Why the Best Editors Are Coaches

by Leah Bjornson

Why the Best Editors Are Coaches

I’ll never forget the smell of a wrestling mat. Maybe it’s because of the time I spent rolling them up after practice or the hours I logged relaxing with friends during tournaments. Most likely, though, it’s because I spent many hours with my face smushed into one while my opponent tried to spin me on my head like a top.

At times like this, having a coach in my corner who I could trust and rely on was of utmost importance.

Wrestling isn’t the only time when I’ve found myself (at least metaphorically) with my nose in a jam. With anything you’re working on, there will always be tough times to endure and obstacles to overcome. In the case of writing, this occurs on an almost daily basis. Whether you’re struggling to come up with a catchy hook or to get your foot in the door of a new publication, it can be frightening to go it alone.

When I was a wrestler, having someone in my corner to guide and support me made a major difference. I was more confident in my abilities. I knew that someone had my back if I found myself in trouble. And most of all, I wanted to work harder and perform better, both for myself and for the coach who believed in me.

So when I became a coach myself and, later, an editor at my university’s newspaper, I brought those experiences with me. They informed how I worked with my team. No matter if I was helping someone with their throws or teaching them to write stronger ledes, my most useful tool was thoughtful, constructive encouragement and support.

Sure, as an editor, there were times when I wanted to reject articles or just fix them myself. And I did, especially when it seemed like the alternative would involve lengthy email chains and hours of painstaking editing. But when I resisted that urge and worked closely with a writer to improve their article, the results were worth it.

Today, with jobs in traditional media shrinking, experienced and amateur writers alike have to compete for work. This can make it tempting as an editor to sit back on your heels and wait for the best writers to come to you. After all, why spend time coaxing a good story out of someone when a better one might arrive in your inbox tomorrow? Although this might seem like a good idea in the short-term, it can’t compare with the long-term benefits of developing someone’s skills, both for the writer and for your publication.

When You Coach Someone, They Perform Better

As long as you’re providing someone with useful advice, there’s one major benefit to supporting a writer: they will improve. Perfect practice makes perfect, after all. Even better, especially if you’re working with someone who is less experienced, you can help them get rid of any nasty habits that a more senior writer might have ingrained in their work.

Don’t expect results to happen overnight. Provide small batches of feedback with each new article you receive—three or four areas where someone might improve—and emphasize those points until they’ve improved on them. If the writer cares about their work and implements your feedback, you should see a dramatic improvement in their writing as well as greater adherence to your publication’s specific standards and requirements. If they don’t, at least you can say you’ve done your best.

When You Coach Someone, They Come Back

As writers, we’ve all felt the sting of criticism when an editor returns an article drenched in red ink or Google suggestions. But it’s even worse when someone doesn’t reply at all.

By taking the time to thoroughly edit a piece and make thoughtful, constructive comments, you show someone that you care about their writing enough to work through it with them. After all, the editor is a writer’s most important collaborator and their greatest ally. You’re a team.

As long as what you’re saying is useful and well-phrased, a writer who implements your feedback will see their work improve. In effect, they’re getting free training just from submitting a piece to you—a value no one can scoff at. Because improvement is what all good writers aspire to, they’ll likely be eager to work with you again in the future.

When You Coach Someone, They Refer Others to You

It’s not enough to wait for good writers to come knocking on your door, especially if you gain a reputation for turning down pitches. By only working with those you deem worthy, you might miss out on talent you never knew existed.

Instead, focus on providing writers with enjoyable and valuable experiences. If a pitch has potential, suggest ways they can take their story to the next level. Once you have a rough draft in hand, spend 10 minutes leaving careful comments throughout the piece. If you do end up having to turn something down, explain exactly why you’re doing so and what might make a similar pitch stronger in the future. Chances are that if a writer feels like you want them to succeed, they’ll come back to you with other ideas and even point other writers in your direction.

When You Coach Someone, You Add Value Beyond a Paycheck

I’ve never heard of any writer pursuing this career for the paycheck. We write because we want to inspire, educate and engage with readers around the world. To be able to do so, we need to get good at our craft just like in any other profession.

As an editor, it’s your duty to encourage a writer to work to the best of their ability. This may mean a bit of tough love at first, but ultimately your support will lead your writer to feel more confident in their own talents. When you provide someone with valuable guidance, the impact of your advice doesn’t end once you’ve published an article or sent it through to a client. That writer will take your encouragement and feedback and apply it to future assignments.

When you’re a coach, for writers and wrestlers alike, it’s unlikely that an all-star is always going to walk through your door (or pop up in your inbox). What you should really be looking out for is the type of person who will be there to practice hard, play hard. . . and roll up the mats at the end of every practice.

Image: Africa Studio / Shutterstock


Common Writing & Editing Mistakes to Avoid

By Emily E. Steck

Writers and editors: beware.

  • Phrases vs. Sentences

    By Emily E. Steck

    A sentence has a subject and a verb; if it does not, it is a phrase. Writing my list is a phrase. "I am writing my list" is a sentence. Phrases can be used in writing, but they should be used sparingly.

