One Session as a Writing Coach

I'm going to reveal more of the coaching process in this article. Each student is unique, and each session is unique. So the process is never the same, but there still is a process to finding the way forward.


I never thought I would teach writing, or public speaking, or meditation. I'm even roleplaying out casting calls for an actress now. I've taught computer programmers, surgeons, rich business owners, young entrepreneurs, finance directors, project managers, and many students. All sorts of people.

I've talked with them about all sorts of things. One of the unique things about my sessions is that you can ask me anything, including personal health and finances, religion, politics, whatever. (I did have to start noting not to get mad about our differences though, because one person didn't like that I don't think Islam is a particularly peaceful religion. Which I think can change just like other religions have, but I'll leave all of that for another article.)

This is an hour-long session that I had with an eleven-year-old girl from Russia. Now, I call it an hour, but actually the sessions are 50-minutes long. The buffer time allows me to run over by a couple of minutes, write a few notes on the session, maybe have a drink, open the material for the next student, review my notes from our last session, and then start on time.

I always open with general conversation about what's been happening. This can take 3-minutes, or it can spiral into an entire session if we really get into something interesting.

She told me about her family holiday plans. I told her about some things I've been doing. We probably spent about 15-minutes just talking. We do want to work on all four parts of language learning somewhat: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. This student just happens to have a focus on writing because both her and her mother want her to succeed on the writing part of some English exams. (Which she has done quite well on since we started having lessons. A few weeks ago she received 8 A's on her English mid-terms. It was unclear if the total possible was 8 or 9.)

At this point I still always ask, "So, what do you wanna do?" And she chooses writing almost every time.

I didn't even ask which one of us should start. She said, "Oh, oh, I have an idea!"

I said, "Okay! Go ahead." And this is what she wrote.

- - - - - - -

"Ok, this might sound better..."
"Hi, what are you doing, Amy?"
"Bella! How many times do I have to tell you Not to do that?!"
"Sorry... but what are you doing?"
*Sigh* "Are you blind or something? I'm working on my new album. It must be finished in 2 weeks!"

- - - - - - -

One note before we dive into the coaching; I'm not going to point out all of the little corrections that we went over. These aren't that interesting and we don't spend much time on them unless there's a question or misunderstanding. In that case we dig into it. But normally I just change the text. The student can see what I'm changing, I say what I'm doing and maybe give a why, and we move on. Here's a list of some of the small changes that I made during this entire session.

- - - - - - -

must to might, remove extra o, add enough, change d to g, change past to present tense, add contraction I'm, delete extra letters, change case, all to whole, add ing, add comma, add period, add the, add like that, flipping letters, deleting me, change tense in dialogue versus description, add r, add the, letter flip, plural versus singular past tense, interest to curiosity

- - - - - - -

Now that we have that out of the way, read this again and notice that it's confusing. Ask yourself why.

- - - - - - -

"Ok, this might sound better..."
"Hi, what are you doing, Amy?"
"Bella! How many times do I have to tell you Not to do that?!"
"Sorry... but what are you doing?"
*Sigh* "Are you blind or something? I'm working on my new album. It must be finished in 2 weeks!"

- - - - - - -

The reason this is confusing is because of a lack of context. We will get into why this student has a tendency to write like that in a little bit.

We don't really know who's speaking. We don't know where they are. We don't know much of anything. And that's disorienting.

I like to say that there are two great sins in writing: confusion and boredom. Now, you can't avoid those for everyone all of the time, but you need to keep them in mind. Everyone has their limit. If they get too bored or too confused at any point they will just stop reading and go do something else.

So, the first thing I did was point out that it's a little confusing to figure out who's speaking here. She tried to resolve that by using the names in the dialogue, which was a good idea, it just didn't fully work. And, we don't know where we are at all. I can't see a scene in my head because this could just be two floating heads for all I know.

I showed her what I was talking about by adding on to her first sentence. I didn't save what I wrote as an example, but it was something like:

- - - - - - -

"Ok, this might sound better..." thought Amy as she slid her fingers gently along the strings.

