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Coach helps suffering writers by listening

Monday, June 28, 1999

By Peter Leo, Post-Gazette Writing Coach

If I've been asked once, I've been asked twice: What the heck is a writing coach? It's a question I've put to myself many times.

In a recent column about writing, editor John Craig described me as the house psychologist. I'm no pro psychologist, but the man was on to something. Writing, particularly in a deadline-driven newsroom, has an emotional dimension. This fact was brought home to me in my first week on the job four years ago.

In one day, a reporter was sent my way because she had set off her editor's hypertension; a writer complained that dealings with stonewalling superiors were irritating her already irritable bowel; and one of the paper's more prominent columnists checked in with writer's block.

All this put me into a funk. I wish I could say I was brought low by the suffering of mankind, but that wasn't it. I was face-to-face with the brutal realization that I was in over my head. Suddenly, writing three humor columns a week, the job I'd left for the unknown adventures of writing coachdom, seemed like a day at the beach.

Hypertension and irritable bowel syndrome aside, I wasn't qualified to take on writer's block. But ignorance and my many years in journalism had taught me you can buy time with a question.

"You've got writer's block? How long have you had it?"

"Six years."

"Six years? Let me get this straight," I said, doing the math. "You've done 900 columns with writer's block?"

I kept the conversation going, desperately trying to stay afloat, incapable of anything brisk and authoritative such as, "Take two obits and call in the morning." I don't remember how our talk ended. But it was clear I was of no help to my fellow columnist. Or was I?

Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies tell a wonderful story about coaching writers. Poynter developed the coaching approach, which sees writing as a collaboration between writer and editor, as opposed to the more traditional you-write-it-I'll-fix-it editing style. It offers programs for journalists at its base in St. Petersburg, Fla. It has courses for school kids, too.

After one such course, an exceptional middle-schooler named Crystal was asked who had helped her the most in her writing. Clark and Fry exchanged glances, each feeling bad that the other was about to go unrecognized. They needn't have worried.

"My dog Cesar," replied Crystal. Whenever Crystal wanted to try out a piece of writing, she would call Cesar into the room. The dog would sit there, all ears. Not once did he interrupt. His attentive listening gave Crystal the confidence to press on.

I wouldn't claim to be in Cesar's league, but, diffident by nature, I've always been a better listener than talker. When I had trouble getting my bearings as writing coach, Roy Clark told me this: Think of your job as hosting a conversation about writing.

So I did. And so I still do. Clark's brilliant advice lifted the burden of having to be an expert with all the answers. I was able to be what I am, a writer with the time to listen to and talk with fellow writers about their work, and learn.

This usually happens in my office, far from the crush of deadline and the demands of editors, who have to do the real work. But the conversation also takes place in the computer where I generate discussions about writing, reporting and editing.

There's a computer bulletin board where reporters and editors comment on what we did well or not so well in that day's paper, as well as a file of good writing from other sources. There is PGU, U as in university, where staffers lead conversations on skills they excel in, such as interviewing, beat reporting or editing.

Any wisdom I dispense is borrowed: We are tellers of stories, not only purveyors of facts. Write for real people, not editors. Write in fear of the reader ready to hit the eject button. One bonehead grammatical error will draw more reader reaction than a string of finely turned phrases. Above all, write clearly, and never be boring.

I have more writing bromides, but, as we know from Crystal, there's a lot to be said for a coach who shuts up and wags his tail.

Peter Leo is the Post-Gazette's writing coach. You can reach him at 412-263-1561 or pleo@post-gazette.com.



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