The Message Crafter: How Writing Coaches Help Experts Express Ideas
By Shayna Keyles
Though many who will read this recognize Sue Stoney as the co-VP of SF IABC’s Communications team, clients will recognize her as a partner and a coach. At May 18th’s Independent Communicators’ Roundtable, Sue shared her coaching secrets with an eager group.
Writing Coaches: Experts In Collaboration
Sue is one of those lucky few who has found a career that perfectly pairs her passions with her professional talents. She is a gifted writer, as you will see if you visit her website, The Message Crafter, and she uses her gift to help others communicate their own expertise.
For the past 20 odd years, Sue has worked with a slew of subject matter experts (also referred to as “SMEs”) who have stories to tell but don’t know how to tell them. Some of these SMEs, who might spend over 60% of their time writing, have difficulty expressing their thoughts on paper; however, they understand the material they’re writing about better than anyone else. Sue, who is an SME in writing, collaborates with clients to translate their expertise into writing.
There are many possible roles that a writing coach might play when working with a writer. She may act as a developmental editor, helping the writer view a narrative from a broader angle, develop a consistent tone and message, or focus on word choice. She might also assist with copyediting, or “housekeeping”, functions, such as grammar, punctuation, and syntax: supposedly small issues that, when taken together, define the style and rhythm of an entire text.
Never Hijack Another Person’s Writing
Whether a coach is helping someone write a memoir or a manual, it’s important for the coach to maintain boundaries. In all cases, the SME is the sole owner and creator of whatever is being written—so if you’re looking for a byline to recognize your work, don’t sign up to be a writing coach.
In the same vein, writing coaches must be careful not to hijack someone else’s narrative. That narrative represents a client’s personal or professional self, and it should be written in the client’s own voice.
We heard a story about a client writing a memoir who, upon reading the manuscript before publication, did not recognize the story as her own. Her voice had been completely stripped from the pages: her coach had done too much of the driving. When Sue started working with this writer, she had to help the writer find her own voice within a story she had supposedly written! To avoid a scenario like this, always let the SME do the writing. In this regard, it’s just like coaching a sport: if a swim coach were to do all the swimming at practice, the swimmer would never benefit.
An Experiment In Coaching
After teaching us about what a writing coach does, it was time for Sue to let us experience coaching for ourselves. Attendees split up into pairs, with one partner acting as a coach and one as the writer. We were given 15 minutes to help our partners come up with personal taglines.
I was the coach in my team, and what a challenge it was! I could advise on word choices, but I couldn’t definitively say that one was better than the other. I could ask leading questions, but I couldn’t give any answers. Yet somehow, after that 15 minutes was up, we’d come a long way: the tagline we came up with neatly described the essence of my partner’s business philosophy and his professional role.
After completing this exercise, attendees came together to review and suggest guidelines for effective coaching and writing collaboration. Here are a few ideas that Sue provided and participants suggested:
- Meet writers where they are. Adjust your expectations to meet theirs.
- Catch them doing things right and build up.
- Focus on the process, not on the errors. Teach by example.
- Work shoulder to shoulder so you can literally see from their perspective.
- Ask questions, such as Who is the intended audience? What is the goal of this piece? What did you mean with that phrase?
- Always take notes. Refer to them frequently.
- Figure out who is in the driver’s seat. Only take the lead when it’s your turn.
- Get confirmation when discussing ideas so all progress will be positive.
- Look for reflective opportunities to help the writer learn.
Sue closed the discussion by reminding us that writers and SMEs often have selective perception. We fall in love with our words because they carry our messages, and so we have trouble seeing errors in the way our words are delivered. We might even get stuck before we can write anything down. That’s why coaches and editors, like Sue, are so useful: they help us step back from our work, take a wide-angle view, and discover how to present our content in its best light.