Coaches are hot. And I'm not just talking about the loved-and-loathed, occasionally controversial overseers of Major League sports teams (or the foxy [male] girls' basketball coach at my high school who was scooped up by one of his players as soon as she graduated.) It seems every time I turn around I bump into a life coach. I've run into the odd business coach here and there. And I was recently invited to attend a seminar presided over by a wealth coach. So why not a writing coach?
We frequently get calls and e-mails from our clients asking for help with specific editorial problems – "Do I need who or whom here?" "Do I need a capital or lowercase letter after a semicolon?" – and we're happy to lend a hand (gratis, a benefit of membership in the Editorial Emergency club, where all the cool kids hang out). In this sense, we consider ourselves writing coaches. We recently had the pleasure of meeting a kindred soul, a professional writer who is beloved by her colleagues for helping them through editorial crises large and small. Following are a few wise words from Coach Kristen.
* * *Social and political activists, with their fiery convictions, can spout inspirational rhetoric all the livelong day, but ask them for a paragraph asking someone to fund their efforts and they freeze. Members of Congress and political action groups are pieces of cake compared to the cold stare of the blank page. Which, I suppose, is where I come in. I share their convictions, but the page is my comfort zone. I'm the writer.
My colleagues' sighs of relief are audible but somewhat short-sighted. As anyone who takes pride in his or her writing will tell you, it's a skill (and a pleasure!) that everyone should have.
Mostly I am a cheerleader, encouraging these brilliant minds to follow their own superior instincts.Knowing how to write well teaches you how to speak better, I insist, an alluring idea to the crusaders around me. So my responsibilities as the writer are split between actual solitary writing and the coaching of others. Some of this coaching involves grammatical rules, but mostly I am a cheerleader, encouraging these brilliant minds to follow their own superior instincts. Since writing has always come naturally to me, I am learning for the first time about the fears many people, even the smartest, bravest ones, continually face.
#1: The Blank Page
The first trick is to stop envisioning the page already full of well-constructed clauses and perfect punctuation. Do what artists do and sketch. Put down a general outline if you can; otherwise, just list the words you're planning to use. A blank page looks a lot friendlier when "support," "programs" and "youth" (insert your own jargon here) are there to build from.
#2: How Do I Say This?
It's a complex thought; somehow, you need to cover three subjects in one sentence, and you don't know how to string them together so they make sense like they do in your head. How do you say it? Well, just say it. Out loud. Explain it to a colleague or to thin air, then write down what comes out of your mouth. Too many people don't realize that good writing sounds as good as it looks, so why shouldn't the process start aloud?
This is a favorite strategy of Heidi, my program director. We'll talk through entire pages, taking notes all along the way, before she'll even start writing. As a result, her finished product is always cohesive and rock-solid.
Incidentally, I do essentially the opposite when I'm preparing for an important business meeting or conversation. I'll write everything out, usually in outline form, with a few key thoughts worded exactly as I want to present them verbally. Works great for breakups, too, by the way.
#3: Which Words?
Writing, like everything else, is about choices. Before you can overcome the agony of deciding between "unique" and "singular," recognize that you couldn't walk down a street without deciding which side of the baby stroller to pass by or whether or not to stop into Coffee Bean. But you make those choices easily and eventually get to the end of the block. And isn't a paragraph just a block, after all?
What's important to remember is that there is no such thing as a piece of writing that is perfect or ideal, something that exemplifies only "correct" choices;
Too many people don't realize that good writing sounds as good as it looks, so why shouldn't the process start aloud?there is no mathematical equation. The goal, rather, is to make your piece complete, fulfilling your editorial purpose in an aesthetically pleasing way. I look back on my writing days, months, years later, coming up with different ideas and words to make the same arguments. As my vocabulary and life experience continue to develop over time, I suspect I will edit myself endlessly, but joyously.
There are infinite ways to communicate a particular thought; just think of all the words that have been written about, say, "rain." Rain has been sad, cleansing, sexy, comforting and a thousand other things since pen first met paper, and each adjective was a choice. Each word could have been a different one, a fact potentially more daunting than exciting. The only way to embrace the boundless possibilities is to buy a thesaurus, use it to feel good about your choice and let it guide you to the next one. In other words, learn to commit, damn it!
#4: Four Eyes!
My colleagues who doubt their writing abilities take comfort in the fact that someone like me will be polishing and proofing their work. Even if I don't write it, I see every word that my organization releases publicly, and I try to review the pieces with their authors as frequently as possible. (If I can't go through the edits in person, I'll highlight my changes within the document and ask the author to review them. I use Microsoft Word, but I believe most word processing programs have this function.)
Even if you are a great writer, four eyes are always better than two, especially if you've been staring at the document in question for hours on end. And if you're editing the work of others, be sure to maintain their structure, tone and creative voice as much as possible. It can be disheartening to have your piece completely rewritten by someone else's choices.
The beautiful thing about writing is that a blank page can be anything, from basic conduit to sublime catharsis. But it's nothing to shy away from. The way I see it, with spiders, rush-hour traffic and asking a stranger on a date, we have enough to fear in this world.
* * *Since entering the workforce, Kristen Stancik has gone from lecturing high school students on the proper use of condoms to lecturing her activist colleagues on the proper use of commas. She considers herself something of an expert on everything in between.