  • Making Family Names Plural

    By Emily E. Steck

    Never use an apostrophe to make a name plural. When referring to a group of people in the Steck family, refer to them as the _Stecks_. If referring to what they own, then use _Stecks'_ instead. Some names need an "es" to become plural, like names that end in "s," “x,” "z," “ch,” and “sh.” For example, the _Joneses_, the _Foxes_, the_ Alvarezes_, the _Churches_ and the _Ashes_. For these last names that require an "es" use an apostrophe for possessives. "That is the _Joneses_' car."

  • Its vs. It's

    By Emily E. Steck

    For the love of all that is mighty, _it's_ is a contraction of "it is." For example, "_it's_ cold outside." Whereas _its_ is possessive. "The book has lost _its_ jacket."

  • "i before e except after c" Exceptions

    By Emily E. Steck

    This handy rhyme is often very wrong. For example, the word _ceiling_ breaks this rule, as does any word with an 'e' sound. With a different sound, the 'i' goes first like the word _science._ Know that the rhyme may help you with words like _receipt_ but the rule is flexible.

  • Emigrates vs. Immigrates

    By Emily E. Steck

    One _emigrates from_ a place while one _immigrates to_ a place. Also, note that emigrates has one 'm'.

  • X Ray vs. X-Ray

    By Emily E. Steck

    _X ray_ is a noun. "He broke his arm so he needed to get an_ X ray_." Whereas an _X-ray_ is a verb or adjective. "My ankle was _X-rayed_." There are variations on when to capitalize the X; consult a style guide.

  • Wise Guy vs. Wiseguy

    By Emily E. Steck

    A smart aleck is a _wise guy_. A mobster is a _wiseguy._

  • Somewhat vs. Something

    By Emily E. Steck

    Something is a noun. Something is an adverb that means "a little" or "kind of." For example, "A thing is  _somewhat_ rare, or it’s _something_ of a rarity."

  • Palate vs. Palette vs. Pallet

    By Emily E. Steck

    You have a _palate_, which relates to taste. A color _palette_ is an assortment of colors. A _pallet_ is, among other things, something you sleep on.

  • Premier vs. Premiere

    By Emily E. Steck

    A _premier_ is a diplomat. A _premiere_ is a first performance or exhibition. British, Canadian and American spellings can confuse them; check with your style guide.

  • Loath vs. Loathe

    By Emily E. Steck

    _Loathe_ is a verb meaning to "dislike greatly." For example, "My boss is so mean. I _loathe_ him." _Loath_ is an adjective meaning "unwilling or reluctant." For example, "I am _loath_ to to spend time with my mother-in-law." _Loth_ is a variant of _loath_ and serves no purpose of its own; it is most common in U.K. English, though even U.K. writers prefer _loath_ by a significant margin. To sum up: "I _loathe_ when people use this word incorrectly, but I am too _loath_ to admit when I am wrong."

  • Insure vs. Ensure vs. Assure

    By Emily E. Steck

    You _insure_ cars. You _ensure_ personal success by working hard. And you _assure_ people.

  • A Letter's Difference

    By Emily E. Steck

    Paraphernalia, with an 'r.' Vinaigrette, by switching the 'a' and 'i.' Villain is not "illian" but (v)ain. Newsstand has two 's' as does transsexual.

  • Grisly vs. Grizzly vs. Gristly

    By Emily E. Steck

    Bears are _grizzly_. Crimes are _grisly_. Cheap meat is _gristly_.

  • Don't "Mispell" Misspell

    By Emily E. Steck

    Contrary to popular belief, it is spelled "misspell" with two "s" letters.

  • Ad Nauseam

    By Emily E. Steck

    _Ad nauseam_ is spelled with two 'a's not two 'u's. _Ad nauseam_ > ad nauseum.

  • Every day vs. Everyday

    By Emily E. Steck

    One goes to work _every day._ Working is an _everyday_ occurrence.

  • Capital vs. Capitol

    By Emily E. Steck

    A _capital_ is a city (or a letter, or part of a column). A _capitol_ is a building.

  • Blonde vs. Blond

    By Emily E. Steck

    When describing the color of someone's hair as _blond_, he is a blond man and she is a blond woman. Use the word _blonde_ to call a woman that. For example, "she's blonde."

  • Besides vs. Beside

    By Emily E. Steck

    _Besides_ is other than; _beside_ is next to. "_Besides,_ I get to see you." vs. "He placed the book _beside_ him."

  • Graduate From

    By Emily E. Steck

    You do not graduate school. You graduate _from_ school.

  • Peak/Peek/Pique

    By Emily E. Steck

    Use _peak_ to describe the top of a mountain. Use _peek_ to describe looking quickly. Use _pique_ to describe something that stimulates curiosity or causes irritation. "She _piqued_ my interest" or "He was _piqued_ by her curtness" or "They climbed to the mountain's _peak._"

  • Hyphenate Adjectives

    By Emily E. Steck

    Use compound adjectives when necessary to make things clearer. For instance, use "a _heavy-metal_ detector" rather than "a heavy metal detector." Otherwise, the latter implies the metal detector is quite heavy.

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