Copy editors as coaches

Michael Longinow | Biola University

Roy Peter Clark's admonition is that writers who talk with editors before they even head out the door to do reporting end up with fewer problems when the copy gets turned in. Sure, there are editors out there who scoff at this and some writers, too. But for students who need to learn about both newsroom communication skills and the nuances of improving copy, the writer-coach experience is a good one worth the time and trouble.

The book upon which this exercise rides is Clark-Fry's "Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together Across Media Platforms."

Pair each of your editing students with a student in a beginning newswriting class. Require that they meet with this partner informally before your first assignment. Monitor this with a time log that will be turned in by the editing student and get the coached student to report to you as an accountability measure.

The editing student will coach the writer through three cycles of the publication. The editing student can do this (as Clark points out) in a few minutes on a sidewalk or in the cafeteria. Or it can be a more structured meeting. But you should urge the editing students not to wear out their welcome with their writer. The writer needs to maintain ownership of the process and the product.

Best arrangement is for the writing student to be required to be part of this experiment. Where possible, get the writing course instructor to fold this into their course or offer extra credit. Writing student needs a buy-in. (Discourage students from coaching their boyfriend/girlfriend, ex-boyfriend, room-mate or a relative.)

The coaching relationship begins the second week of the semester. The actual coaching begins about a third of the way through the term. The editing student need not be a member of the editorial staff, but the editorial staff should be notified of what's going on and should be agreeable to helping it succeed (the instructor can help with this particularly if the instructor is media adviser of the publication, but even if not.)

The editor acts as a sounding-board for ideas on angle, sources, possible hurdles/obstacles, etc. The writer does most of the talking. The editor listens and asks questions. The editor is an encourager. If the writer is reticent or non-verbal, the editor will have to work harder at the communication but should be encouraged by the instructor not to give up.

(The instructor and editing student, though, must be alerted that if a writer begins going AWOL, this behavior should be pursued immediately. If the writer is unwilling to make this relationship happen, another writer should be found quickly. Honesty is best. Plan B is to switch writers if, after the first cycle, the relationship is tanking.)

The editor coaches the writer up-front through ideas on all three stories before they begin the series. The stories don't have to be connected, and these ideas are subject to change depending on breaking news events. On the week of the first story cycle, the editor meets briefly with the writer to ask if any new developments have come up with the story.

The writer turns in the copy to the publication editor on deadline. The editor-writer meet on the day the publication hits the news-stands and they chat about what it looks like. Things changed? How so? What should have been caught and wasn't in terms of error? What would the writer do better next time? The two also do a quick prelim chat on the next story coming up.

Same routine for next two stories.

Editor is keeping a journal of the entire coaching process. Includes time log (date, time). The editor is talking about the process, but also what it feels like.

At the end of the three cycles, the editor-writer meet and look back at what worked and didn't. They look over all three stories. Each pair will appear in class on a given day and all pairs will share with the class how the process went. What each learned about writing and editing and how coaching helps but what needs to be in place to make coaching a success.

Kathryn Jenson White | University of Oklahoma

This approach works well in a unit on the editor/writer relationship as it develops in the world of freelance magazine writing.

I asked a friend editing at a magazine to remove names and send me a copy of an editing file she kept on one story. It contains the e-mailed assignment, the original story as submitted, versions and e-mails discussing changes. She also included the final copy in the magazine. The file allows me to show the stages in the revising and editing of the story as they played out in real time in a real situation within a relationship.

I like working with the big picture to put all the specific changes editors make into the context of a relationship between two people working toward a common goal although they may not always agree on how to achieve it. After the generally fast and often non-collaborative editing reality of dailies, this unit provides another perspective.

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