You don’t have to look far to find advice on the fundamentals of writing.
A benefit for new writers, no doubt.
Unfortunately, those of us who have been around the block often know every intimate detail about that advice.
In fact, not only do we know it… we’ve memorized it.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the landscape changed every year and all a writer had to do to go from good to great was to simply stay current.
But it’s not the way it works. Fundamentals never change.
And while the usual advice on the basics of writing are fine for the newbies in the field [and important for seasoned writers to revisit periodically]. . . what about the rest of us?
What about those who want to go from undergraduate to graduate work?
Who want to inject a tangible and seductive element in their writing that growls “You better take notice of me”?
What’s the best way to accomplish that?
As you might guess, I have an answer.
How I discovered this secret
Not long ago I had the opportunity to work as the managing editor for an international non-profit content publisher.
I was hired to do one thing: elevate the level of writing.
This would be a better story if I could tell you that the writers in my stable were a rag-tag band of sloppy hacks who couldn’t write their way out of a wet brown bag, and in just one year they became the darlings of the publishing world because of my sweet but firm guidance.
But it didn’t happen that way.
For starters, they had their act together. All of them had previous experience in communication, public relations or advertising. So they understood how to write.
They just needed somebody to jolt them to the next level.
The “great” level.
One of the first things I did in my new position was to set a goal: I would train each writer so that in two years he or she could go and work at any world-renowned magazine if they wanted to.
Wired. Reader’s Digest. The National Review.
But that’s not easy. You know why? You need to be honest with writers …
You need to be honest when they are good. And you need to be honest when they are bad.
You need to be able to build a relationship dense with trust that allows you to lean over your desk at a particular time to say, “You know, sorry to say this, but that’s lame.”
Dealt with writers before?
Then you know the sensitivity needed to pull something like that off.
Fortunately, those who I worked with were more than gracious and never threw my advice back in my face. At times they were bold enough to kick back when they felt like their work was defensible.
I encouraged that.
Listen: writing is NOT just about putting a great idea on paper. It’s also about fighting for that idea when people think it stinks.
Tooth and nail if you need to.
And it’s in that dynamic I realized — when a coach is thoughtfully brutal with a writer — that a writer will start to elevate up and out of the domain of “just good” into the space known as “great.”
Of course, the coach needs to be worth his salt. If he’s not, he will only hurt a writer.
But a good writing coach knows how to be kind when it’s appropriate and when to be brutal when it’s proper.
Want an example of the kind of damage that glossing over brutal facts can have on a person’s development? Just look at American Idol.
The fatal consequence of misguided advice
Like a blazing wreckage we rubberneck on the highway, we can’t get enough of those “singers” on AI who clearly have no talent, but have been duped by misguided parents who told them all their life, “You have a great voice!”
The sad thing is the parents knew they were lying.
Lying to someone about their talent is wrong because it’s destructive. It stunts a person’s growth and doesn’t give them the feedback they need to grow.
That’s why a good coach will tell his student — whether he’s a singer or writer — the truth. He’ll take the time to assess someone’s skills, and then give feedback.
And it’s in that relationship that a writer can go from good to great. Take Kacie Campbell, for example, one of the writers I mentored. I think she gets it:
It’s hard to say when I realized that Demian Farnworth was such a great teacher. He always let me feel as if I was learning it on my own, but somewhere along the way I realized it was really him all along!
Through workshops, personal coaching, recommended readings and sometimes encouraging me to rewrite, I have become a much better writer. Once he even wrote “lame” on all of the subheads in my article.
That’s what I needed to hear and somehow he knew when it was appropriate to say that and when it was not.
He’s really great at knowing people’s strengths. He also takes time to figure out the best way to communicate to you, because it’s not the same with everyone. He’ll do whatever it takes to draw out the best writer in you, because we don’t all write the same.
I had the education and a raw form of writing that I enjoyed very much, but I must say that Demian has helped me smooth the rough edges and has helped me have an even stronger voice in my writing. For that I will always be grateful!
She’s now traveling the globe writing high-profile pieces. Pieces that demand attention and strike a chord with readers.
Where I’m going with this
My whole point is that it’s not easy for writers to develop that sort of proficiency on their own. Some need a coach with courage who will be thoughtfully honest with them when it comes to constructive criticism.
A coach who will challenge them. Fight them. Refine them.
Who will teach them to pour themselves into everything they write — holding nothing back.
That’s the secret to going from a GOOD writer to a GREAT a writer.
So here’s my question for you: is there any reason why you think I might be wrong? Where did I miss it? Have you had good experiences with writing coaches? Want to share a nightmare experience?
If so, let me. I look forward to your feedback.
