The Editor as Coach

Marshall Cook talks about getting good articles and building good writers by adopting a "coaching" approach to editing, rather than assuming an adversarial role with the writer.

Clark Stallworth, a grizzled, old managing editor for the Birmingham, Alabama News, was a professional copy fixer for most of his career. He said he could rip people's copy up big time. A reporter would bring something to him, he'd know what was wrong with it, he'd fix it, give it back to him. They resented him, and rightfully so.

He changed his way of operating with writers and reporters. A couple of things resulted from that. First of all, you get better writing. Secondly, and more importantly, he says, the writer grows. The writer becomes a better writer.

As it happens, the nice way of doing things also turns out to be the smart and practical way to do things. There is not a dichotomy between being a loving, nurturing person and a practical, hard-minded editor.

Editors tend to control the process, and good ones give instructions or directions. They fix copy when it comes back less than it should be. They have to work on deadlines. They tend-and this is crucial-to take the story from the writer, and in some sense make it their own. And that's where the resentment comes in. It's a matter of "Who owns it at the end." The trick is to get the copy you want and still let it be the writer's copy. If we can do that, we'll have excellent publications and happy writers.A sharp editor is a critic, an analyst, a judge, probing for weaknesses and fixing them. If the editor does all the fixing, it will foster dependence. We want to avoid that. An adversarial relationship teaches the writer not to make leaps, not to take chances, not to explore, but to avoid doing anything wrong.

The editor as coach does some listening early in the process, shares control as much as it's possible. A coach will ask questions. What's this story all about? What's the focus? What are we trying to say here? What's the goal?

Before the writing begins, be clear about what you want. If possible, let the writer talk about it too: possible angles, who we might talk to, how we might develop this, where it might go. Say to the writer, "If this changes on you, tell me." And then be the kind of person who can be told. Be the kind of person who is accessible for writers. Does this take a little bit of time? Yeah. It does take longer to talk about it up front, and to work with them during the course of the article. But it takes a lot less time at the end, and the copy's better, and the writer has the sense of achievement.

"Editor as coach" gets the focus back on the writer learning and growing. He leaves the story in the writer's hands, which builds writer confidence, builds on strengths, fosters independence, and encourages the writer to take some chances. And ultimately, the reader benefits.

Mr. Stallworth asks the writer, "What's good about it?" I hate to admit it, but this was foreign to me as a teacher. I always started with, "What's wrong with it?" That's not a very good platform. I have been editing a variety of publications for a long time, and not too often has there been something where we couldn't find some common ground. And then say to the writer, "How could it be better?" Stallworth says, and my experience has verified this, almost always the writer knows. Turn it back and say, "Take it the last step; I think you're really close."

Your writers may be tired of their stories, they may not know what to do, they may be lazy, they may be on deadline with three other publications. I would encourage you at that point, at least spend the three minutes to ask, "What does it need? How close are we?"

If you still have to some massive rework, you will do it-your ultimate responsibility is not to the writer's feelings -- although that's important -- it's to the reader, and to the quality and integrity of the publication. So you'll do the rework, but you'll let the writer know before it comes out in print.

Always ask, "How will this help my reader?" Whether it's a short blurb, a feature article, or the whole publication, the best question we can ever ask ourselves as writers and editors is, "How will this enhance the life of my reader?"

Asking "What will this do for my reader?" is not only a good Christian perspective, it works. It makes for a useful publication. We don't just want a good publication, right? We want a publication that's absolutely essential to the lives of our readers. It would be an awful thing if you missed a publication deadline and people didn't even notice.

My theory is you're going to be growing writers, which is a lovely thing, and you're not going to have to make so many changes at the end, because you're going to be getting the story that you want-or at least something closer to it.

Can you be encouraging? Can you praise what is good? Can you find the strengths? Then it will work. The writer will end up owning the story. That's good.