Thursday, February 02, 2012

Do You Need a Coach?

The purpose of a coach is to help you train. But you can train on your own as well. So under what circumstances should you find yourself a coach? Consider an analogy. I play the piano every day, mostly for fun, training my ability to improvise. I enjoy it, and I get better. There was a time when I took piano lessons once a week, however, and I'm considering going back to it because I'd like to learn how to a play a few Bach pieces. I do try to play those pieces when I practice, but nothing really comes of it. I can play a few bars with one hand. That's about it. A weekly session with a teacher would probably help me make progress. But I would need to find the time, both to get to the session every week and to practice in a more disciplined way. There's no point in engaging a teacher if I'm not going to practice. Of course: there is a good chance that if I do engage a teacher I will practice more, simply to impress her. Commonsense stuff.

Writers can also benefit from the guidance and encouragement of a coach. But it's not for everyone, and today is not always the right time. When people contact me because they would like some coaching, therefore, I always begin by giving them some free advice. First I have them describe their current writing practices and the projects they are working on. Take a couple of weeks, I then tell them, and find one or two hours every day in which to work on those projects. Find 10 hours altogether and book them into your calendar. Now divide these writing sessions into 30-minute sections and spend each of them on a single, well-defined prose paragraph. Spend about 20 minutes writing it, one minute reading it out loud, and another five or six minutes editing it for clarity. Take a three minute break, then move on to the next paragraph. After ten hours of work, you've written 20 paragraphs, or about half a paper's worth of prose. (It's relatively easy to decide what 20 paragraphs of a current project will have to say in advance. Just think of your paper according my standard outline.)

The purpose of this exercise is to gauge your strength and ability as a writer. If you send me the results of these ten hours of work, I know what your prose is capable of "on command", as it were. You will have spent ten hours writing about something you know (which means something you're supposed to be able to write about.) You will have given each paragraph a reasonable amount of time. The paragraphs will not be perfect, but I will know what constraints they were written under. Most importantly, if you can't write this way for ten hours in a two week period, or if you think that's a stupid idea, you don't want me as a coach. It's the basic form of the discipline I train.

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