- - - - - - -

This adds both the dialogue attribution so we know who's talking (Amy, inside of her own head in this example), and enough description so that we can start picturing the image of a scene in our mind.

I asked if that made sense. My student said yes, so I erased my example and asked if she wanted to give it a try. Here's what she put down.

- - - - - - -

"Ok, this might sound better..." Amy moved her mouse and chose another filter. "No, still not good enough. I think, I can try this one..."
"Hi, what are you doing, Amy?" A girl suddenly appeared behind Amy's shoulder.

- - - - - - -

That was more than I expected to happen. I told her so, and said, "Nice work."

You can see that my assumption about Amy playing an instrument was completely off base. But, since I would be picturing that in my head, when it was later revealed that she was sitting at a computer working in a computer program it would have been jarring for me as a reader (breaking the sin of confusion).

There were a few of those small corrections that we're not going to cover. But, I did point out that having "Amy" in the dialogue was a little redundant at this point, so we deleted that.

Now we had this.

- - - - - - -

"Ok, this might sound better..." Amy moved her mouse and chose another filter. "No, still not good enough. I think, I can try this one..."
"Hi, what are you doing?" A girl suddenly appeared behind Amy's shoulder.
"Bella! How many times do I have to tell you Not to do that?!"
"Sorry... but what are you doing?"
*Sigh* "Are you blind or something? I'm working on my new album. It must be finished in 2 weeks!"

- - - - - - -

The next two lines also don't have dialogue tags or description, but that's fine. We already have a good scene set. My student did a nice job of mentioning the girl appearing "behind Amy's shoulder." You can tell who's talking in both sentences. There are a lot of style choices we could talk about, but they are debatable things that it's best to move past, rather than getting wrapped up in small things. We're already doing a pretty detailed session. No need to get bogged down in debatable stylistic choices. Plus, I like the capital "N" on "Not" to emphasize it. That technique reminds me of writing in colonial America in the late 18th century, such as Benjamin Franklin.

At this point there's one big, obvious, and weird thing. I asked her why she decided to put "Sigh" like that, with stars around it and everything. She said that she watches Youtube videos of Japanese cartoons where they make little bubbles with these types of sounds in them. Essentially, they use some of the classic comic book techniques in cartoon tv shows.

We talked about comic books versus tv scripts versus novels for a little bit. I asked her if she wanted to take a shot at replacing the sigh and making the scene come more alive for us. She didn't even give me an answer, she just started writing. It looked like an idea had jumped into her head. Here's what she changed it to.

- - - - - - -

"Oh my god..." Amy said quietly and took a long breath, "Are you blind or something? I'm working on my new album. It must be finished in 2 weeks!"

- - - - - - -

That went well. My actual response was, "Cool, cool." We made our minor corrections. Then, I was just sitting there for a moment, silently, looking over everything, and she told me it was my turn.

It's a bit odd sometimes switching from editing someone else's work, giving them ideas, answering their questions about vocabulary and such, and then having to look at everything that's been done and come up with a somewhat coherent continuation of the story that an eleven-year-old Russian girl will want to keep working on. I do it, and I think I do it fairly well, but it can be a little disorienting at times. With just a small hesitation I wrote this.

- - - - - - -

"Cool!" said Bella. "What's it about?"
Amy pushed her tongue between her teeth and gave a small squeeze. She took another deep breath and turned around.
"The theme of the album is about

- - - - - - -

It took me a little longer than it would appear, mostly because of that tongue between the teeth thing. I often do the little motions that I'm thinking about characters doing, just to feel them, and then try to express them in a sincere, authentic, and original way. (I did that recently in a writing group and the guy I was sitting across from gave me a funny look. I was feeling what it's like for your eyes to slowly fall shut, I think he thought I was falling asleep. It was funny.)

I had paused and was thinking about what I should make the theme of the album. She was looking at me and I said, "Big decision here, hey? Hahaha." She said, "Oh, I know, I know!". So I said, "Okay, go ahead."

