Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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.

18 Comments:

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Jeff Hershberger said...

Great stuff, John. These lessons are so universal. Over the last few years, I've become convinced that what matters is passion and desire, not abstract recipes like degrees and business plans.

 
At 9:40 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great to see you here again, Jeff. And thanks for the comment, which means even more coming from someone like yourself who is so rooted in the scientific process. You're a great example of the power that comes from blending the humanities with the scientific process, the right brain with the left. I'd say the same about degrees, business plans and all kinds of other similar things--they're great and have their place, but absent love, passion, personal engagement, emotional intelligence and (maybe I should even say a sense of calling), they don't get you very far.

 
At 10:16 AM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

"... but absent love, passion, personal engagement, emotional intelligence and (maybe I should even say a sense of calling), they don't get you very far."

Reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:1 --"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."

This certainly applies to writing. I want to write more, but I've been up since 4:50am and can't think of what else I wanted to say. Maybe later....

 
At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Kristine said...

Two thoughts here. One--coaching. I just saw "More Than a Game," about Lebron & 4 other inner city boys and their jr. high/high school days. What struck me was Dru Joyce, the coach, but also their father figure who helped them on the right track. If you haven't seen it yet, note how humbling and caring he was with those boys (and that he's still at St. V coaching--living out his dream, which is what the boys taught him.) He's choked up when he talks about how they--Lebron & co--taught HIM something, though he was the coach. A coach who's willing to be part of the team: priceless.

This brings me to my next thought: the team in writing and editing. I'm all for coaching and being coached. I also believe in editing, if it's good. In fact, I need it. I think if an editor is good, he or she HELPS your writing. We've had bad editing-we know what they can do. But the good editors? They make your words/thoughts better, tighter, more organized. And with everyone self-publishing these days and some of the writers/authors not having any editing in their work, how is the marketplace/reader supposed to filter? Good article in defense of editors: http://www.good.is/post/its-the-editor-stupid What do you think?

 
At 11:21 AM, Blogger Kass said...

Wonderful post.

I perform much better as a writer or singer when my audience, be it a director or an editor is warm and encouraging. I pull out all stops and tirelessly try different avenues of expression. When I operate under an assoholic negative "helper" I flounder and freeze.

 
At 11:56 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, everyone. I'll engage some more with these various points a little later. Meanwhile, I'll just enjoy Kass's brilliant coinage of what's, for me at least, an interesting new swear word. It proves you can make an adjective of almost anything.

 
At 12:00 PM, Blogger Britta Waller said...

I love this blog. A friend sent this link http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one
to a story in The Guardian where famous authors give their writing edicts. I couldn't understand why it annoyed me until this thread articulated the difference between teaching and demanding.

 
At 12:03 PM, Blogger Kim said...

I just posted on my Facebook today a German proverb that *the wise man has long ears and a short tongue*, and it seems to relate here. When we listen more than we speak, we earn the opportunity to hear.

Sometimes, answers are are close as our next question. A good coach is someone who helps us discover that which we already know (by listening to us). :)

I would contend that all of us "know" how to be a good writer, for example. A valuable coach/editor is someone who will not tell us what to do but give us the space to remember why, through our own inner dialogues.

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

And we love people who love and take part in this blog, Britta. Without their smarts, insights, geographic, age and all sorts of other diversity, this wouldn't be one-quarter of the experience it is.

 
At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Tom Kerr said...

Great post and wonderful follow-up comments, John. Yes, when I was editor-in-chief of three trade journals (all at once), we won "Most Improved Magazine" for two of the three. My staff's comments to me can be summed up as follows: "thanks for giving us support and some room to experiment...that's why we won!" I've remembered that ever since.

 
At 5:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Tom, what a pleasant surprise to see your name here in the comments. I love how this string is attracting a nice mix of current and former journos like you, on the one hand, and on the other what I refer to as civilians. The best cocktail party conversations, after all, come from mixing up all kinds of folks from different backgrounds.

To your point, journalism sure could use lots more people with your warm and inviting temperment (and I should have used the word temperment in that post, because that's an important element that goes even beyond mindset). I guess that's why you made the natural transition to the arts, where that temperment is sometimes more welcomed (you might even say required) than in journalism. But we need it in both places, and lots more also. Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate it.

 
At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Jane Levesque said...

While reading through the comments, I thought of something one of my freelance writers noted the other day. I called her on something that wasn't expressed clearly enough, and she admitted that she had felt the same way. I think editors confirm what writers already know is true. It just helps to have another person provide that confirmation. A coach or a teacher knows when a student or athlete isn't doing his best work, and he also knows where the student's talent level is and how he can improve. The editor/coach/teacher holds him accountable and puts the bar a little bit higher so that he can excel instead of just doing something to get it done.

 
At 11:03 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's a nice addition the point, Jane, and from an editor in the trenches, no less.

Kristine, I'm glad you mentioned Dru Joyce in the hoops documentary, which I did see (and which I recommend you see also). He's of course a great example of what we're talking about. And to your other point, most guys in his position would have gone on and capitalized on his proximity to Lebron by doing something easier. It speaks volumes that he continues to stay right there and coach.

 
At 11:10 PM, Blogger wordsanctuaryrevisited.blogspot.com said...

The best teachers I've had are the ones who silently support; that magic touch is expressed in the nonverbals as well as the words (written or oral) used. The best editors I've had are those who read with insight and responsiveness. When I teach and edit, I strive to do the same.

As a novice teacher, I remember reading (in that vast land called "somewhere") that a quiet, reflective person can be a good writing teacher. I'll add: or editor. There needs to be an interchange of words, but it does not have to be one-up, one-down. How about partnership?

I'd write more but I have to do that very, very delicate thing: go listen to my students' papers. Hearing their voices while reading silently takes every muscle of my imagination.

 
At 7:01 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Nice stuff, Maria. Thanks.

 
At 3:00 AM, Anonymous Caitlin Joy Ryan said...

Completely agree! It is so discouraging as a young writer when an editor is so demanding. It becomes intimidating instead of a learning process.

 
At 7:27 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Please keep at it anyway, CJR.

 
At 6:20 AM, Anonymous News Link said...

Efficient job. Worthy of applause. Thanks.

 

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