Mateusz Stachowski via SXC.

It’s been a good long while since I discussed ways to make magazine editors happy. There are some simple rules of the road relating to hitting your word count , meeting deadlines and handling revisions that make writer-editor relations ever so much more congenial if you know and follow them.

One of the most crucial steps in the writing process comes at the very beginning of the writer-editor relationship. For many freelance assignments, you’ll get some sort of written direction about the story that your editor needs you to write. How you follow up after receiving that document, whether it be a memo describing the assignment or a contract with story assignment information embedded it in, can be key to understanding exactly what your editor wants and needs from you.

To make things easier, I’ve crafted a short checklist that you might want to keep by the phone or the computer while you communicate with your editor about your new assignment.

Assignment Discussion Checklist

__ The Basics: Are you clear about the story’s deadline, word length, pay rate, kill fee, the section the article is appearing in, what type of story it is (profile, etc.)?

__ The Angle: The story angle is what differentiates this assigned story from any other story you might write on this topic. Are you clear on what your editor wants? Are you free to research the topic further, and suggest angles?

__ Sources: Is the editor supplying you contact information for specific interviewees, associations or organizations that might yield appropriate sources? Do you need to clear potential sources with the editor before contacting them for an interview? To what degree should you work with publicists to set up interviews, gather research information, etc.?

__ Background information: If the editor has a set structure in mind for the piece, can he/she provide links to parallel stories, esp. in his/her publication? Does the publication have a “dossier” of information available for profile subjects? Are there previous stories in the magazine you should read for reference?

__ No-No’s: Discuss any deal-breakers for you and for the editor (i.e., missing deadline without warning, endless revisions without additional pay). For custom, corporate or institutional publications, clarify any “political” danger zones (topics that must be approached a certain way, protocol for contacting VIPs).

__ Follow-up communication: How does the editor prefer to connect with you? Does the mode of communication change if you need him/her to make an urgent decision about the story?

More story assignment tips

Want More Article Assignments? Tips for Working With Magazine Editors
Tips from Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s Quips and Tips for Successful Writers blog.

Helping Reporters Improve Stories | International Journalists Network
Tips on how to coach reporters from a story coach/editor point of view. Many of the pointers apply to maintaining happy editor-writer communication related to the assignment.

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From the archives: Who Am I This Time? Roles Editors Play

Photo courtesy of Jef Bettens via SXC.

(Note: This is a reprint of one of the first posts I produced for Write Livelihood. I reread it the other day and realized how much I still agree with this essay and how much of it still holds true for me. Enjoy!)

