Seeing What’s Missing

Do you know someone who seems to have an eye for what isn’t there? Someone who can look at a jigsaw puzzle and see where a piece will fit, examine a room and notice where something is out of place, listen to you and discern what you’re not saying?

Perhaps this person comes across as a pessimist, someone who sees the glass as half full, solutions as incomplete, themselves as a work in progress. Or they might seem excessively curious, always asking a lot of questions, as if they were seeking to fill the gaps in their own minds.

If you know such a person—or if you are one—you know that having an eye for what isn’t there can be annoying. When you can’t help noticing what’s missing, you may have to work a little harder to avoid driving yourself and everyone else crazy.

Or, you can find an occupation where these natural tendencies, tempered by compassion, work in your favor.

A good book coach needs to be able to see what a writer has missed. Not so much missing commas (that will come later, during the proofreading stage), but missing information, the kind of stuff readers need to know to make sense of the story. What’s not on the page? Where are there holes in the logic? What has the writer skipped over or left out, because they’ve been unconsciously filling in the blanks with their own knowledge? Where could they add a piece to form a complete picture?

By asking insightful questions, a good coach can help a writer strengthen the story they’re telling. But there’s a trick to it. If, as a book coach, I only point out the holes, the negative spaces, the problems to be solved, I’m missing what matters most: the writer. When I’m faced with a set of pages to be reviewed, I need to remind myself there’s a person behind them.

When I was new to book coaching, preparing my first round of feedback on an early draft of a manuscript, I wasn’t sure how much would be enough. I could see errors in writing mechanics, confusing jumps in the story, places where the meaning wasn’t clear. I wanted to be thorough, so . . . I marked everything, filling the pages with edits and comments. The writer, of course, was overwhelmed by so much feedback, most of it negative. She felt like I’d put her through a shredder, and I had, though it hadn’t been intentional.

Fortunately, she knew I was a beginner and was willing to be patient with me. She accepted my profuse apologies and endured my mistakes as I tried to figure out how to tailor my weekly feedback so it would be more humane and more helpful. What did it matter if I was “right,” if what I was telling her wasn’t helping her to move forward?

It’s not especially hard to see areas in need of improvement when you’re looking at an early draft of someone else’s manuscript, but that’s nothing to feel smug about. I’ve received feedback from a coach on my own writing (thanks, Sarahlyn!), and I understand how easy (and embarrassing!) it can be to overlook what seems obvious in hindsight. A book coach who feels superior about being able to see what their writers have missed is in the wrong business.

An effective coach doesn’t use her insights to target weaknesses, as if she were launching an attack. Our role is to facilitate the act of creation, building up instead of tearing down. That’s what makes us coaches instead of critics. If we cannot feel compassion for the writers we work with, sense when they are in need of encouragement or a few kind words, we cannot do our jobs well.

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