How to coach new writers
My comfort zone is “aggressive editor.” I have no problem just jumping in, making changes, and getting a piece to where it needs to be. This is a useful mode to work in when you have publishing deadlines to hit. It’s not very useful when you’re trying to build a bench of strong writers.
So I’ve been shifting my mode to working as more of a coach, which means I need to explain the “why” behind the changes I’m making. I’ve identified a few stages in the editing process, how I coach people through the work.
Edit #1: The head
After this edit you should be able to say confidently if this article is/isn’t worth your time.
Ann Handley’s advice in Everybody Writes is on point — the best place to start is with a crappy first draft. Experienced writers should eventually develop a better process for getting started with a piece, but for new writers the biggest hurdle is just to freaking write.
As a coach/editor, what I’m looking for with this first draft is really: is it worth my time? There are three questions here:
What’s the point?: Does the writer have something to say? Do they have a unique perspective? Are they qualified? If the answer is “no”, don’t bother with the editing process. It doesn’t matter if the writer is your CEO, you can’t save a piece like this. It will always be crap.
Who is the audience? More frequently, new writers have something to say, but they’re muddy on the reader, and this muddies their point. My most reliable advice to new writers has always been: write for one person. Like an actual person you know by name. That person might be “The me of 6 months ago.” That’s fine! Whoever it is, write for them and no one else. If the writer isn’t willing to narrow their focus to an audience of one, I’m not interested in working with them. The article is doomed to fail.
Does it serve a useful purpose in my content strategy? If an article doesn’t help you achieve your goals, it’s not worth your time. It doesn’t mean it’s bad and shouldn’t be written, it just means you need to prioritize your time and this piece ain’t it.
How to guide writers:
- Write for one person
- Name that person
- Write your main point, or thesis statement in one sentence and put it in the header of your doc. Refer back to it frequently.
Edit #2: The spine
After this edit you should be able to follow the basic gist just by reading the title & headlines.
I like the metaphor of a spine here. Writing is like a good stretch, but you don’t want to pull a muscle because you’re trying to do too much too soon. New writers frequently try to do this, they want to be thorough and end up reaching too far, they add too many details, and they end up with a storyline that’s hard to follow. The goal of this edit is to get a good structure in place that the writer can realistically cover in one article.
How to guide writers:
- It’s important to get a good title in place at this stage. Write 10 versions of your title and settle on the best one
- Every H1 needs to clearly map back to the promise in your title
- Write an intro that connects your title to your H1s
Edit #3: Kill your darlings
After this edit you should be able to skim read the article and still learn quite a bit.
Edit #2 might involve a bit of work on your end after the writer makes their changes, but this is likely the section where you’ll really start to mark things up. New writers are precious…scratch that….all writers are precious about their work. It’s really hard to be objective about the value of our words and no one is all that good at self-editing. So get out your red pen, or turn on the “Suggest” mode in Google Docs because it’s 2020 and who still edits with a red pen? 🤓
What to look for:
- Cut anything that doesn’t support the title or H1s (if it’s a lot, turn it into its own article!)
- Find lists and turn them into bulleted or numbered lists
- Break up long paragraphs
- Point out opportunities to create graphics
Edit #4: Create your “power statements”
After this edit you’ll have an article ready-to-publish that readers will actually want to read.
You’re almost there! In the final round you want your writer to focus on “power statements.” These are the lines that will get highlighted on Medium, shared on Twitter, and remembered by your reader in the weeks to come. Your early edits were aimed at making the article readable, now you’re going to make it memorable.
If someone reads your entire article and never finds themself nodding an enthusiastic yes or shaking their head in a huffy no then your work has already been forgotten. Without power statements, an article feels soggy. With them, an article feels sharp and insightful. Power statements force your reader to take a stance with you or against you.
Let’s look at some example:
- This article starts with a power statement. The writer isn’t trying to convince you. Either agree and keep reading, or disagree and move on with your day.
- This article includes power statements sprinkled throughout. They wake you up. This isn’t just a nice article about women working together, the author uses power statements to call you to act.
- This article closes with power statements to make absolutely sure you didn’t miss the point.
Typically you’ll want power statements to appear at the start of end of an H1, they keep readers reading. Sometimes you’ll want to throw one in the middle just to make sure they’re paying attention 😉 Here are some good examples of using power statements:
What to look for:
- Look for strong points buried in fuzzy language. Phrases like “in other words” or “meaning” often indicate that an author feels strongly about a point but is struggling to capture it concisely.
- Check your transitions — opening and closing statements of each section — write them as clearly as you can.
- Use active vs. passive language
- Consider writing your H1s to be power statements
- Pour your copy editing time into making those “can’t miss” statements as strong and memorable as possible.
While you’re at it:
- Make sure the conclusion goes out on a high note
- This is also the time to do a general copy edit
This is the process I tend to take writers through. What works for you? What are common things you look out for? How have you gotten better at coaching writers?
I would love to hear from you ❤️