Editor, writing coach, sensei

Photo: SSOMA

The editor’s job is to fix pieces of writing. The writing coach explains how to write better. But writers who wish to be better need more. They need a sensei who will teach them writing through observation and editing. Only through writing and correction can you truly improve.

Let’s look at what editors and coaches do, and what I mean by a writing sensei.

What editors do

In the media and publishing businesses, editor just means “person more senior and with more responsibility than a writer.” For example, you might be an acquisitions editor (chooses which books to publish) or the business section editor (manages the content of a the newspaper’s business section). But I’m not talking about those editors. I’m talking about somebody whose job is to improve copy.

The focus of an editor is to make writing better. This happens at different levels — an editor might tell you that the structure is muddled, that you should cut the opening paragraph, or that a pronoun in your sentence has no antecedent. But the focus of the classic editor is on the text and how to make it better.

What can you learn from an editor?

That depends completely on you. But when you get a piece of writing back with edits, or as sometimes happens, completely rewritten, you mostly learn that you need to fix it. So you fix it, as quickly as possible, to avoid spending too much time with all that toxic criticism.

It is completely possible to do this and learn nothing from it. If both the editor and the writer feel that the editor’s job is to fix the writing, not the writer, that’s what’s going to happen.

What writing coaches do

I’m no expert on writing coaches. But from a cursory review of the sites of people who do this, it appears that writing coaches help you to be a writer.

For example, here are the comments from clients on the site of one writing coach.

I’ve been struggling with writing for 18 years and with your help, I think I’ve finally found the method to make it less painful and maybe even enjoyable!

You have been kind and helpful and supportive. I wish there was another word for thank you. In this case repetition is correct: THANK YOU.

The vision I have here is sort of a writing therapist, who talks to you about writing and your problems with it and bucks you up and says “you can do it.” The coach puts you in the right frame of mind for writing.

I don’t do this. If you don’t know how to get started writing or aren’t motivated, I have no interest in you. In my career, the role of writing coaches was replaced by deadlines. Deadlines force you to write, and then you are a writer.

Unfortunately, deadlines create more anxiety than insight. They are poor teachers.

The writing sensei

My teenager has been taking karate for many years now. I watch how the sensei works with the students. She shows them a movement, watches them try the movement, and then explains what they need to do differently. She holds the student’s arm or leg and shoulder and guides them through the correct movement. She combines explanation with correction. It’s a powerful technique and the students learn, and rapidly.

This is what I do with writing. I teach through editing. For each edit I am thinking “Why did the person do it this way instead of a better way?” And as I suggest edits, I also explain why they will make the writing better.

You may remember story of the analyst who I asked to slap himself each time he used passive voice. The key is, I did this in the markup of the document, which made it very clear where the problem was and how bad it was. A coach might have done this in a nicer way, but I forced him to rewrite all those sentences, which trained him to detect and correct the passive voice.

Here are some other comments I’ve put into documents and posts that I’ve edited.

Don’t say “we think,” it’s weak. And don’t say “we’re hearing this” (you sound like Trump). Take credit for your own statements. Either make a statement flat out, or say “we project that” or “we estimate that.” If you’re not sure, say “we suspect that.” Be bold.

When you say “is expected to” you are basically quoting somebody’s projection without giving the source. This is doubly bad — it disses the person doing the projection, and it also impairs your credibility, since we don’t know why we should believe something should be “expected” if we don’t know who expects it. I’ve rewritten in one place where the source could be cited, and highlighted a couple of others.

I would move this concept higher, possibly start the section off with this so that the difference between digital transformation and digital strategy is much clearer. Without an intro, the definitions you have in the two boxes are a little difficult to grasp.

This paragraph is excellent, well-written, and central. Ask yourself — if you started with this and just deleted the previous paragraph, would you lose anything?

It is refreshing to hear you speak about yourself. I think people want to hear about you on your blog, especially when you are talking about such personal issues.

My comments are nearly alway within the documents, not shared in a conversation. I believe you will learn more from reading about your own writing than from me jawing at you.

Here’s why this results in rapid learning:

  • It’s personalized. You learn about your own issues, not a generic set of advice.
  • It’s unambiguous. If I talk to you about writing, you may hear just what you want to hear. But when you see the comments on the page, you know exactly what I am referring to, how I think you should change it, and why.
  • It’s impersonal. Sure, you may get mad at what you see in the markup (that happens to me a lot). But when you think about it a little more, you turn that anger into “I’ll show him.” And that makes you a better writer.
  • It keeps the writer in control. The editor says, implicitly, “I’ll show you how fix this.” But the sensei says “I’ll show you what’s wrong with this” — and fixing it remains the writer’s responsibility.

This is why I say “Editors exist to reveal what you cannot see, not to tell you what to do.” Unfortunately, since they are expert writers working on deadlines, most editors concentrate on telling you what to do, not on giving you the opportunity to grow.

With an effective writing sensei, writers become better and smarter. Writing coaches, like therapists, will keep you coming back forever. But the writing sensei goads you on to mastery. If you learn enough, you don’t need the sensei any more.

I know I’m working myself out of a job with this method. But I don’t know any other way to do it.

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  1. Hi Josh

    I have been reading your blogs for some time and thoroughly enjoy them for their informative and honest format. I would like to try my hand at blogging. You talk about your editing skills in this last post. Do you offer this service to the public?

    Liz watters