I never set out to be an editor. When I pledged myself to the writer’s life (at age 13, flushed with enthusiasm after reading the fictional exploits of S.E. Hinton’s character Ponyboy Curtis in the young adult novel “The Outsiders”), I had the opinion that the role of editor pretty much boiled down to being a copy editor, the leader of the hazardous “comma patrol” that must be run through most stories before they are published.
This opinion was further burnished in college when I got a B+ in a copy editing course. I actually did pretty well in everything except headline-writing, at which I failed miserably because it required that I master the now-archaic skill of producing titles that fit with in a specified “count,” but the course put a bad taste in my mouth for editing. I decided I really was a writer, and should focus my energies on marketing my prose-crafting skills to the world.
That would have been lovely, except for the fact that the world I encountered after j-school graduation seemed to need editors a lot more acutely than it needed writers. Or if they needed writers, they needed authors who could re-write the prose of executives, line managers, degreed professionals, or volunteer retirees.
Despite working at several jobs with the title “editor,” it wasn’t until 2005 that I realized how much of an editor I was, or had become. I attended a conference hosted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s College and University Editor group, and heard Jacqui Banaszynski describe the story coaching method she used with her writers at the Seattle Times.
Story coach. There was an editorial metaphor I could get behind. I suddenly realized that my view of myself as primarily a proofreader and fact-checker for my publication’s writers had been very, very incomplete.
After my editorial epiphany, I started collecting metaphors for the sort of editing I’ve done, primarily as a managing editor for magazines and other print publications. (I’ve also done quite a bit of multimedia production, but that’s another topic for another day.) Beyond having a good command of language and grammar and style, as a good copy editor does, a managing or assignment editor is also a(n)…
Project Manger. For publications that run more than about 16 pages, and have advertisements, having one person who plans the entire issue’s content, and can monitor its journey from idea to completed draft, is essential. Someone has to be there to work out the kinks in workflow (and even to recognize there is such a thing as workflow!).
Traffic Cop. Knowing where the missing story is for next issue is one thing; having the wherewithal to go find out what’s wrong and how to get if fixed is another. Editors have to advocate for what’s best for their publication—from the quality of the articles to how they are presented in the design to their impact on readers.
Architect. Editors have to be conversant in structure, both on the level of an individual story and the structure of an entire issue of a periodical. They have to be able to help writers construct articles that will withstand reader inspection, and they have to be able to design a space where an entire of “community” of articles can live and play together in a manner appealing to outside visitors (= readers).
Mom. As an editor, I am a professional hand-holder and on occasion, a butt-wiper. I make sure stories have everything they need to thrive, and help clean up the messes that are made along the way. I have to care about my stories and my publication more than almost anyone else on staff. I can never foist responsibility for their development on anyone else.
8th grade English teacher. Ahh, middle school English—in my time, 8th grade was the year everyone drilled on sentence diagramming and the parts of speech. Editors have to care about proper language use—not primarily because we’re the guardians of civilized syntax, but because poorly constructed sentences distract from good thinking and consistency in writing helps the story shine through.
Coach. As I said earlier, this was the metaphor that resonated most deeply for me. I’m thinking of a life coach or voice coach for my parallels, not Vince Lombardi. My job is to help the story—and the writer—be all that he, she or it can be. It’s a collaborative relationship which, if done correctly, provides benefits for everyone.
And while we’re on the subject of roles, there are a few roles I’d rather not be cast in as an editor.
A Sadist. I don’t send stories back for revision to shame or humiliate writers. If you want that sort of relationship with an editor, please find a professional dominant and work out your issues.
A Writer’s Enemy. If the story fails, I fail, too. Period. My aim is to support my writers so that they can provide deliverables that do the job assigned in as few drafts as possible.
A Frustrated, Mediocre Writer. I didn’t become an editor because I couldn’t write. Quite the contrary — and the more I learn about editing, the better able I am to apply it to my own writing. In my mind, an editor who “can’t” write is suspect as an editor.
Miss Priss. I have had some contributors, often less-experienced writers, seem to fear my opinion of their writing, as if I existed as an editor to lacerate their initial efforts at writing. I don’t take joy in marking up poorly written copy (see the I-am-not-an-editorial-sadist statement above); what I enjoy is the challenge of making it better. What I find is that more experienced, confident writers feel the least defensive around editors; they tend to be the most realistic about their writing ability, and trust and appreciate the benefits they receive from collaborating with an editor.

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for October 6, 2009

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Photo courtesy SXC.

International Association for Journal Writing

A tip of the blog to Eric Maisel’s Sunday newsletter for bringing this link my way. The IAJW is a coalition of journaling experts (therapists, writing teachers and others) and those who have been helped by the practice. The association says on its home page that it aims to help members “juice up (their) journaling” and it provides plenty of tips for doing just that. The site offers help for budding journalers, articles related to specific journal writing issues, and merchandise to help get the most out of journal writing, including e-books, classes and journaling software.

The association charges $49/year for membership, but also offers quite a bit of “sample” information for free. If you teach journal writing, or take the practice seriously as a writing-related discipline or a healing/self-discovery tool, this site may be worth checking out.

Top 10 Blogs for Writers – The 2009/2010 Winners

Michael Stelzner of Writing White Papers has once again tallied the best writing blogs and announces the winners. This year, there were 27 finalists. Winners included blogs that I regularly link to and admire, including Editor Unleashed, Write to Done, Urban Muse and Quips & Tips for Successful Writers, plus a few blogs new to me, such as Michelle Rafter’s WordCount and Fuel Your Writing.

