Write for the Job?

When I first began my job as a book coach, I thought for certain I wouldn’t be able to succeed without having first written and published a book of my own. How could I help someone do something I hadn’t done myself? Maybe I should finish writing the book I’d been drafting and thinking about for a very long time, and then try to get it published.

I began dividing my time between writing and coaching. My plan was to write a memoir about the years I’d spent homeschooling my kids, because I could certainly claim to be an expert on that topic. I even hired a book coach to help me. I thought, If I could just finish this book, and perhaps make a name for myself with it, then I’d be better qualified to coach other writers.

There was a flaw in my logic, but I didn’t see it yet. First, I needed to remember a few things I’d forgotten.

Experts Aren’t Experts in Everything

When I was an undergraduate, one of the requirements for my major was an introductory physics course. I hoped to learn a lot from the professor, who was greatly admired as an expert in his field. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this professor loved research, not teaching. He’d never been taught how to teach, and he didn’t seem particularly motivated to become a better teacher. His lectures were incoherent, his cryptic answers to student questions less than helpful. When large numbers of students failed his exams, he appeared confused and angry.

Why were all of his students so stupid?

Photo Credit: Peter Alfred Hess

Unfortunately, being proficient in a particular discipline, and being able to help someone else become proficient, are not the same thing.

The best experts sometimes make the worst educators.

Adam Grant, “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach

In the New York Times article quoted above, Grant writes, “Before you seek out an expert as your teacher or coach, remember that it’s not just about what they know; it’s about how recently and easily they learned it, and how clearly and enthusiastically they communicate it.”

My physics teacher had been immersed in the concepts for so long that he’d forgotten how it feels to be a beginner. He’d lost the ability to communicate his knowledge in a way that would make sense to someone who didn’t know what he knew.

I managed to get through the class, thanks to help from the teaching assistants, but it wasn’t a fun experience. (And if you’re thinking it’s unreasonable to expect physics to be fun, take a look at Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry or Larry Gonnick’s Cartoon Guide to Physics or—for a whole course—Richard Wolfson’s Physics in Your Life.)

Blindsided by What You Know

Many years after my experience in that physics classroom, I had another opportunity to see the difference between knowing and teaching when I naively offered to help a small group of teenagers who wanted to make themselves Renaissance costumes. (Bear with me, I promise this has something to do with writing!) Some of them had never used a pattern or sewing machine before, so it was an ambitious first project, but they were highly motivated and I’d been sewing for most of my life.

I could show them what to do, right?

Turns out I’d been sewing for so long that I’d forgotten all sorts of things, such as how hard it can be to control the sewing speed (luckily, no fingers were punctured) or how easily a thread can get tangled. I hadn’t thought to show them how to insert the pins horizontally on the pattern when they were pinning it to the fabric, or how to pivot their scissors so the cuts would be accurate. All of those skills had become automatic to me after decades of practice. It didn’t occur to me to mention them.

When the kids became frustrated, I was tempted to take over and do the work for them. It would have been faster, easier. I could see what needed to be done, and I was better at it. But sewing wasn’t my top priority. I hadn’t been asked to be a seamstress. I’d been asked to help them succeed, and (lucky for me) they were still willing to keep trying.

So, we persevered. I offered suggestions and answered questions. I demonstrated basic techniques and helped them think through what they wanted to do. Through a process of trial and error, they learned how to sew a costume, and I re-learned how it feels to be a beginner.

A Writer Writes, a Coach Guides

When you’re writing a book, you’re in charge of deciding what goes into it. You may want helpful pointers from someone knowledgable, but you don’t want anyone else to write the book for you (well, maybe there are moments when you do!). Ultimately, you want the book to be a product of your own design, your own words, your own effort.

I believe that working on a book of my own, with a coach of my own, helped me to become a better coach, but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t writing a book that helped; it was learning how it feels to submit pages and get feedback and feel embarrassed by what I’d missed. I experienced Author Accelerator’s Story Genius and Blueprint for a Book workshops from a writer’s perspective, which helped me to appreciate how hard those weekly exercises can be. I tried and discarded reams of ideas for defining and structuring the story I thought I wanted to write. I realized I still had much to learn about being a writer of full-length books, but was that really what I wanted to be?

The more time I spent on writing a book, the less time I had to develop my coaching skills. After a year, I’d reached the point of diminishing returns: the additional writing time stopped being useful to me as a coach. I was learning more from actually being a coach, studying the art and business of writing books, than I was from writing on the side. Eventually, I had to face an uncomfortable truth: coaching writers was more interesting and rewarding to me than writing a book.

Of course, I don’t mean to say everyone ought to choose between writing and coaching! Many people who write and publish books also coach writers. I’ve just stopped believing that one is a prerequisite for the other.

And so, if you’re in the market for a book coach, I hope you’ll consider not only the number of books a coach has written but also how recently and easily they’ve learned the craft of writing, and how clearly and enthusiastically they communicate it. Otherwise, you may end up with a coach who is more interested in writing than teaching, or better at writing your words for you than helping you to write them yourself.

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