Advice From A Writing Coach At A Student Newspaper p. 64

By: DAN CLOSE IN THE 15 years I cranked out stories in one newsroom or another, I honestly never worried much about asking for help from a writing coach.
When I occasionally got stuck, I might turn to one of a half dozen trusted wordsmiths lying about the place and bleat out something like: Whaddayathinkofthislead?
I remember thinking from time to time: Why the hell would any writer worth his laptop need a writing coach? We're the pros from Dover, right?
Then, I started teaching journalism full time at my college alma mater. What a wake-up call. I had plumb forgotten what it was like to write a plain vanilla news story for the first time.
Think back: Remember feeling lightheaded and nauseous at the prospect of your first interview? Sweating bullets over your first 3,000 attempts at a lead? Waking up in a blind panic at 5 a.m., completely uncertain whether you had spelled the university president's name right in your first Page One story?
Students still feel that way. It was scary to think that now I was supposed to lead frightened packs of creative writing and business administration students through the thickets of Modern Journalism.
I immediately began feeling nauseous, sweaty and panicky. To top it off, I got appointed adviser to the student newspaper. Your average Ph.D. faculty member would rather be thrown from the top of the ivory tower into a bile-filled moat than be assigned to critique a student newspaper.
Luckily, I don't have a doctorate.
Within seconds after being appointed, I 'fessed up. I told students at the paper, an occasionally award-winning thrice-weekly with a circulation of 10,000, that I was never any whiz at grammar and all that technical stuff. I wasn't about to start diagraming sentences. What they were going to get from me, I bragged, was a lot of practical advice. Real-I-Learned-It-In-The-Trenches stuff.
So I talked to them about writing tight and bright, being accurate, giving everybody they interviewed an honest shake, doing lots of research, making deadlines, showing around story drafts, searching out the interesting and offbeat, talking out their stories, dressing and acting like professionals, and working their beats as if the TV boys were about to hoof it around the corner.
It did about as much good as ordering them to litter at a Save The Earth Rally. There is a world of difference, I discovered, between taking a couple of seconds to help a newsroom pal write a better transition and in trying to coach a bunch of college students, for whom a stint on the newspaper sometimes is often nothing more than two more lines on a resume bound for the personnel manager at some global marketing/advertising/public relations corporation.
Don't get me wrong. Some college journalism students still get tremendously excited about logging 60-hour workweeks and laboring mightily to cover what to them is a brand new universe of news and scandals and features and scandalous news-features. They care about whether the campus politicians are crooked. They care about covering sports and crafting killer editorials. Some even care whether the verb tenses are all the same and the cutlines get on straight.
But at a commuter university such as ours ? where the average student is 29, owns their own home and already works full time elsewhere ? most don't have the time or inclination to devote hours to rewriting the same stupid student senate story over and over and over. They can make more money dishing up 7-Layer Burritos at Taco Bell.
As the unpaid newspaper adviser, it seemed at first as if I was virtually powerless to cajole most of the paper's writers to take extra steps to hone their writing. I tried attending staff meetings. I tried inviting students to lunch. I tried suggesting visits by other professionals. I was ignored.
So I quit cajoling. Maybe this isn't the way the coach-as-best-friend folks at Poynter would do it, but it wasn't until I took off the gloves in my postpartum critiques of the newspaper that I began to get results.
At the editor's invitation, I penned hundreds of words analyzing each issue, usually in excruciating depth. I tried to be fair, particularly because I often wasn't privy to a myriad of editorial decisions made before stories hit print. But I was thorough, detailing every last misplaced comma, every blown lead, every screwed up title, every horrible headline, every lame quote, every botched transition, every missed opportunity for quality journalism.
They came at me.
They wrote me letters, called me at home, accosted me in the cockroach-infested hallways. They came to my office and sat for hours complaining: about my lousy critiques, at first. About the frustration of sitting through hours of campus meetings and hours of tube time, only to have their blockbusters chopped to bits. About the exhilaration of seeing their byline atop a particularly well-crafted profile. Then, later, they began talking about their teachers, wives, boyfriends, classes, grades ? their lives.
We didn't always talk journalism, and we certainly didn't always agree, but we were communicating. You have to do whatever it takes to get their attention. Sometimes, an imaginary two-by-four to the temple works. Sometimes it takes a pat on the back and a quiet word of encouragement, and then a long side-by-side, one-on-one session at the Macintosh with them.
The simplistic approach ? "Everybody gather 'round and listen to me, I'm the adviser/writing coach/j-guru" ? doesn't do anything except waste everyone's time. Surgeons don't perform the same operation, or use the same bedside manner, on every patient. They run tests, examine the body and call on what they know before they decide whether to pick up the scalpel, try radiation or send someone straight to the morgue. The same goes for dissecting a piece of writing.
Writing coaches, particularly at the college level, have to size up each student and take the approach that's going to get them back on track as a writer.
It's been five years. Hundreds of one-on-one meetings and some 50,000 words worth of critiques later, my students are practicing some of the things I've been preaching. Still, it's been frustrating. College writers make most of the same mistakes other writers do, only more often and at even lower pay.
The temptation to write in official university bureaucratese is high. The propensity for writing about inanimate organizations instead of real, live people remains. Stories that fail to answer the most basic reporting questions appear in print constantly. The copy editors always seem to miss that one last mistake.
But the challenge of helping young writers improve has gotten my juices going again. Each time I grab a new issue of the paper from a box somewhere on campus and see the first flush of a writer's success, I'm reminded of how hard it was to get that first interview, to write that first lead, to see the first front-page byline.
Oh, I see the promise. Then I see the mistakes. Then I get out the blue pen.

?(Close is an assistant professor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University. He is faculty adviser to the Sunflower, the independent student newspaper, which turned 100 in January.) [Caption]


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