How Good Coaches & Good Editors Are Alike
A few months ago, I posted this vivid quote about the eternal hankering to fiddle with someone else's writing. It prompted an interesting comment string, especially the first question, which I think may have been from an old friend and a former editor of mine (since it was anonymous, I can't be sure). Anyway, I never really got around to answering it completely, but the wonderful questions have lingered in my mind ever since.
This tribute to a recently deceased editor brought it to mind again. While the writer was doing her best to do what we all naturally try to do for understandable reasons--speak well of the dead, especially the newly deceased--the vignette about how this editor had operated brought back to me the universality of all bad editors. They preach, proclaim and order rather than do what all good editors do: teach. They demand instead of persuade. And for those reasons, in the end, they generally fail.
The spirit in which you do things is ultimately what really matters. Good editors, teachers and coaches impart their knowledge with love, and tend to discharge their duties with some measure of warmth. Because they really know what they're doing, they don't have to bluster and demand (which is generally a sign of insecurity rather than mastery). Instead, they draw you into the process through genuine concern and by radiating a feeling that you're colleagues and collaborators in a shared cause.
In the sublimely wonderful new film The Last Station, about the final months of Tolstoy's life (go see it soon), there's a telling moment that makes this point better than I ever could. The bearded bard, by then the most celebrated writer in the world, welcomes his nervous young research assistant by asking about the young man's writing before saying anything about his own work. The young man tears up, overcome by the great man's humility and interest in him. With that moment of warmth and genuine interest in his protege, he's made a convert for life.
I add coaches to this lineup for a particular reason, because they're also teachers (or at least the good ones are). Today's New York Times carried an evocative piece (which I can't seem to find anywhere online) about the late New York Knicks coach Red Holzman's style of teaching. Like all great teachers and coaches, his lessons stayed with his players for the rest of their lives, and touched them not only as players but as people. The thing that comes through most clearly is how much respect he showed for his players. They weren't merely chess pieces for him to move around, but smart people who could be invited to contribute their own ideas to the game. "Holzman preached defense, teamwork and ball movement but gave his players great latitude to figure out the details. His playbook was thin by today's standards, and he asked his team to suggest plays." And now one of his then-players, Phil Jackson, puts those lessons into practice with his own team, the L.A. Lakers. He's become only the most successful NBA coach since Red Auerbach, and the winner of 11 championships.
Now that's the power of good editing, coaching and teaching.