Isolation is both best friend and worst enemy to a writer. Writers need solitude to be productive, but too much solitude makes them admire their texts instead of going the distance to revise their drafts.
So, at some point, even good writers need to be coached on their writing. In our culture, we’re more familiar with criticizing or finding fault than we are with coaching (which employs instructing, directing, or prompting). This article offers some practical suggestions to help you learn to coach another writer.
Coaching sessions don’t have to be long or structured. One first step might be to ask the writer, “Tell me in one or two sentences what you want the reader to get out of your document.” Then focus on introduction, middle, and end to check for consistency, logic, and organization. Finally, offer suggestions on the finer details.
(Incidentally, the work you perform as a coach is similar to what an editor does. However, a coach will probably be in personal contact with the writer either face-to-face, by phone, or by Zoom. An editor may act as a coach to the writer but will more likely never actually interact with the writer.)
The right attitude will help move you toward the goal of supporting the writer and identifying areas for improvement. Use a subtle “OREO” approach:
- A layer of positive comment: “This is a good start: You have packed so much detail in here!”
- A layer of coaching: “I was lost here. Help me understand….”
- A final layer of positive comment: “You’re more than halfway through now!”
Be specific about your suggestions. Point to a sentence or a word where you became confused or ask for a graphic representation of a concept. However, don’t risk “fixing” the text. Let them carry that ball. (This is where a coach differs from an editor—usually the editor is responsible for changing and fixing the text.)
Avoid blaming. Instead of “You confused me” or “You led me to think this,” try substituting, “I became confused” or “I thought….” Also avoid “You should do this or that” in favor of “I wonder if a vertical list here would clarify the topics?”
Don’t fear that you might hurt the writer’s feelings. Praising everything is less valuable than an honest assessment of positives and negatives. Writers may feel vulnerable during this process, so pay attention to nonverbal reactions that will help you adjust your feedback.
Remember, the writer’s goal is to “get it right,” not to “be right.” When Nabisco received feedback that consumers wanted more filling in their OREO cookies, they surely did not sulk over perceived “criticism.” Instead, they took this valuable feedback and created Double Stuf OREOs.
Smart writers will listen, do their pushups, and get back into the game. Their final product will be more winning because of you!