How to make the most of coaching

Coaching should be an integral part of your strategy for surviving J-school, and even learning. What it’s not intended to be: an afterthought and a free edit.

The J-school offers the services of a number of coaches: Tim Harper for writing; Deb Stead and me for English language and writing; Ricardo Reif for Spanish; and various other people for audio, visual and interactive journalism.  We are here to help you, to do what editors everywhere do: make you look good.

How do we do that? By editing your work, of course. But also by working with you to assess your needs and then meet them.

Coaching is entirely voluntary, unless a professor says, “You need to see a coach, or you’re not going to pass.” Some international students I see at orientation and then not again until graduation; some come from time to time for help with specific problems; and some make standing appointments and never miss a week. I tend to think this last group gets the most out of coaching because of the sustained experience.

When they ask what they can do to improve their English, my most frequent advice is “Learn from being edited.” Meeting in person to go over stories, during weekly office hours or other times by appointment, is especially useful because students can look over my shoulder as I edit, explaining each change and asking questions as we go along. While I do a fair amount of coaching by e-mail, especially for students I’ve worked with in person who know the drill, written comments are still no match for the give-and-take of real-time editing.

That said, your professors should be grading your work — not ours. The point of coaching is not to turn in professionally edited copy by deadline, but for you to learn and improve. Often, for various reasons (not least, lack of advance notice), I can’t go over a student piece by its deadline, but I can do it later — “for learning purposes.”

I sometimes wonder how many students take the editing comments to heart, and how many just “accept all changes” (that is, clean out the tracking on Microsoft Word, which I find shows editing the most clearly for coaching purposes) and file their copy. Asked to answer that question honestly last semester, several of my regulars assured me that they really do pay attention to the edits, read my comments and look at the posts on this blog to which I link, addressing specific or recurring grammar problems in detail. “I won’t say I go over all the blog links you post, but I have been collecting them in a Google doc to look over them during winter break,” one wrote. “I do read the blog posts when you flag that I have a recurrent error, like the one with antecedents.”  Good enough.

If you do want help, please observe the courtesies of coaching:
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to ask. Let us know it’s coming. (Our work lives are complicated.) A day or two in advance will usually do.
  • Say EXACTLY when your story is due. Not Monday, not Monday at 9, but Monday at 9 p.m.
  • Say roughly when you expect to file it. And then FILE IT.
  • If the deadline or anything else changes, let us know. Last semester, on a day when my schedule was tight, I  carved out time for a story that never landed. When I asked what happened, the student told me the deadline had been extended and she didn’t want to bother me. Since she hadn’t told me about the extension, I wasted time waiting that could have been used more productively.

Coaches understand that news breaks unexpectedly, schedules change with no warning and you can’t always reach sources. Hey, we’re journalists. So keep us posted, just as you would any editor.

English-language coaching is not limited to writing; far from it. If you want to improve your speaking in general or reduce your accent, Deb and I can help.  If J-school is your first experience doing audio or video in English, we can work on the script, then rehearse for pronunciation and phrasing. Tow-Knight fellows, you’ll not only be writing but also doing lots of presentations; ask for help with your reports, your PowerPoints and especially rehearsing your presentations. (I took a Jarvis/Caplan entrepreneurial course myself, so I know what you’re up against.)

All this takes time — time you may feel you don’t have, given the pressures of our programs. Consider it an investment in your success, and make that investment.







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