There is a rich new resource between the covers of The Writer’s Coach (Pantheon, 2006). This book was a delight to read, satisfying my hunger for skill-polishing knowledge. Author Jack Hart starts with how to organize the writing process, finishes with options for writerly career development, and sandwiches between these a wealth of grammar and word-use lessons spiced with real-life stories and examples.
I first heard Hart speak at two book promotion events. Then I read his book and decided I’d like to interview him because I had a serious case of I-want-my-own-writing-coach envy. Hart is a managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian, where he has helped to establish a learning culture so attractive that writers from big Eastern papers have moved here. Maybe they were hoping to join The Oregonian’s four Pulitzer Prize winners.
Hart became an editor when he was tapped to serve as Arts and Leisure editor not long after he came to The Oregonian. He said, “I’m an organized person,” and explained with a chuckle that because organization is highly valued in editors, he was offered increasingly interesting editorial jobs. For Hart the best part was editing the Sunday magazine, which included working with many freelance writers.
Hart said that the concept of “writing coach” emerged when a group of editors were sitting around talking at a Hawaii meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). Someone noted that words were their product and maybe they could do something to improve the writing they sold. It was a time of change, back when the advent of computers was requiring lots of staff training. The group agreed and a national movement was launched. It included the creation of the ASNE Awards that Hart describes as the most prestigious in the newspaper world, and it led to Hart becoming the writing coach at The Oregonian in 1988.
Hart’s approach to coaching “helps you do your best work.” His background gave him a blue-ribbon preparation for improving journalistic skills, including a PhD in Mass Communication and experience teaching writing full-time at several universities. He said, “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been in the perfect situation to find out what helps writers produce good writing.” Describing the early coaching at The Oregonian, Hart said, “We brought in the best people we could find [to coach our journalists] about once a month for about three years. I was taking notes faster than anyone.”
At The Oregonian, Hart often works with a writer and editor. “Today I met with a writer and her editor, and the photographer even sat in.” They talked about the article and the approach she might take. In addition to offering coaching on a specific article, Hart will take on a writer for several months to help him or her develop a new skill. He explained, “We have a learning culture here.”
Asked what he would emphasize as most important for WOTR readers, Hart says, “I’ve learned that your writing process is the most important, and if you want to change the way you write, you need to change that process. Then constantly expand your craft and you’ll write well. A one-step-at-a-time approach to writing that includes good process takes a lot of the pain out of writing.” Referring to a quote in the book, he said, “You don’t have to sit and stare at the keyboard until drops of blood appear on your forehead.”
I plan to look for Hart’s session at the National Writers Workshop that will be held in Portland on June 2-3. It is jointly hosted by The Oregonian and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The workshop hotline is 503-221-8144, or you can go to http://biz.oregonian.com/newsroom and click on National Writers Workshop.
Photographer, editor, and award-winning writer, Susan W. Clark is an ardent advocate for sustainability. The Utne Reader applauded her article “Sustainable Revolution” from In Good Tilth magazine as “world-changing.” She is a regular contributor to In Good Tilth and Touch the Soil. Her work has appeared in the Capitol Press, Portland Tribune, Small Farmer’s Journal, and Permaculture Activist. She edits Salt of the Earth, the quarterly journal of Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust. Her observations about living within our ecological means are posted at http://susanwclark.wordpress.com.