Tag Archives: writing coaching

Recommended Reading: Writing is My Drink

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The Book: Writing is My Drink, by Theo Pauline Nestor

The Take-Away: An amazing blending of memoir and writing instruction, this book goes above and beyond the call of duty, helping writers find their voice by learning how Nestor found hers.

The Review: Some people working in nonfiction, crusty old journalists like myself included, grow a bit antsy when the damnably vague word “voice” is thrown around in a how-to book on writing. And yet we all know what it means, and how important it is in the success of a story, especially in first-person pieces or in genres like memoir. It’s hard to teach voice, I thought before reading this book. As with literal voice training, one shapes one’s voice by listening to it during repeated practice attempts, no matter how off-key or squeaky those attempts might sound.

While developing a distinctive writing voice is still seems challenging, Writing is My Drink is a tonic that will steady the nerves through Nestor’s accessible prose and provocative writing prompts.

 

Theo Pauline Nestor, author of Writing is My Drink.

Theo Pauline Nestor, author of Writing is My Drink.

The book, on its most surface level, tells of the author’s journey as a writer and how she went from struggling dilettante to successful writer and writing teacher. But this isn’t the type of writer’s memoir where you feel as if the writer is now standing off to the side, detached from the memories and the effort it took to get where he/she is now, and chuckling with some sort of holier-than-thou attitude. Nestor takes us back to the trenches of her early writing days, and reveals her vulnerability and off-the-mark attempts as she learned her craft.

What separates Nestor’s volume from so many others in this genre (and I should know – I own most of them produced in the last decade and a half) is her commitment to unflinching honesty, both in what she shares from her past and what she encourages the reader to mine for their writing material.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Nestor is in the middle of discussing what led up to the creation of her first published work of fiction …

“What does this have to do with finding my own voice? With your finding your own voice? Everything. Because it isn’t Bach string quartets and split-shot nonfat lattes and generally placid conditions that being us to our own voices. That’s what we think will get us there. That’s what we want to get us there. … But for me it was more like running through fire, feeling like you’re going to totally lose it, then trying to act like it’s a regular day when you show up at Starbucks with your laptop. And that’s pretty much what happened the day that I felt like my real voice was starting to show up on the page. I didn’t get there with the two advanced degrees in English … I didn’t finally get there because I wanted it. I got there because I was desperate.”

 

Also outstanding are Nestor’s writing prompts/exercises. I often find prompts esoteric or unappealing, but as with the exposition and narration in her chapters, the exercises encourage the reader to dig deep and write about things that really matter them – a key feature in developing a distinctive, coherent voice. I especially liked her set of prompts related to building community and companionship into one’s writing practice, because I think that’s an aspect of writing that often gets ignored in favor praising a writer’s ability to slave away alone in their garret.

Author Gretchen Rubin, in her testimonial on the paperback cover of Writing is My Drink, compares it to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and I have to say I agree. On a personal level, both books really resonated with me due to their honesty and dedication to getting at the truth of one’s life. If you’re looking for a book that will help you translate what you feel in your heart onto the page, you may very well find Writing is My Drink to be your cup of tea.

 

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From the archives: In Praise of Zero Drafts

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Photo courtesy SXC.

Today’s post is a repeat of a popular post from last August related to the joys of drafts that precede the actual structuring of a nonfiction story. Enjoy!

In Praise of Zero Drafts

I’ve been told by freelance writers, when I describe to them my approach to writing, that I write like an editor. Perhaps I do.

One time I was comparing notes with one of my writers, and she told me that producing copy is never an issue for her—but she chokes on editing her own work, to the point that she hires an editor friend to polish her work before she submits it for publication. I, on the other hand, typically have to squeeze out my first draft. But once I have something out on paper, I can edit, rearrange and manipulate the content to my heart’s content—with my own writing, I feel that everything is negotiable once I have a draft to play with.

If you tend to choke on producing early drafts, learning how to write a “zero draft” may be a path out of writer’s block. A zero draft is what you write before you write the rough draft. It’s a no-structure, no-holds-barred, no-one-is-gonna-see-this brain-dump that lets you exorcise the demons (or angels) of this particular story, so you can see what you have and begin structuring your material. It’s the functional equivalent to dumping a box of Legos out on a table to see how many pieces (and what kind) you have before you begin building something.

In their amazing work, “Coaching Writers,” Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry recommend that newsroom editors working with writers who can’t figure out where to begin their stories to write a zero draft in the form of a short note to the editor, describing what information they gathered during their field reporting. The technique gets the focus off wrestling with the structure of the story, and pours it into a format that everyone understands—the personal letter.

For example,

“Dear Liz,

I went to report at the Democratic National Convention, but got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam. I stepped out of my car and talked to Denver commuters about how the convention is impacting their city. Some people loved it and the money it was bringing in, some people hated how it brought the traffic and city services to a screeching halt, but everyone had an opinion about what a mega-event like this one does to a city the size of Denver. By the time I got to the convention, I felt as if this was the story, and not what was going on at the convention center.

Sincerely, A. Writer.”

In just a few sentences, our writer has identified a story line, key points of interest (perhaps useful in the lead or nut graph) and even a bit of a tentative structure (perhaps point-counterpoint, or issue-by-issue debates on the impact of the event?). If he or she had been trying to cook up a great first-person sight-and-sound lead, he/she might have lost track of the other details, or how they would support the flow of the story once their lead anecdote was over.

Another zero draft technique, as I alluded to earlier, is the brain-dump. This could be a list of anecdotes, facts, quotes, descriptions, etc., that you found gripping or which you can’t get out of your head in relation to your story. Do not try to write a lead, a nut graph or transitions that will survive into the rough draft. Just get what you know on paper.

Put your zero draft away long enough to do a load of laundry, mow the yard, drink a beer—whatever—then come back to it. You need time away to let your brain work on the structural part subconsciously. When you’re ready, review your draft, circling repeating patterns, good bits of description or exposition, information that naturally works as a transition, belongs in the lead, etc. You can use your notes on the zero draft to create an outline/mindmap/storyboard for the piece, or you can just refer to it as you do your first real draft—since now have now made your thinking visible, you can sculpt it to serve the needs of your assignment.

Another technique that can get you over the what-to-write hump is known as “scaffolding.” This is useful when you have a pretty good idea what to say but you’re not as sure where to jump into the story. Roy Peter Clark discussed how he used the scaffolding technique recently to write an article about the late Tim Russert; it’s a great way to acknowledge that your story will change from draft to draft, and to write your way into the story.

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Writing Crap & Shitty First Drafts

English professor and writing teacher Elizabeth Kleinfeld holds forth about the benefits of a zero draft on her revisionspiral blog.

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing

Another take on zero drafts, from the perspective of academic writing.

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft

This brief article, posted at uliveandlearn.com, shows some ways you can use analog paper-based methods to repurpose your zero draft as a story map or visual outline of your work.

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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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