Now, I can't tell you what she wrote next because I have no idea what it was. But I let her continue, it's not a good idea to interrupt someone while they're writing. It's impossible to let ideas flow like that. The rest of it made sense, but the word she had put down for the theme was some mix of letters that was unpronounceable and had a capital letter in the middle. She knows Russian, English, and Japanese, so it might have been some sort of mix of the languages, or just an Anglicized Japanese word. I don't really know. I asked her what it meant and she said it was about "fairies and flowers and unicorns." I said to just put that, so she replaced the mysterious word. Here's what we ended up with.

- - - - - - -

"The theme of the album is about fairys and flowers and unicorns... just joking. You were behind my door the whole time, I heared you breathing. Couldn't you recognize it? I thought I told you the basic theme. It's pop-rock like Believer, Thunder, Demons, and other songs like that."

- - - - - - -

We talked quite a lot about the structure of the last sentence and went through a few versions. Apparently we focused on that enough that I missed the two misspellings in the first two sentences. Not a huge deal.

It was my turn again, so I added this.

- - - - - - -

"Why!?" said Bella in her chirpy little voice, full of that type of annoying curiosity that just wants a simple answer to an almost impossibly complex question.

- - - - - - -

She asked what I meant by "impossibly complex question." and we went over that.

At this point we were just a few minutes away from the end of the class. I was planning to do a little summary of some of the things that we'd looked at, but my student had other plans. She told me to "Hold on." and started furiously writing, lol. Here's what she put down.

- - - - - - -

"Are you kidding me?!!!"
"No, I just want an answer, and then I'll leave. Pleeeaaaaaaase!!!!"
"Do you promise?" Amy was starting to get angry.
"Yes, of course!" Bella was very interested in the answer. Her eyes were full of curiosity.
"Ok, the answer is... BECAUSE! And now leave! You are getting annoying!"
"Hmpf! Fine. I will tell mum that you are bullying me!"
"Oh my goooood!!! Why do I have this... this... thing as a sister?!"

- - - - - - -

She went at least a minute past our end time, probably two. But, I couldn't just completely leave it. So we went over the minor corrections together anyway. We didn't get deep into this section because we were already five minutes past time, which is why I have that buffer time in-between classes.

This is what the story looked like at the end of the session.

- - - - - - -

"Ok, this might sound better..." Amy moved her mouse and chose another filter. "No, still not good enough. I think, I can try this one..."
"Hi, what are you doing?" A girl suddenly appeared behind Amy's shoulder.
"Bella! How many times do I have to tell you Not to do that?!"
"Sorry... but what are you doing?"
 "Oh my god..." Amy said quietly and took a long breath, "Are you blind or something? I'm working on my new album. It must be finished in 2 weeks!"
"Cool!" said Bella. "What's it about?"
Amy pushed her tongue between her teeth and gave a small squeeze. She took another deep breath and turned around.
"The theme of the album is about fairys and flowers and unicorns... just joking. You were behind my door the whole time, I heared you breathing. Couldn't you recognize it? I thought I told you the basic theme. It's pop-rock like Believer, Thunder, Demons, and other songs like that."
"Why!?" said Bella in her chirpy little voice, full of that type of annoying curiosity that just wants a simple answer to an almost impossibly complex question.
"Are you kidding me?!!!"
"No, I just want an answer, and then I'll leave. Pleeeaaaaaaase!!!!"
"Do you promise?" Amy was starting to get angry.
"Yes, of course!" Bella was very interested in the answer. Her eyes were full of curiosity.
"Ok, the answer is... BECAUSE! And now leave! You are getting annoying!"
"Hmpf! Fine. I will tell mum that you are bullying me!"
"Oh my goooood!!! Why do I have this... this... thing as a sister?!"

- - - - - - -

I told her she had done a nice job on working with dialogue and giving more description. She wished me a good day, I wished her a good evening, and we departed from our little writing session. Each of us a little wiser.

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To read more from Jeff go to JeffThinks.com or JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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