The Many Hats of a Writing Coach

By: Alison Hennessee in Book Writing
on March 28th, 2017

There are lots of scary things in the world—war, climate change, decaf coffee, people who collect clown figurines—but the scariest thing I encounter on a regular basis is the thing glowing at me from my desk right now. No, not radioactive Post-It Notes, though that would be pretty disturbing. I’m talking about the blank screen.

Sitting down to write when there is nothing on the screen is unavoidably terrifying. You’re setting out into unmapped territory, attempting to build something in a void. There are no trail blazes or instructional booklets with handy allen wrenches included; the only path is the one you chart, the only tools the ones you bring. It’s this fear of beginning that keeps many of us from realizing the ideas that come to us as we fall asleep. Ask any writer and she’ll tell you: no matter how successful she has been in the past, she’s afraid of putting the first word on a new page.

The solution? Most people will tell you that you just have to do it. When I was struggling to finish my MFA thesis, everybody and their housecat had advice for me, and I could boil down most of it to three words: “git ’er done.” They weren’t wrong. At some point, you do indeed have to sit down (or lie down; I’m not judging) and write. But it’s an infuriating piece of advice: it tells you what to do, not how, and it was the how that kept eluding me.

What ended up getting me from quagmire to degree was a combination of things: a supportive mentor, monetary incentive, and a lack of viable distractions. Until the last semester of my graduate work, I was a lecturer at the university where I studied. That position came with tuition remission; as long as I kept telling bored freshman about Aristotle, I wasn’t paying for my degree. Plus, I liked teaching. I was happy enough where I was.

Then, on the advice of my advisor, I took a semester off from teaching. (Sometimes “supportive” means “ass-kicking.”) Suddenly, I was paying for the time I spent in existential agony over my word choice on page 147. The agony decreased one million percent. (That may sound mathematically impossible, but let me tell you, I was doing a lot of agonizing.) I also no longer had the convenient distraction of teaching. It’s almost always easier to do someone else’s work than it is to do your own.

Now, I recognize that most people aren’t angst-ridden MFA candidates, so the exact solution to my writing paralysis may not be the ticket for you. There’s one component of that solution, however, that you can replicate outside academia, and that component is the lynchpin of the process: the supportive (and sometimes ass-kicking) mentor.

So here’s your alternate solution: get a writing coach. Writing coaches are strange beasts. (I’m allowed to say that because I am a writing coach, and I’m one of the stranger beasts I know, right up there with the Jabberwock.) My role is teacher-esque—I have a background in teaching college writing, and I can sometimes sense my training rearing its head when there’s grammar or rhetoric at stake—but I’m not exactly a teacher in this case. I may give my coaching clients assignments, but I don’t evaluate them. I may offer suggestions, but I don’t try to confer knowledge; my clients know more about what they want to write than I do.

There’s also a shade of the editor in a writing coach—I’m happy to go over anything my clients have written, offering ideas for revision or tweaking construction—yet most of a coach’s work is done before there is much material to edit. I can be a taskmaster, a cheerleader, a scheduler, a fact-checker—I have lots of hats, and if it’ll help, I’ll even wear them all at once. I’m not afraid to look more than a little stupid in the service of writing.

The hat I find myself wearing most often, however, is listener. Listening is the most valuable service a coach can offer her client. There are a few different ways I can listen. Sometimes I’m a reflective listener; I echo back what I think you’ve said to see if what you thought came out in your words. That transition from brain to world is tricky, and ideas can get lost in the process. If what I reflect back to you isn’t what you wanted to say, then perhaps we need to talk about how to more clearly communicate what you really mean (though at times it just means I need more coffee).

At other times, I’m an analytical listener. I notice things about what you’ve said that you might have overlooked, gems that needed to be brought to your attention for you to see how amazing they really are. Because we spend so much time with our own thoughts, it is often hard to see them clearly; we’re too close. When I listen to you as a coach, I have the advantage of a more distant perspective. I might be able to connect disparate ideas, catch running themes, notice we’re approaching a dead end in time to turn around.

And then there are the times when I truly don’t do anything but listen. I don’t act as a sounding board; I don’t point out anything exciting; I just let you talk. Because something amazing can happen when you talk to an attentive listener. Like magic, you discover answers to problems, make startling new discoveries, realize what you really meant all along.

Last week, a coaching client and I completely changed the nature and structure of the book we’re working on. On the face of it, that might sound like a discouraging experience—the material we’d been laboring over for months now needed to be totally overhauled. But it wasn’t. I started to get an inkling that the client wanted to change course in a writing assignment she sent me before our phone call. I’d asked her about a part of the philosophy we’d outlined earlier, and though in earlier assignments and conversations she’d been enthusiastic about this approach, now she sounded tentative.

In our phone call, I brought it up: How are you feeling about the outline? Are we headed in the right direction? Then I listened. In the first five minutes of her response, the client said yes, she was happy, everything was looking great, she was excited to get to a more structured outline. She paused; I didn’t say anything. Then, for another five minutes or so, she talked about her uncertainty. What did she want to teach people? How did she want to help them? Was this really the book she wanted to write? Another pause, another silence.

Finally, she said, “Actually, this isn’t it. What we have so far, it’s a great book, but it’s not what I want to say. It’s not my book. But I think I have an idea of what is.”

That’s the most rewarding part of the coaching process for me: the moment when I hear you hear your own voice.