The lists of winners and finalists form a great blueprint for setting up an RSS aggregator that provides a quick, enjoyable education in writing’s craft and business sides. For writing bloggers such as myself, it also provides a wonderful cadre of aspirational peers to admire and emulate.

Three Hot Books You Can’t Download

FastCompany.com reports on why three new books by the late authors Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, and Ted Kennedy won’t be coming out on Kindle or another e-book format. It’s not (necessarily) because all 3 authors have gone to that great writing garret in the sky; and it’s not (necessarily) because of the subject matter, or printing requirements of the books, although those do factor into the decision to hold off on e-publishing in at least two of the three books. (Kahlo’s book is image-rich, of course, and Kindle doesn’t currently reproduce color imagery; and Nabokov’s unfinished work “The Original of Laura” was originally written on index cards and never organized by the author during his lifetime, so the printed version allows the reader to punch out the pages and rearrange them and he or she wishes.)

No, there’s no common theme that unites this paper-bound trio of books, but it does illustrate that despite the sharp rise in the popularity and profitability of e-books, and Jeff Bezos’ aggressive vision “to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds on Kindle,” not every book is appropriate for digital distribution, and that it’s still important to consider the individual title and its requirements before determining whether to go the e-book route.

What Makes a Story Work

A brief, powerful post from social media expert Chris Brogan’s blog. He quickly demonstrates why “the very best content is that which leaves us feeling like the hero.”

He elaborates on the hero-making theme, saying,

“Think about the movies you love. Think about the songs you replay over and over. Think about the books you read. When we participate in stories, the ones that move us the most are those where we see a bit of ourselves in the storyline, right?”

His tips for achieving this goal are as relevant for corporate deliverables as independent projects. They include:

  • Let them feel smart and included by letting them be introduced as “part of the group” or “in the know.”
  • Give them a solid map. The only time readers shouldn’t know where they’re going, Brogan says, is if they’re reading a mystery, or a Chuck Palahniuk novel.
  • Reward readers of longer pieces with checklists, summaries, etc., anything that validates that they’ve reached a certain level and are ready for your next step.
  • Respect their time by being as brief as possible.
  • Write about them, not you. Or, if you have to write about you (memoirs or biographies come to mind), give them something they can do to make meaning of what you’ve shared.

Overall, this is a great post, which can be consumed and digested in the time it takes to read it on your coffee break.

Bonus Links!!

She Writes

She Writes is a social networking community for female writers of all levels and genres. It also welcomes men to its community.

The Only 12 1/2 Writing Rules You’ll Ever Need

A great poster about writing from AllPosters.com.

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for September 7, 2009

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

How Citizen Journalists Can Learn from Work of ‘Citizen Scientists’

This post is an excellent piece on PBS’s Media Shift Idea Lab about the alliance between professional scientists and citizen or amateur scientists, and what journalists could learn from this.

Post author Dan Schultz notes that he was tuned into scientific community’s attitude towards the contributions of non-professionals by an article on Carnegie Mellon University’s website that documented efforts by Eric Paulos, an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, to equip “everyday mobile devices” with sensors used to collect reliable scientific data. The point of all this effort is to create “a new generation of ‘citizen scientists,’ connected both to the environment and each other.”

That story, combined with several other stories he read about recent astronomy discoveries being initially reported by amateur scientists, made him think about how journalists could learn from this friendly, if structured relationship between professional and non-professional scientists:

“All three types of scientists (professional, citizen, amateur) have beautifully compatible relationships.

“Professionals can safely focus on daunting tasks, knowing that amateurs are ready and willing to take on the smaller stuff (like keeping tabs on Jupiter). The community standards are clear and ultimately bound by cold hard observable fact, so amateurs can make meaningful contributions without diluting the knowledge base. Meanwhile, citizens are being empowered by professionals to help the scientific cause in a way that informs individuals and improves their lives.”

Shultz makes the following recommendations for journalists based on this.

