Losing grip: Drafts, Self-Editing and Story Pitching as Exercises in Narrative Humility

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Writer-coaching is not a new concept

By Michael A. Longinow
Biola University

Admit it. You wish the writing was better in your student-run newspaper or magazine. The problem is bigger than you might think. But the good news is it’s not all on you as adviser. It’s the students’ thing — it has to be. And your students are probably more willing to make their writing better than you expect.

That might be surprising. We think of students of the generation sitting in our undergrad classrooms as post-literate: stuck on their phones, never touching books, baffled by people who turn wood pulp newspaper pages or read slick magazines. A 2019 study based on U.S. Education statistics suggests more than 30 million adults in the U.S. cannot read, let alone write. The National Bureau of Economic Research, in 2008, said children whose parents have low literacy are more likely to have low literacy themselves — and to struggle in school, perhaps dropping out. So what’s the answer? Not just us. It’s our students. When students help each other figure out how to learn, how to figure out a task like writing, more than just better articles results. Better students, better learners come of it.

Be warned, though: it’s complicated. To learn journalistic writing is an exercise in courage. It’s confrontation — not merely of the blank screen, or the labyrinth that is English grammar, or the nuances of quoting, paraphrasing and attributing fact or opinion. The real face-off is with self. A writer who wants to get published must give up control of their baby, their creation. They must admit that what they have written, how they connected ideas using words, could be better. It might need to be thrown out entirely in favor of a different direction, a different approach.

That notion isn’t just an echo in your classroom or campus newsroom. It’s the industry. No writer’s work (unless it’s their blog or social media posting) ever goes untouched. The best writing, the memorable kind, comes from re-writing. Students get tired of your telling them that, but when the student sitting next to them says it, they listen.

Your task, then, is to get students talking to each other about their writing. In the newsroom, that’s known as writer-coaching — not a new concept. But it rose to prominence in the 1990s among journalism educators and professionals when Roy Peter Clark and Donald Fry published “Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together.” (A second edition came out in 2003). It was common sense: English teachers had been using their methods for decades, calling it peer editing. Truth be told, Clark isn’t just the world-famous writer coach at the Poynter Institute. He’s a recovering grammar geek with a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Stony Brook. But he has a knack for getting even the most cranky journalists to think about their writing as building blocks: Legos stuck together that can be rearranged.

Clark’s coaching ideas grew out of the thinking of Donald Murray, a famous writer coach at the Boston Globe whose “Write to Learn” (eight editions of it) has been part of writing instruction for decades. Clark invokes Murray but also the Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, another literature prof, who made the argument that orality — our tendency to process ideas by means of the spoken word — cannot be separated from literacy. Before we write, we must think.

So Clark tells editors to sit with a writer and zip the lip. Let the writer summarize the story in a sentence or two. If they can’t, send them back to do more reporting, to find out what they meant to say in the piece. Clark’s argument: when a writer does this (not wasting time on a draft that just wanders around with no point), the end result is better. Murray calls this thinking time “pre-writing,” and says it can be done anywhere: in your car, in the bathroom, alone, in a group. It can be done in a campus newsroom.

My adaptation of Clark’s suggestions is called “pitching and coaching” — and has nothing to do with baseball. I build a partnership between my writing classes and our university’s student newspaper — a daily that relies on freelancers. I require all my article assignments to be pitched to an editor. (They have to show me a PDF of the email.) The pitch has to give a 1-2 sentence summary, it must tell how the piece meets the “so what” test, and who they’ve already contacted, or will contact for authoritative support on the article’s claims.

It got brutal.

“When I would pitch to the editors, I would often get disappointed because most of the time, the editors didn’t see the story the way that I did,” wrote one student in a reflection paper. “I was doing it completely wrong.” Or she’d been beat by the competition. “What I should have done was to check to make sure the story hadn’t been done before I pitched it,” she said. And she learned that if she had a question about the safety of women students at night around campus, she should ask (the chief of campus safety, not a roommate) — flat out, not by hinting at the problem. Nothing she pitched got published; yet she was glad for having learned in the coaching experience.

Another student recalled that when her piece was edited (in real-time on a Google doc), “the story no longer felt mine as they highlighted things for me to take out and wrote down suggestions for what could be done differently.” Her first impulse was to walk away. “I wanted to flat-out reply, ‘No, I will not be taking this out,’” she wrote. But what got her though was changing her thinking. “I got myself into the mentality that editing is a normal part of the process.” She now welcomes edits and suggestions for improving her writing.

And this was all student-to-student. I, as the writing prof and media adviser had no direct role in the writer-coach process. Sure, students got graded on articles in my classes; if they read my comments, some improved. Many ignored my comments. When we as writing faculty or advisers talk about problems in a piece, it’s expected (with a yawn). But when a student editor puts hands on the baby, something else is going on — something better, something lasting. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in “Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present” relies on historical records to show that for generations, life-to-life learning outside the classroom has had a longer staying power in lifelong development than any textbook or class lecture. John Dewey would agree.

Part of my pitching and coaching regimen extends to editing students. I had a class this semester in editing; in it I required each student to take on a freshman writer as their “coachee.” These older students said it opened their eyes — even the working newspaper editors, because they had to think about what their edits were doing, how it felt to the writer. And many, who had never been an editor on a campus publication, said they were unaware how much power there was in the editor-writer relationship. Just a chat, or an email exchange, could re-craft a piece of writing, making it clearer, smoother, more logical. If done in a way that encouraged the writer, the exchange left both with a sense of having done something profound. They were learning about themselves, not just about words or articles on deadline. And that’s ultimately what we’re all about.

Michael A. Longinow, Ph.D, is Professor of Digital Journalism and Media
and Adviser of the Daily Chimes at Biola University