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Blog // Creativity
May 19, 2016

What It Was Like To Work With A Writing Coach

I spent a few months working with a writing coach and this is what I learnt.

Writing a book is hard. It’s a cliche you’ve probably heard many times. But it’s painfully true. There’s a positive flip-side though. If you’re serious about becoming a better writer working with good editors can dramatically improve your work. It’s better than going back to school.

Writing No Missing Tools made me aware of how sloppy I was as a writer. When I wrote for the South China Morning Post and other publications, I was blissfuly unaware of how much effort the editors put into turning my cliche and error ridden prose into clean, readable English. But, as page after page of revisions came back, I could do nothing but wince as the same mistakes and bad habits appeared again and again.

Taking A Deeper Look At Writing

Bad punctuation, inconsistent grammar and poor word choices weren’t even the biggest problems I was facing. I lost track of how many times my line editor would ask me to add details to the scenes I described, finish my stories more effectively, reveal more of my struggles and emotions, and not hold back in describing how I felt.

I knew this was part of a bigger problem.

Having blogged for so long, there’s a lot of my writing out there, before you even add all the tweets, comments and everything I’ve contributed to various platforms and aforementioned publications. But, I’ve always been cautious about sharing too many details about my private life online. And, in recent years, I’ve felt a little overwhelmed by all the trolling and negativity, the accusations of being a fake, a phoney, a bad parent, or mediocre artist.

Over time I’ve written less and less, while becoming increasingly wary of sharing my experiences. The consequence of this defensiveness was I had started to dry up as a writer.

Engaging A Writing Coach

There’s often a lull, a kind of creative depression, that hits me after big projects. That’s why I put various plans in place for the second half of 2015, something I wrote about here. One of those plans was to ask Yi Shun Lai, one of the editors for my book, to work as my writing coach.

Yi Shun is an author (her new book is called Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu) and edits the Tahoma Literary Review. We decided on a six month plan to try and improve my writing. Every month we would have a Skype call, then Yi Shun would set me some exercises and comment on my efforts.

It was one of the best creative decisions I’ve ever made.

What The Coaching Involved

The first exercises involved self-reflection and goal-setting. I was pretty good at identifying my weakness and totally freaked out by trying to put down even the most basic goals on paper. So, we calibrated, focussing on daily writing exercises, describing things I see in my day, exploring how friends describe me and the work I do, thinking about the books that shaped my understanding of storytelling.

In the early Skype sessions, I felt reactive, like a kid who knows he hasn’t handed in his best homework, struggling to find excuses. But, then something started to crack open. The words began to flow. More importantly, they started to become a little braver, a little more personal.

Too often, while writing for this blog, I’ve been caught in two minds, wondering how my words and ideas will be received, bracing myself for criticism, even before the words hit the screen. Freed from that pressure, in conversation with great coach, I had the space to explore, to play, to experiment, to exercise my atrophied writing muscles. I started to enjoy writing again.

What I Learnt

There were plenty of technical things I started to notice. My punctuation, something I’d once been proud of, had grown eccentric and bizarre, infected with all sorts of bad habits. I’d also grown addicted to explanatory adjectives; words like really, truly, honestly, sincerely, and actually.

Yi Shun kept pushing me on this. Why did I use words like honestly and sincerely? Was I ever being dishonest and insincere? Would my readers be surprised by my sincerity?

This insight cracked open my soul. In online conversations particularly, I had found people assumed I was being cynical, when I was being sincere. In day to day life I don’t have much appetite for cynicism. I try to be earnest and heartfelt and I’m attracted to people who are the same.

With this realisation a lot of the pieces started to fall into place. Being reminded of who I was and how I best express myself made all the smaller technical choices, the questions of grammar and style, far easier to navigate. From there, I was able to feel productive again, able to set some writing goals, able to explore where I might want to focus my writing in the future.

Hacking Your Average

I’m a big fan of the Jim Rohn quote “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Hiring a coach is way of hacking your average, which is what I was trying to do, not just with writing, but the whole “moving on” plan last year. If we want to improve the calibre of the work we do (or the quality of person we are) then we have to shake up the mix of people we spend time with. Hang with the same crowd and you will get the same results, month after month, year after year.

One thing I took for granted in my academic days was being surrounded by a community of writers. Most academics don’t think of themselves as writers. They might say they are researchers, teachers or thinkers. But, writing and publishing takes up the bulk of their time and very often their job depends on the volume and quality of their written work. The pressure of having to write and having my writing consistently reviewed helped me become a better writer (at least better in the style of academic writing).

Being The Writer

But, in recent years, I haven’t had been surrounded by writers. Yes, I know quite a few bloggers. But, bloggers often approach the craft of writing in a very functional, pragmatic way. Partly it’s the influence of content marketing and SEO concerns. This leads many bloggers to adopt an idiosyncratic style; crafting simple, keyword rich sentences in the hope of yielding higher internet traffic. Or, bloggers focus on self-expression, writing quickly and with little editing or revision, focussed on quickly sharing their thoughts or ideas.

Neither of those are wrong per se, but neither of them express my goals as a writer either. I want to approach writing the way I approach everything; as a creative pursuit. My blog is a vehicle for self-expression, for sharing experiences. But, I also want to explore and enjoy the craft of writing as well. And, while I’m in no hurry to write another non-fiction epic like No Missing Tools, I do want to continue to write beyond just what I share here in blogposts.

The process of working with a coach improved my writing. More importantly, it reminded what it feels like to be a writer.

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