    • Professional journalists can take the lead by clearly defining expectations, explaining best practices, and implementing an accessible infrastructure.
    • If amateur journalists do a good job of covering a smaller scope of topics or areas, then professionals can focus on the deeper, otherwise inaccessible issues.
    • Professional journalists are responsible for creating and maintaining the citizen network if they want it to meet their standards. (Emphasis mine)
    • Citizen networks need more than a host – they need to be explicitly empowered through tools and guidance.
    • A symbiotic relationship between the professional, the amateur, and the crowd is not just possible, it’s socially optimal.

      This article is the first one I’ve seen to turn the typically contentious and negative “real” journalist vs. blogger/citizen reporter debate on its head and posit citizen journalist work as a positive benefit to professional journalists. Definitely worth reading, considering, and discussing.

      Start With A Promise

      A great reminder on what the beginning of each story must do by veteran writing coach Jessica Page Morrell, guest posting on the Editor Unleashed blog.

      Morrell reminds us that, “Story openings are like job interviews, and if the words on the page entertain, you get the job. If they don’t, somebody who writes better gets the job.” She asserts that the easiest way to have your story get “hired” by editors (whom she correctly defines as “highly discerning reader(s) … connoisseurs who love the written word”) is to make a promise consistent with the genre you’re writing in, and then keep that promise.

      She takes readers through the various sorts of promises one might make in a memoir, in a science-fiction story, a romance, etc. These genre-specific tips also could apply to the tone of a nonfiction magazine article, and her general tips on matching the promise to the overall story should be taken to heart by nonfiction authors, who sometimes (in my experience as an editor) mistake a dramatic opening anecdote as a cure-all for a lack of feel for the true tone of the story they’re writing.

      As Morrell says,

      “An emotional opening prepares the reader for a heart-rattling journey, just as a philosophical opening promises a thoughtful exploration of themes, an action-packed opening promises a bronco-breaking ride, and a quiet beginning usually promises an intense exploration of characters’ lives.”

      Amen. Her post is a great reminder of the pact we make with the reader when we ask them to listen to our story, and our responsibility as writers to live up to the promise we make to them.

      Multimedia Magazine ‘FLYP’ Finds New Ways to Tell Stories Online

      From Poynter Online’s E-Media Tidbits section. Author Vadim Lavrusik reports on FLYP magazine, a New York-based publication that uses an innovative palette of online tools and Web 2.0 user functionality to cover topics from politics and science to art and music.

      FLYP augments traditional reporting and writing with animation, audio, video and interactive graphics. One of the major differences between FLYP and other magazines that have ramped up their digital/online versions is how the publication approaches news-gathering and production.

      “(Editor-in-chief Jim) Gaines said the production process at FLYP is different from any of the ‘old media’ publications he has worked for. At many publications there is a pyramid structure; at FLYP the production process is flatly distributed across teams. Everyone gathers and each medium is considered for a particular story. At magazines, on the other hand, the text is the primary medium. Even for Web sites multimedia elements are often an afterthought.”

      Another interesting point raised in the article is how FLYP is packaging rich media ads, which may help tease out the true profitability of using online ads as a mainstay of a publication’s business model. Currently, the publication is being privately funded by multi-millionaire Alfonso Romo, but Gaines would like to create a limited supply of “engaging” rich media ads which readers seek out, but which are not so commoditized that advertisers won’t pay top dollar for them.

      For writers and editors keeping tabs on where online media is going, especially how content and revenue will interact in the “everything should be free” web era, this article is required reading.

      Bonus Links!

      Promptly

      A fun little blog on the Writer’s Digest site that offers writing prompts for readers 3 times a week. Readers can upload their written response to the prompt in the comments section of each post!

      From Telegraph to Twitter: The Language of the Short Form
      Roy Peter Clark gets into microblogging and writes about its historical roots on Poynter Online’s Writing Tools blog.

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      We temporarily interrupt this series…

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      Photo courtesy SXC.

      I hope you’re enjoying the story coaching series we’re doing on Write Livelihood. I’m definitely continuing it, but my day job and freelancing projects have been at full boil this month and I must give them my attention.

      I’ll be sharing a variety of different types of blog posts between now and mid-May, when I expect things to lighten up. Thanks for your patience and please let me know if there are other topics you’d like to see covered in this blog that relate to non-fiction story-crafting.

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      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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