A Guest Post by writing coach consultant Delia Lloyd.
There’s a scene in one of my all-time favourite films, All that Jazz, that addresses the perennial question about innate talent vs. learned ability. In the scene, the protagonist – a choreographer modelled on the legendary Bob Fosse – confronts a ballerina in his company who’s crying because she knows she’s not as good as the other dancers.
“I can’t make you a great dancer,” Fosse consoles her. “But I can make you a better dancer.”
That’s how I feel when I work with writers.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as being a “natural talent” in writing. You can definitely see when a writer has a gift – David Foster Wallace, Amos Oz, and my new idol – Anna Burns – all come to mind. But, as we all know, years of half-written sentences and crumpled up drafts – not to mention gallons of self-doubt – lie behind any prose that looks effortless.
For most of us mere mortals, however, writing is mostly about putting your bum in the chair and being willing to write shitty first drafts. So then the question becomes: how do you help people become “better dancers?”
For a long time, I worked with writers primarily as an editor. Someone would give me a draft of a paper and I would fill it with red ink, altering word choice, verb tenses and sentence length. Invariably, I would also recommend that they completely rewrite their introductions so as to hint at the entire shape of things to come. I’m a firm believer that if you get the introduction right, the whole paper writes itself.
These days, I spend more time as a writing coach. My advice still boils down to some combination of exhorting them to work on both style and structure. But the process is quite different. For starters, I don’t “fix” anything. I mark up clients’ drafts to show them where they might improve their writing. Mostly, however, what we do is talk.
We talk through their arguments to clarify what they are trying to say. I try to show them that even if they feel confused, they actually know what they wish to say. They just need to move what’s in their heads onto the page.
Sometimes, we do exercises together to practice various aspects of good writing. We look at how to experiment with “strong starts,” how to identify one’s audience and meet its needs, and how to use mind maps to organise key points and supporting evidence.
Other times, we simply talk about why they feel under-confident in their writing. They tell me about a boss who told them that they weren’t any good at writing, so they should just avoid it. Or about a thesis adviser who abandoned them, interested only in seeing the final product, not guiding them through the process.
For me, editing and coaching both constitute helping professions. The primary difference is that with coaching, you get more insight into the whole person who sits behind the written word. And you don’t so much “do something” to their writing as empower them to do it themselves.
I’m not sure if I am producing any prima ballerinas. But I certainly enjoy helping the writers I work with become better dancers.