By the way, if you want to graduate from the minor to the major leagues … to dominate your domain with an authorial voice that people listen to … and go from a good writer to a great writer…
Then contact me today and I can help you like I helped Kacie.
We can customize a training program that fits your time and your budget and involves critiques of current work, featured assignments and weekly phone consultations.
It will be an investment in your future as a writer to be reckoned with.
By the way, if it makes you feel better, I can give you Kacie’s phone number. She would be happy to talk to you. Just ask.
Ernie Hershey says
Hey, don’t be afraid of sentence subjects. They’re not out to get you.
A syntactical component which will challenge you. Fight you. Refine you. The “subject.”
Then maybe the world will believe you when you talk about secrets to going from “good” writing to “great” writing.
Demian Farnworth says
Are you serious? It’s the implied subject, Ernie. Kind of like the way a good conversationalist or writer does it. Want to learn more? 😉
Krista Stryker says
I’ve never had a writing coach. In fact, the last time I can remember someone giving me actually useful feedback on my writing was my high school English teacher.
Needless to say, I can imagine that a writing coach could help writers make leaps and bounds in their writing. Sometimes you need someone there to tell you when your writing is good – and when it just plain sucks.
Demian Farnworth says
Critique groups are also helpful. Ever been in one? I spent a good half year with about a half-dozen really good writers in a critique group. One of the better writing experiences I’ve had. The trick is YOU then need to decide what advice to keep and what to throw away.
Krista Stryker says
No I’ve never joined a critique group – great idea!
One of the most annoying pieces of advice I think is when someone says, “You need to go out and get feedback.”
It, to me, is on the same level as saying, “You need to learn to write well.”
I am aware that many people who don’t get criticism is because they seek it, but even when passed the early stages of basking in accomplishment, to a point where accomplishment means actually getting published and giving enjoyment, getting feedback is not that easy.
First you need to find someone who will actually read it. This in itself is hard, and it does not necessarily have to do with how poorly your work is written. Few people who agree to read something actually get to the first sentence, even when it is just a two paged short story.
Then you find someone who will actually read it, but they won’t necessarily be able to give you their opinion on it. Voicing thoughts out loud is a practiced art that not everyone has.
And even when you find someone who is extremely opinionated, it doesn’t mean they will be able to be clear when stating them, or even the thoughts themselves will be useable. You can’t do much with “I hate it.”
And then you find someone who knows a hell of a lot on what they’re talking about, will give you the time of day, and is honest to God trying to help you, and even, let’s say, LIKES the genre and style of stuff you’re writing, it doesn’t mean you’ll get it or that their opinion is the right one.
I think that you’re absolutely right that honesty is important. More to the point, it needs to be specific and clear, the couch being aware enough of what they’re telling you to explain it when you don’t get it.
I’m in a writing group right now that isn’t allowed to give any sort of criticism. We are only allowed to talk about what we like and to ask questions. It is organic enough that the limitations fall apart pretty quickly, but still, trying to say something in question form without indicating that there is a problem makes it really hard to know what they’re saying.
A man once asked a writer if “people are really that blunt” in reference to a monologue where the character starts attacking another. What he was actually saying was, “The dialogue seems forced.”
Are people really that blunt? Yes. He did not take issue with the character’s directness, but with the author’s motivation for putting it in.
It took me several weeks of thinking about it before finally getting it, and it wasn’t even my script. I had an unbiased and open minded view towards it, so I can’t imagine how the person who was being reviewed could understand it in a usable.
And you need to know the critic’s personality and preferences, to some extent. The number one person I get feedback from has very specific personality traits that I can take into consideration when she tells me something that I’m not sure I want to take. She doesn’t want to take the effort in figuring something out for herself. If I were to take all her notes, I would have to explain out every character and piece of foreshadowing, leaving no room for mystery.
The problem is that I DO tend to be confusing, which makes it harder to know, is she just being lazy or is it a distraction? In her case, if I am not sure, I usually consider my preconceived perceptions (Did I fear it might be confusing?) then, if not, leave it as it is, knowing she has the propensity to want everything explained immediately. If someone else gives similar advice, I’ll take more notice.
The writer’s job is not only to find a good coach or critic, but then to lean the best way to utilize their advice, considering it is usually not just “taking it or leaving it.”
Demian Farnworth says
Great comment. And your last sentence is sublime. Well said.
Alexandra Coroian says
Ive experimented having and not having a writing coach through my work for 2 different newspapers. The good part about “nobody caring” is that you get to assume risks, be more sincere, gain confidence in your decisions. But I would still go for the coaching part if it implies constantly learning and having a role-model.